Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Dear peer reviewer, you stole my paper: An author’s worst nightmare

with 33 comments

“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:

Dear editor,

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, 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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Written by Alison McCook

December 12th, 2016 at 5:00 pm

  • Craig Payne December 12, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    There has to be legal, if not criminal repercussions to this sort of thing.

  • Tell December 12, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Reveal the person’s name. What on earth is gained by keeping it secret? That person shouldn’t be in research (or medicine). Their next trick may swindle someone else or kill a patient. Also, keeping the secret makes a bad situation worse for the (admittedly also culpable) guest authors, because people only know that one of them did it.

  • Simon December 12, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    This is why review should not be anonymous.

  • Ralph Giorno MD December 12, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    The repercussions need to be that ALL authors are summarily fired, then pursue libel charges. None of these people should ever practice medicine anywhere, including in a private setting.

  • George Henderson (@puddleg) December 12, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    An important point here is that the Dansinger paper, which we may have been deprived of, was a potentially important one for public health.
    The retracted paper ends –
    “In conclusion, we hypothesize that curbing dietary intake of refined carbohydrates decrease atherogenic dyslipidaemia, especially in the setting of insulin resistance. Dietary strategies that reduce refined sources of starch and sugar may potentially reduce cardiovascular disease and mitigate the epidemic of residual cardiovascular risk attributed to suboptimal eating patterns, however clinical trials with actual cardiovascular outcomes are required to properly address this public health concern.”
    Assuming that the last phrase was stolen from Dansinger’s paper, it highlights a critical issue.
    Dozens of studies with “actual cardiovascular outcomes” were carried out based on the hypothesis that saturated fat’s effect on LDL cholesterol was important to the risk of heart attacks. The slight effect of these trials added up to no reduction in deaths or heart attacks according to the 2015 Cochrane meta-analysis.
    No trials of this sort have yet been carried out on the hypothesis that hyperinsulinaemia, measurable by its effect on the fasting TG/HDL ratio and modifiable by limiting the carbohydrate content of the diet, is important in CVD. (Many proxy marker trials have been run, but that is not the same thing)
    We have a tested diet-heart hypothesis, based on 1950’s science, that didn’t pan out, and an alternative hypothesis, based on more modern evidence including the data that Dansinger had stolen by the peer reviewer, that isn’t being tested, perhaps because the old hypothesis failed, but still has many supporters, not to mention the industries based on it, who do not want to see it buried and who do not believe that anything else is worth trying.

  • Albert Gjedde December 12, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    There are several odd twists to this story: Of course the perps should be identified and their host institutions informed. In addition, the paper should of course be republished immediately with the original authors. As the paper is based on a real cohort of subjects, it is hard to understand why it is not retained but with the right authors. The reticence of the victims is hard to understand.

  • Dean December 12, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    File a legal claim of intellectual property theft. The name will then come out. Why is Dansinger protecting the guilty? In addition, to publish the info as his own, the thief would have had to pretend to have carried out the experiments. That’s fabrication. Let’s have some repercussions here.

  • herr doktor bimler December 12, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Albert Gjedde
    In addition, the paper should of course be republished immediately with the original authors. As the paper is based on a real cohort of subjects, it is hard to understand why it is not retained but with the right authors.

    One panel of reviewers evidently agreed that the study is worth publishing. However, Dansinger might prefer to target some other journal, not EXCLI Journal.

    • Tim McCulloch December 13, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      But the panel of reviewers that rejected the legitimate paper included the corrupt reviewer. It might have been the crook’s negative review that tipped the balance against the paper being accepted.

  • psyoskeptic December 12, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    How the hell do you become corresponding author on a paper for which you actually know nothing about the background development of the paper? Clearly there’s a big problem there even if they didn’t commit the plagiarism. If this thing is pretty much a straight up copy of the original submission, as it sounds, then the co-authors were handed a nearly complete paper and asked to put their names on it.

