Yes, Virginia, medical writers really do commit plagiarism, says a surgery retraction

Readers may recall a recent post on a study purporting to show that one of the best insurance policies against a retraction is to employ a medical writer. Well, a group of Iranian surgeons did just that. How’d it work out for them?

Of course, since you’re reading about this on Retraction Watch, you already know the answer to that one, don’t you?

The World Journal of Surgery has retracted a 2010 article written by hired guns who apparently decided to perform wordthievery rather than wordsmithery.

Here’s the notice (stated, oddly, as an “erratum” to the original paper):

The Editor-in-Chief of World Journal of Surgery hereby retracts the article entitled, “Long-Term Outcome of Rives-Stoppa Technique in Complex Ventral Incisional Hernia Repair” by Drs. Mostafa Mehrabi, Ali Jangjoo, Hassan Tavoosi, Mahdi Kahrom, and Hadi Kahrom, in its entirety, which appeared in World J Surg (2010) 34:1696–1701.

John Hunter, MD

Editor-in-Chief, World Journal of Surgery

That’s not particularly satisfying, but we caught up with Hunter by email and he filled in a blank or two.

We retracted this article because it involved plagiarism.  The authors, in Iran, had used a writing service who “borrowed” text from a previous article.

We tried to reach one of the authors but haven’t heard back.

At the risk of mounting too high a horse, let’s just say that plagiarism is bad, but plagiarists who trade on — we’re assuming here — a researcher’s relative lack of fluency in a language — English, in this case — to avoid detection deserve particular scorn.

0 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, medical writers really do commit plagiarism, says a surgery retraction”

  1. I resent the generalization implied in this entry. A lot of us medical writers are scrupulously ethical, and the snide tone of the title and first paragraph is unjustified and unbecoming of this blog. We are a profession like any other — there are rotten apples in the barrel, but that doesn’t mean the entire barrel is made up of rotten apples.

  2. As a scientist, I find it useful to look at the EVIDENCE on writer involvement in misconduct retractions.

    As published (not purported…) in CMRO, 98.59% of misconduct retractions did NOT involve a declared medical writer.

    Please answer the following question truthfully:

    Hypothetically, if we had found that 98.59% of misconduct retractions had involved a declared medical writer, do you think would bloggers and journalists would focus on the 1.41% of articles that did not involve a medical writer?

    You are correct in stating that the writer involved in the Iran case should have known better.although I understand that this writer was a ghostwriter and I expect nothing ethical from ghostwriters. I also don’t feel sorry for any author that uses ghostwriting services – a stupid mistake. Clearly, this writer is not a professional medical writer who is aware of and adheres to ethical medical writing practices (see Woolley K, CHEST 2006 for an early published distinction between professional medical writers and ghostwriters). Professional medical writers declare their involvement; unlike ghostwriters, they have nothing to be ashamed of! I bet the writer in the Iran case was not internationally certified (look for the CMPP post-nominal label) as he / she would know how to stop authors from submitting a plagiarised manuscript (remember that authors, not writers, are ultimately responsible for the manuscript).

    The fact that this misconduct occurred in a lower-income country like Iran is not surprising…based on EVIDENCE. As published in CMRO, Iran had the greatest number of misconduct retractions out of any lower-income country examined (ie, all countries with misconduct retractions). Again, if you read our full paper, you will see that the odds of misconduct vs mistake was significantly higher if the first author was affiliated with a lower-income country (OR 2.34; 1.18-4.63). The Iran case you cite is completely consistent with the EVIDENCE in our research. We did not say medical writers were never involved in misconduct – 1.41% of misconduct cases did involve a declared medical writer. The odds of misconduct, however, were significantly lower if a declared medical writer was NOT involved (OR 0.16; 0.05-0.57).

    The fact that this misconduct involved plagiarism in a lower-income country is not surprising…based on EVIDENCE. Our latest research study is the first to distinguish the type of misconduct that occurs in lower income countries. We will publish that research soon and hope that Retraction Watch can give that paper a balanced and fair hearing.

    I apologise for the late posting of this reply. I could not access Retraction Watch for days…can you imagine??? I am currently in China (a lower-income country) to teach ethical medical writing practices to authors, sponsors, and aspiring medical writers. I show them the EVIDENCE of factors associated with misconduct and then guide them on how to avoid the shame of misconduct.

    I am using EVIDENCE to try to reduce misconduct. I encourage others to do the same. We all like to read a juicy headline, but we should not base educational efforts about such fundamentally important issues, such as research integrity, on juicy headlines.

  3. At the risk of mounting too high a horse, perhaps we should also consider that the authors of the article may have provided the medical writer with a plagiarized first draft, or plagiarized text.

    Without seeing the results of the investigation into this case, it is impossible to tell who really is at fault. How many medical writers have been in the situation where they have received text from authors that looks overwhelmingly familiar to something they have read before? How many of us have had to delicately work with authors to explain why the text has to be changed, without pointing an accusatory finger?

    I agree with Retraction Watch, plagiarism is bad, no matter who does it – but I also agree with Lee – we should not generalize, our barrel is definitely not full of rotten apples.

  4. I find it hard to believe that the authors in this case were unaware of the plagiarism. Even the DISCUSSION was a near exact copy in this case. Real authors come up with their own discussion, not the medical writers. And if you are doing research in this field you should be aware of other papers out there on the exact same subject. It is only possible if the authors know zero words in English, and the ‘medical writer’ completely scammed them. But still, it’s hard to believe that the tables and study outcomes are identical to a study that you haven’t ever read

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