Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Author blames “young coworker” for duplication as paper is retracted

with 15 comments

doveDoes anyone know how to say “thrown under the bus” in Italian?

A group of researchers in Italy has retracted a paper after it became clear that they had duplicated some of their previous work. Or, as one of the senior authors put it, as a “young coworker” had reused their material.

Here’s the notice from Biologics: Targets and Therapy:

Bosani M, Ardizzone S, Porro GB. Biologics: Targets and Therapy. 2009;3:77–97.

This paper has been retracted after we were made aware that it contains a large amount of reused, and uncited material that was not placed within quotation marks.

The following statement has been supplied by Dr Sandro Ardizzone:

The review entitled “Biologic targeting in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease” has been commissioned by this journal and published in 2009 (Matteo Bosani, Sandro Ardizzone, Gabriele Bianchi Porro. Biologics: Targets & Therapy 2009;3:77–97). The paper was written by our young coworker (Dr M Bosani). He has consulted many papers, including our previous reviews published years before. The not perfect knowledge of English language has greatly influenced the writing of the paper itself. So he saved in word file several parts of our previous papers (Ardizzone S, Bianchi Porro G. Inflammatory bowel disease: new insights into pathogenesis and treatment. J Intern Med 2002;252:475–496 – Ardizzone S, Bianchi Porro G. Biologic therapy for inflammatory bowel disease. Drugs 2005:2253–2286), and then transferred to the final paper. He was unaware as we are, of the fact that he could not reuse previously published material in other journals. The reuse of this material was made in good faith.

Taking our responsibility for what happened, we intend to apologize for this inconvenience to the Editor (Dr Doris Benbrook) and Publisher (Dr Tim Hill). Moreover, for the reasons mentioned above, I consider appropriate to retract the paper itself.

Ardizzone writes that the authors were “unaware…of the fact that [they] could not reuse previously published material in other journals.” But Dove’s author guidelines do require authors to certify and warrant that:

(b) The research article is original, has not already been published in any other journal (medical, or otherwise) or is not currently under consideration for publication by another journal, and does not infringe any existing copyright or any other rights prescribed by law

The paper has been cited 60 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

  • fnord42 February 10, 2014 at 9:53 am

    thrown under the bus=buttato sotto a un tram…
    no words to express my shame towards Ardizzone..also himself seems to be not so proficient in english (i.e “The not perfect knowledge”…this is italienglish!!) so he thrown the youngest (probably a PhD student, underpaid and stressed) to the blame…claiming that he did not know that you cannot copy yourself! Italy is really going to the flush…

    • uarktransparency February 10, 2014 at 11:35 am

      Rest assured it happens here among English speakers just as well. It’s bad style to name the “young coworker” as culprit. They all share the responsibility. But at least they owned up to the fact that it was wrong, and apologized.

  • F February 10, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Assuming the ‘young author’ did all the reading, writing, with little to no supervision by his superiors… why exactly where their names listed among the authors? I find it kind of funny that they were perfectly willing to put their name on the article with absolutely zero contribution.

    • Dave Langers February 10, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      I agree. Moreover, if I understand this correctly, the “re-use” concerned a previous paper from the same senior authors. Surely those author would recognize their own writing? (I assume it is more than just a sentence.) Even if the senior authors had not done any writing (which is bad!) then still they should have captured this error when they were merely reading the final version that was about to be submitted. Or perhaps they didn’t even do that…
      With regard to the last excerpt from the author guidelines: I can very well imagine that a junior author would not derive from that that re-use of own material is forbidden. Again, even if the junior author was doing wrong, the blame for that should go to the supervisors, who should also oversee that the submission was done properly. That is what “supervision” means. So in my opinion, scapegoating bounces back on the senior authors not only because it is “not done”, but because it shows their negligence rather than the junior author’s.

  • Karen Wynn February 10, 2014 at 10:47 am

    We should not rush to judgment. There are many different kinds of ways something like this could have occurred. As just one possibility: The senior authors are invited to write this article (apprently a review article0 by the journal. They offer their junior colleague to be the first author, giving him the task of writing the first draft. Since it is a review of their longterm work, of course they are coauthors. He writes it, and because he wants to get things exactly right and is not confident with his English, he borrows passages from the previous work rather than recapping them in his own words. The senior authors read his draft, like it, maybe make some comments and go back and forth with him on it some, but do not notice that some of the passages are verbatim copies, rather than paraphrased recaps, of the previous work. [Psychological studies show we are great at remembering the gist of things, but we cannot remember the precise wordings. In the absence of pulling up the previous papers and comparing word for word, they would be unlikely to notice that the words were identical.] They then submit the paper and only too late discover the problem. Given all the focus on retractions these days (necessary and important!) and the (justifiable and appropriate!) call for utter transparency in explaining why a paper is retracted and how the problem occurred, they explain carefully and fully exactly what happened – just what they should do and what we have been lobbying authors and journals to do!
    Of course this is just one way this could have transpired. I have no knowledge of the case and have not read the papers. It is obviously some particular individual or individuals who copied and pasted passages from the previous work. Maybe it was the junior author, maybe it was the senior authors. Speaking generally now, not about this exact case, we cannot BOTH demand utter transparency, AND then despise senior authors for “throwing junior colleagues under the bus” in cases where it actually was a junior author who created the problem. Junior authors are junior, they need oversight, but they also need some independence. They are not kindergarten children; by the time they are in graduate school, most will know that it is inappropriate to copy and paste sections of previous publications into a new one; and gaining progressively more independence is part of the training of becoming an independent scholar that mentors need to give their students. Junior scholars may make mistakes unwittingly, or with knowledge; for bad motivations or good ones. It is senior mentors’ job to give oversight and to try to catch errors, but some kinds of mistakes are hard to detect if you’re not looking specifically for them, even for responsible people with good intentions.
    We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we are always harsh and condemnatory for retractions in which authors explain their mistakes, we create a climate wherein authors will be reluctant to provide the transparency that the scientific record needs.