    • pofu December 13, 2016 at 9:24 am

      I agree, the whole thing raises questions regarding the conducts of everyone on that retracted paper. Even if some of the authors weren’t aware of the theft, they shouldn’t agree to be on a paper about a study they weren’t part of, and they can’t possibly be part of that research because it didn’t take place at their institution.

      • herr doktor bimler December 14, 2016 at 2:48 am

        The “co-authors” don’t seem to be fastidious about accepting purely honorary CV-inflating authorship.

    • Peter Nigos December 12, 2016 at 11:45 pm

      The Bridges case was a little different. As a reviewer he saw a paper on rhodopsin metabolism in vitro and immediately realized its significance. He tried with some success to denigrate the manuscript thus delaying its publication. Meanwhile he rushed through some experiments of his own (later claiming they predated his viewing of the other manuscript) and submitted his own paper to Nature – which was rejected. Bridges denied all the evidence suggesting this summary of the events, but was eventually debarred from all Federal funding for three years. I believe he still holds an academic position.

  • scott December 12, 2016 at 9:10 pm

    I don’t know what punishment is appropriate for this blatant breach of professional and ethical standards, but this was just so wrong by some people on so many levels.

  • Tony December 13, 2016 at 6:39 am

    This case involves a peer reviewer. How about grant application reviewers?

    • Ken Pimple December 14, 2016 at 9:45 am

      This has happened in peer review, also – except that I don’t know of any in which the whole grant application is re-submitted by a reviewer. It seems that the Background and Significance section is a favorite target.

      • Tony December 15, 2016 at 8:57 am

        My personal opinion is that theft at the grant application review stage is probably even more difficult to detect, prove and expose.

        People who get to review grant applications are very likely to be distinguished figures in their respective fields, but that does not mean they will be completely immune from the seduction of misappropriating certain truly innovative research ideas (rather than wholesale plagiarism). If they have the necessary resources at their disposal, a scoop can be a very likely outcome, and currently the ONLY thing in our intricate world of scientific research that can assure this does not happen is a person’s integrity.

        In a less cutthroat environment, the victim can probably console herself/himself that “at least my idea has been proven to be correct, although I did not get to do that myself…”

        Note: I am just a casual visitor and I will not be replying to this thread. My thanks go to all those who replied to my initial post.

  • MRR December 13, 2016 at 7:27 am

    Reposting my comment at STAT (self-plagiarism?):

    It would be interesting to discuss preprints (e.g. in this context:

    – if the manuscript were on a preprint, the claim of the original author would be officially dated and public;

    – when people are afraid of scooping when submitting to preprint servers, they should remember this very real possibility of copying in peer-review, much harder to catch and to prove.

  • Kenneth L Busch December 13, 2016 at 10:25 am

    In response to a comment by Tony, yes there have been instances of the same thing happening in review of grant proposals. There the issue is usually treated by the funding agency as a “violation of the confidentiality of peer review.” One complication in investigation of these instances is to establish the sole link to the misappropriated material through peer review solicited by the funding agency. For example, the situation also becomes more complicated when full, not-yet-funded proposals are shared with colleagues, including post docs and graduate students, or even posted in their entirety on the web. Then the misconduct is perhaps more directly within research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism.” But what may be lost is the jurisdiction to investigate and take action, since the funding agency may no longer be involved.

    Candidates for faculty or post doc positions often develop research proposals that are shared with potential colleagues. The expectation there is for confidentiality. But ideas and research directions in such presentations are also sometimes misappropriated.

  • Miguel Roig December 13, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    From ORI’s definition of plagiarism: “The theft or misappropriation of intellectual property includes the unauthorized use of ideas or unique methods obtained by a privileged communication, such as a grant or manuscript review” (

    I am fairly certain that ORI has dealt with cases of plagiarism from grant proposals though I cannot think of a specific one at the moment.

  • DWalker December 13, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    “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.”

    In my opinion, it’s not really “revenge”, but something else (appropriate consequences?) that is just and proper for the thief. That should be one of the “important objectives”, that the thief should suffer the consequences. However, this is up to the author whose work was stolen. I just don’t understand why something this blatant would NOT result in the thief’s name being made public.

