The London Science Book Club is already more than two years old and ticking along very happily. For this, I have to thank one of the original members, Peter Wrobel (whose name some of you may recognise from New Scientist or Nature, where he was managing editor). Peter took over management of the club while I was away in Boston, and this blog post comes straight from him. The latest book club pick was Bad Pharma, about the big (and apparently quite bad) world of drug companies, written by the well known science writer and medical doctor Ben Goldacre. Since I missed the meeting, here is the club's verdict, in Peter's words...
We liked this book. It was ambitious, but we felt it delivered what it promised. We liked its cheeky and provocative style (some more than others), and felt it was pitched perfectly for its intended audience. Another plus (for a long book) was that "you could dip in and out", even "start anywhere". That, of course, holds an implied negative, common in a lot of non-fiction: there was no consistent "pull" to take you through from start to finish.
One area of division: half of us thought that it could have been more generous in describing the efforts of others in the field; half disagreed. Given the scrupulous referencing, this is fundamentally a question of the impression received by different readers. So some of us felt that the impression created was "Ben takes on the world", whereas there is a whole corps of researchers out there fighting the good fight.
By general agreement, the final session on marketing was the most gripping (and, for that reason perhaps, the easiest to get through). Other aspects that generated discussion included authorship and the Declaration of Helsinki. Goldacre criticises the international medical editors' committee for its authorship rules on the basis that ghostwriters are de facto eliminated by them. We felt that a) he was missing the point (which is that journals have been fighting to cut down author lists and eliminate people who have played no part in the research); and b) overall we were not sure (and could not agree) that ghost writers should be listed as authors, nor where you draw the line between helpful comment, the rewriting involved in translation (eg for Chinese authors), and medical ghosting – anyway, it was a lively discussion!
Goldacre also makes much of the "difference" between the Declaration of Helskinki and the ICH GCP rules, which he says remove several ethical principles. On this point, one of us had been in correspondence with Frank Wells (glowingly referenced by Goldacre with respect to uncovering fraud), who had co-written the ethical bits of ICH GCP and who confirmed that ICH GCP explicitly set out to incorporate the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki (and indeed wrote them in – see ICH GCP 2.1).
Overall, we enjoyed this book, and noted the great and positive influence it has had, particularly in the UK. One of us, who had read a library copy, said she would buy her own copy: praise indeed!