    • StrongDreams February 10, 2014 at 11:03 am

      …He was unaware *as we are*…

      What does this mean? That all authors were unaware that they couldn’t re-use large blocks of text?

      What the retraction notice *should* have said is,
      “We assigned a junior colleague to write this review as part of his training and professional development. Unfortunately, the senior authors failed in their mentorship obligations, by first, failing to supervise the writing process closely, thereby not noticing large blocks of text copied from our own prior works, and second, by failing to train the junior author on matters of publishing ethics and copyright (because we were ignorant of them ourselves). We, the senior authors, apologize unreservedly to the editor, to our readers, and most of all to our junior author/trainee/student.”

      • Karen Wynn February 10, 2014 at 11:14 am

        I took it to mean the young colleague was unaware, but the senior colleagues are aware. As a previous poster pointed out, English is not their first language.

        • Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) February 10, 2014 at 11:18 am

          “he was unaware as we are” is ambiguous in English but I took it to mean, in context, that they were and are aware, and he wasn’t. But it could go either way.

          • StrongDreams February 10, 2014 at 11:27 am

            Even if so, they failed in their mentoring obligations and owe M. Bosani an apology.

    • F February 10, 2014 at 11:23 am


      I’ve corrected thesis from PhD students who had copied entire paragraphs from articles (where they were co-authors) and the parts that were copied verbatim from the article immediately leaped out. Especially if someone is not fluent in English and copy/pastes part that were written by someone more proficient, it’s instantly obvious who wrote which parts.

      I think the more correct explanation is that the authors were asked to do a review, they delegated it to the junior author, they might have done a very, very cursory reading, and then simply attached their name at the end.

      Being the senior author on a paper is not just a privilege that is earned because of seniority/grant money, it also means that you gave a significant contribution to the paper.

  • Elisabeth Bik February 10, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    It is unfortunate that Dr. Bosani gets all the blame here. The two papers that he took text from, which were authored by his senior co-workers, appear to contain large amounts of plagiarized text as well.

    • Elisabeth Bik February 10, 2014 at 12:52 pm

      Just to clarify my previous comment: by “plagiarized” I meant to say “not original”.

  • Sylvain Bernès February 10, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    The story conjectured by Karen Wynn and “F” sounds credible. Yes, the retracted article was a review. I take the opportunity to mention something which I think is a significant evolution of the scholar literature.

    There are two very different kinds of review articles. The first category rely on database mining: a set of abstracts is imported from a database, sorted, and slightly edited, to afford a more or less consistent article. With such an approach, the resulting collage may be considered as pure plagiarism, with a metric about fragmentation of sources given by the number of listed references. The more the number of references is large, the more the review is considered as complete.

    The second kind is based on critical, original, and constructive analyses of topics which have been studied over a long time, or which are very hot (or both). These articles are by far more difficult to write, compared to those of the first kind, and their usefulness is not really correlated to the number of quoted references.

    An example, limited to a single publisher: “Chemical Reviews” publishes 1st kind reviews, while “Accounts of Chemical Research” focuses on 2nd kind reviews. This categorization is obviously very rough, and many counter-examples may be found. Borderline cases may occur, as well as hybrids between first and second kinds.

    The retracted paper by Bosani et al. seems to fall in the 1st category: 169 references, distributed over four sections + intro + conclusions. Maybe the original part should be sought in the short “Conclusions” section. Maybe…

    Anyway, I feel that the 1st kind reviews are becoming less and less useful. They have had a real value in the pre-internet era, because data compilation was a tedious work (do you remember the chemical abstracts in libraries?), but nowadays, with the batteries of keywords, CAS numbers, PACS numbers, sophisticated search engines, Bayesian networks, and so on, in most cases a search via the web of knowledge is more worthwhile than to read a boring review. In contrast, second kind reviews are extremely helpful, for instance in the case of controversial subjects.

    Sorry, my comment is too long.

    • JATdS February 10, 2014 at 7:19 pm

      We need to guide our young scientists better. I think this is the bottom line. They emerge from undergrad studies 100% enthusiastic, ready to research day and night in many cases, and feel almost in a rush to achieve success. They see dozens of papers on their seniors’ CVs and feel the need to achieve the same, even if there is risk. They are also pressurized by a system that demands productivity. This is an excellent motivational desire for success, but it must be carefully guided and molded by the PI and senior scientists of the group. Sometimes the apple of temptation is there. Thinking that simultaneous submission to a conference proceedings is not something serious, and that representing only partially original data is acceptable, is clearly wrong, but this may be an education-based problem rather than an ethics problem. The problem thus lies at two levels: 1) the academic immaturity of the young scientists who most likely simply (and hopefully innocently) wants to prove his/her worth; 2) the failure by the seniors and the establishment to show sufficient oversight, to educate the youth sufficiently about basic research and publishing ethics. Yes, this is a classical “throwing under the bus” case. All authors share responsibility, as a team, even though the unethical actions may have stemmed from only a single individual. However, is it also not fair for the PI to blame one member if they were totally unaware of the actions of the transgressor? Some of us have been victims of similar cases and these are emotionally treacherous times trying to deal with the image-related problems, which is the fallout of these cases. However, the literature was corrected, hopefully the young scientist learnt their lesson and all are left better off, and matured by the experience.

  • PPV February 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Here’s on for you. I’m unsure how only one author could be responsible if the first 2 contributed equally and the majority of the figures were flawed. I found other questionable figures in previous papers without the first author as well.

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