    • Gary December 14, 2016 at 3:37 am

      I assume that one or more of the authors on the retracted article is responsible.
      Therefore just publishing the author list here would at least highlight the individual(s).
      If anyone on the author list was unaware of the deception they may at least be motivated to start their own internal investigation (and perhaps, in future, not be so eager to put their names on papers they had nothing to do with).

  • Kenneth L Busch December 13, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    To expand a bit, a funding agency’s ability to pursue an issue of plagiarism when the source is a reviewed proposal depends on where the plagiarism occurs, and the regulations under which the agency investigation must operate.

  • Loe December 14, 2016 at 1:09 am

    1) This will continue as long as there are no serious personal repercussions for the offender. This cannot be excused as a mistake or dropping the blame on a student. This is a crime committed in broad daylight and it must be addressed as such. The thief should not be allowed to conduct research, apply for funding or mentor graduate students.

    2) I am baffled by the lack of intelligence in committing such acts; stealing and reproducing clinical data in the era of the internet? Moral and ethics aside, how can someone be so thick as to think they wouldn’t get caught…?

  • Declan MacManus December 15, 2016 at 3:09 am

    It is unfortunate that Dansinger does not reveal the perptrator. Now the letter does not serve the cause it claims to serve, namely trying to prevent this from happening again. The lack of accountability for the person that committed the fraud means that one gets away with it, at least publically and probably also legally. Moreover, it leaves all other authors suspects henceforth, which is not good. Finally, it will not help clean up the scientific records from more potentially fraudulent data as the community is left in the dark as for whom to scrutinise in more detail. I feel sorry for the Dansinger but as is stands it feels like the letter is a bit of an ego document and not of much service to the scientific community.

  • George Henderson (@puddleg) December 15, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Other reports of this case make it clear that Finelli is the reviewer responsible.
    The reviewer, Carmine Finelli, MD, PhD, from the Stella Maris Mediterraneum Foundation, Chiaromonte, Potenza, Italy, does not dispute the facts, according to both Dr Dansinger, who exchanged emails with him, and Christine Laine, MD, MPH, Annals editor-in-chief, who wrote an editorial published online alongside Dr Dansinger’s letter.

    As Finelli is lead author as well as corresponding author, it would be unlikely to be otherwise.
    I can understand other (busy) researchers putting names on a paper if they were asked to find references or provide statistical analysis, while taking on trust the rest of the paper, but in this case the paper was already written, so they don’t have that excuse.

  • Gary December 16, 2016 at 9:20 am

    Clicking on the link to the retracted paper and then clicking on the first author (Finelli, C) leads to 128 PubMed references for that author – although I assume they can’t all be the same person as they go back to 1958 (?)

    I wonder if anyone wants to start “wading” through them?

  • herr doktor bimler December 16, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Sorry, “EXCLI Journal, 2015” should be “2014”.

  • Peter December 16, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    This is scandalous. I note that Finelli’s name is misspelt in another article
    Diabetes Care 2013 Dec; 36(12): 3860-3862.
    suggesting they never read, nor had anything to do with the reported study. There has to be some method to properly sanction this type of fraudster, masqueading as a ‘scientist’. We should, as a community be able to give them a life-time ban from publishing in any scientific journal and highlighting all their articles to convey to others that they may be falsified.

    Pub Med, you have a new category to include!

  • Sylvain Bernès December 18, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Pierre Barthélémy gives an excellent account in “Le Monde”, based on the RW post:
    I noted the following “detail”: “[…] n’importe quel spécialiste devinera que seul le premier auteur – qui est la personne censée avoir conduit la recherche – de l’ ‘étude incriminée’ peut avoir commis ce forfait.” This strongly suggests that the reviewer of the Dansinger’s paper was the first author of the now retracted paper.

    • From Morocco December 18, 2016 at 4:18 pm

      Les co-auteurs ont aussi leur part de responsabilité, reste à savoir leur type de contributions!
      Cet article plagié pourra révélé différents types de fraudes.

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