Irony alert: Shades of plagiarism undo med ethics paper on terminal care

With some conservatives fulminating over President Obama’s eternal lust for “death panels,” we have our own case of end-of-life outrage to report.

BMC Medical Ethics has retracted a November 2010 paper by two authors from Mayo Clinic whose manuscript — “End-of-life discontinuation of destination therapy with cardiac and ventilatory support medical devices: physician-assisted death or allowing the patient to die?” — contained passages that closely echoed those in another article, “Moral fictions and medical ethics,” published online in July 2009 in the journal Bioethics.

According to the retraction notice:

The authors have voluntarily retracted this article and it is no longer available for online public display because portions of the article are similar to a previous publication. While there was no intention to use pre-existing work without appropriate attribution, the authors nonetheless extend their apologies [to the authors and and all others concerned].

The article does appear to still be available, however.

The authors, Mohamed Y. Rady and Joseph L. Verheijde, have published nearly 60 articles together since 2006, on topics ranging from organ donation and the Islamic religion to whether discontinuing life support in patients who have experienced cardiac death in order to harvest their organs for transplantation constitutes homicide under state law (it likely does, they argue). Other than the BMC Medical Ethics paper, it does not appear that any of their previous papers has been retracted.

We find the retraction notice more than a little opaque and confusing. It’s unclear how “similar” the article was to the Bioethics paper it offended. But why not use the word “plagiarism” to describe the similarities? Also, how convincing is that “no intention” disclaimer? (Not very, as it happens, as you’ll soon learn.) And why is the article still available?

We’ve emailed the editor of BMC Medical Ethics for an answer to these questions and will update this post when we learn more.

Meanwhile, we spoke to Franklin G. Miller, a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health and first author of the plagiarized Bioethics paper. Miller, to whom the retraction notice specifically apologizes, said he discovered the offending material this fall when he chanced upon the BMC Medical Ethics article.

I first saw a citation to a piece of mine in Bioethics, but then I had the feeling some of this language sounded a little familiar to me. I looked side by side at the two articles and I found extensive passages that were lifted—some were verbatim, some had a couple of minor word changes. There was a citation, but only one, and no quotation marks. They had essentially appropriated our language, our arguments, and our analysis as their own.”

Miller said he contacted the journal, which conducted an investigation.

At first they said they were going to issue a correction, which I said was not satisfactory. Finally the legal dept of the publisher of Bioethics got into the act, and that led to the retraction.

Miller said he is “very dissatisfied” with the retraction notice for its failure to use the word plagiarism and its claim that the misappropriation was inadvertent.

To say that it wasn’t intentional is mind-boggling. You cannot systematically lift someone else’s text without intending to do it. It seems not possible. A sentence or two, maybe, but not paragraphs.

Miller said he now has discovered plagiarism of his own work five times over the course of his 20-year career in bioethics. On two other occasions, he detected plagiarism of someone else’s work.

To my mind, in bioethics, one time in 30 years is a lot.

Rady did not immediately return an e-mail requesting comment.

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