Academics who lend their names to medical and scientific articles that they didn't actually write are doing little more than prostituting themselves, according to two law professors at the University of Toronto.

The professors outline their argument in a piece in PLoS Medicine, saying researchers who engage in the practice should be sued for fraud.

Academic ghostwriting is a little-known practice that finally came to the public's attention after some popular drugs like the now-discontinued painkiller Vioxx started showing serious problems.

Lawsuits revealed that studies that suggested the drugs were safe and effective were often not written by the scientists listed as the authors. Instead, they were ghostwritten by writers working for the drug companies that make the medications. The scientists listed as authors were offered payment in return for attaching their names.

The problem of course is that doctors rely on information in the medical literature to make treatment decisions. That's when "ghostwritten" articles can have devastating effects: by swaying doctors to give patients improper and even harmful treatment.

The practice has been widely condemned by scientific journals and most journals now do through reviews to ensure that the scientists who sign off on the studies actually performed the research. And yet, it continues.

So U of T professors Simon Stern and Trudo Lemmens argue that academics who take part in ghostwriting should not just face sanctions from the universities where they teach and with the journals where they publish; they should face legal sanctions.

In an article entitled "Legal Remedies for Medical Ghostwriting: Imposing Fraud Liability on Guest Authors of Ghostwritten Articles," Stern and Lemmens explain how academics who put their names on ghostwritten should be held liable for fraud, as a way to deter others.

"We hope that by spelling out a legal theory of fraud that we'll bring it to the attention of academic guest writers that (ghostwriting) is not harmless, and that not only does it harm patients, it actually could generate a legal sanction. And so our hope is that they'll think twice about engaging in this practice it in the future," Stern tells CTV News.

Stern and Lemmens argue that not only does ghostwriting potentially put patients at risk, it brings the whole of medical research into disrepute.

"There is a harm done to integrity of medical research more generally when it becomes acceptable for academic doctors to claim to have written articles that they did not actually write," says Stern.

Lemmens, who is also cross-appointed to the Faculty of Medicine, has tough words for academics who participate in this guest authorship-ghostwriting dance.

"It's a prostitution of their academic standing. And it undermines the integrity of the entire academic publication system."

Paul Hebert, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, said his publication agrees "that self-policing by institutions is not enough."

"Medical journals take ghost authorship very seriously," he said in a statement to CTV News. "CMAJ has a number of steps in place to guard against this practice which while rare, does happen. We ask for details on who has contributed to an article, their actual contribution and if anyone else has played a role in writing the article. Once compiled, these statements are published with the article to clearly disclose who did what."

He added that CMAJ requests that "institutions conduct investigations and publish retractions in the event of scientific misconduct and will impose sanctions if ghostwriting has been detected."

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip