“Deeply disturbing,” “heinous intellectual theft,” erosion of the “public’s trust in medical research:” These are just a few words used to describe a rare type of plagiarism reported in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine.
Although we’ve only documented a few cases where peer reviewers steal material from manuscripts and pass them off as their own, it does happen, and it’s a fear of many authors. What we’ve never seen is a plagiarized author publish a letter to the reviewer who stole his work. But after Michael Dansinger of Tufts Medical Center realized a paper he’d submitted to Annals of Internal Medicine that had been rejected was republished, and the journal recognized one of the reviewers among the list of co-authors, it published a letter from Dansinger to the reviewer, along with an editorial explaining what happened.
The letter and editorial identify the paper containing the stolen material — now retracted — but don’t name the reviewer responsible. Still, the articles are deeply personal. As Dansinger writes in “Dear Plagiarist: A Letter to a Peer Reviewer Who Stole and Published Our Manuscript as His Own,” the reviewer took much more than just a manuscript:
It took 5 years from conceptualization of the study to publication of the primary analysis (1). This study was my fellowship project and required a lot of work. It took effort to find the right research team, design the study, raise the funds, get approvals, recruit and create materials for study participants, run the diet classes, conduct the study visits, compile and analyze the study data, and write the initial report. The work was funded by the U.S. government and my academic institution. The secondary analysis that you reviewed for Annals used specialized methods that took my colleagues many years to develop and validate. In all, this body of research represents at least 4000 hours of work.
In “Scientific Misconduct Hurts,” Annals of Internal Medicine Editor-in-Chief Christine Laine identifies the “several layers of bold misconduct” that took place:
First, peer reviewers should maintain the confidentiality of the papers they review. They should refrain from using for their own purposes what they learn during peer review until the work is published and can be cited as the source of that information.
Second, the reviewer blatantly plagiarized Dansinger and colleagues’ work, reproducing almost verbatim the text, tables, and figures.
Third, the reviewer fabricated a cohort of European patients that did not exist—a particularly egregious act that could have resulted in clinicians (unknowingly) basing decisions about patient care on fraudulent data.
Fourth, the plagiarized article had many coauthors. These coauthors are also culpable. They allowed their names to be used, apparently without contributing anything of value—not even verification of the study’s existence.
Laine includes some harsh words for the perpetrator:
My colleagues and I find it deeply disturbing that someone whom we selected to review a manuscript entrusted to us would commit such heinous intellectual theft.
One would have little idea of the backstory behind the retraction of “The improvement of large High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) particle levels, and presumably HDL metabolism, depend on effects of low-carbohydrate diet and weight loss” based on the notice issued by EXCLI Journal, which eventually published the paper:
As corresponding author I ask for retraction of our article Finelli et al. (2016) with the consent of all co-authors, because of unauthorized reproduction of confidential content of another manuscript. The data in the retracted article actually are from a cohort of patients from the Boston, MA enrolled in a trial registered in ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT02454127. We deeply regret these circumstances and apologize to the scientific community.
Carmine Finelli, MD PhD
We’ve contacted first author Finelli — who is not identified as the perpetrator of the plagiarism — to find out more. Finelli responded:
…as corresponding Author of the paper in object, I had the responsibility for the plagiarism, independently from other circumstances.
Our co-founders Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky — who write about this extraordinary retraction in STAT, calling it “a researcher’s worst nightmare” — contacted Dansinger to find out why he chose not to identify the reviewer responsible. He told STAT:
My aim is to raise awareness in the scientific/academic community and general public that it is possible for peer reviewers to steal an entire manuscript and publish it as their own in an unsuspecting academic journal. I’m not looking to “tattle” on the perpetrator–doing so starts to look like revenge rather than achieving the more important objectives, and may even draw attention away from those objectives.
The letter to be published in the Annals is a modified version of the letter I emailed directly to the lead author who responded with an apology in which he claimed sole responsibility and stated he was retracting the published article. He acknowledged that there is no satisfactory explanation for his behavior.
Dansinger explained he learned the manuscript had been plagiarized after searching for his name in academic papers, and the EXCLI Journal paper — published online in September — mentioned his name in the text while referring to his work.
I then contacted the Annals and they contacted the peer-reviewer/author and then EXCLI.
As we said, this type of plagiarism is rare — but not unheard of. Earlier this year, we discovered a 2009 retraction where a reviewer admitted to lifting material that ended up in Chemistry Letters. So it does happen.
As Laine concludes in her editorial:
If reading Dansinger’s commentary prevents even 1 person from stealing another’s work, something good will come from it.
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