Hormesis? Information scant in unhelpful retraction notice (Psst: It was plagiarism)

The latest issue of Dose-Response, the official journal of the International Dose-Response Society, has one of the uninformative retraction notices we’ve come to hate for their inscrutability:

The article titled “Ozone as U-shaped Dose Responses Molecules (Hormetins)” by G. Martínez- Sánchez, G. Pérez-Davison, L. Re and A. Giuliani has been retracted by the editors

Um, yes, it has. That’s a little like saying “this paper has been published by the publisher.” So we asked Denise Leonard, the journal’s managing editor, whether she could elaborate on the rationale for the retraction. Did the editors know why the article had to be retracted? Her response will not find a place in the Annals of Illuminating Statements:

Yes the journal does know the reason and that notice is what we decided to post.

That’s a much more polite way of saying “none of your damn business.” It’s also — as we’ve written many, many times before — a way of dissing your readers.

Since we tried to find out what led to the retraction, and the journal was unhelpful, we were left speculating. But we had at least one working hypothesis. Take a look at the third paragraph of the retracted paper’s introduction:

Prolonged inhalation of ozone can be very deleterious firstly for the lungs and successively for the whole organism (Kajekar 2007). On the other hand, a small ozone dose well-calibrated against the potent antioxidant capacity of blood can trigger several useful biochemical mechanisms and reactivate the antioxidant system. In detail, firstly ex vivo and secondly during the infusion of ozonated blood into the donor, the ozone therapy approach involves blood cells and the endothelium which, by transferring the ozone messengers to billions of cells will generate a therapeutic effect (Bocci et al. 2009). Thus, in spite of a common prejudice, single ozone doses can be therapeutically used in selected human diseases without any toxicity or side effects. Moreover, the versatility and amplitude of beneficial effect of ozone applications have become evident in orthopedics (Re et al. 2008b), pain control (Re et al. 2008a), diabetes (Martinez-Sanchez et al. 2005) cutaneous and mucosal infections (Bocci et al. 2009) as well as in dentistry (Loncar et al. 2009).

Now take a look at the abstract of “The Ozone Paradox: Ozone Is a Strong Oxidant as Well as a Medical Drug,” a 2009 paper in Medicinal Research Reviews by researchers at the University of Siena:

…the prolonged inhalation of ozone can be very deleterious first for the lungs and successively for the whole organism. On the other hand, a small ozone dose well calibrated against the potent antioxidant capacity of blood can trigger several useful biochemical mechanisms and reactivate the antioxidant system. In detail, firstly ex vivo and second during the infusion of ozonated blood into the donor, the ozone therapy approach involves blood cells and the endothelium, which by transferring the ozone messengers to billions of cells will generate a therapeutic effect. Thus, in spite of a common prejudice, single ozone doses can be therapeutically used in selected human diseases without any toxicity or side effects. Moreover, the versatility and amplitude of beneficial effect of ozone applications have become evident in orthopedics, cutaneous, and mucosal infections as well as in dentistry.

They look, um, similar, don’t they? The Siena paper is cited liberally throughout the paper — including within the identical paragraph — but we’re pretty sure that doesn’t mean it’s OK to use that much text without quotation marks.

Apparently, the journal’s editors agreed with us. And apparently, the authors of the study didn’t. Here’s the letter the authors sent after the editors made charges of plagiarism. It begins with an historical reference:

First of all, I would like to cite a phrase once remarked by José Martí Pérez (January 28, 1853 May 19, 1895; was a Cuban national hero): all the glory in the world fits in a kernel of corn”. Through this introductory comment you will find the real intention of the person we suspect had sent you the allegation of plagiarism.

The reference to Cuba turns out to be relevant later in the letter, as the authors claim that the whole mess started with “brief tendentious comment” by the author of a paper they are alleged to have plagiarized. Those comments were by Velio Bocci, who was describing the use of ozone in Cuba and other countries in response to peer review criticisms about a paper he had submitted to the Journal of Translational Medicine:

1) …In Countries such as Cuba, Russia, China and India treatments by ozone are already a reality, although doubtful administration modalities are in current use

Bocci — one of the Siena authors — wrote this to the now-retracted paper’s authors:

When a few months ago we submitted our paper to J.T.R., one referee asked to comment your cited paper that you have presumably written and published on Dose-Response. Thus I read it again and I would like to thank you for the numerous citations. However, quite frankly, I was a bit disturbed by the fact that you reported whole sentences literally copied from my books or reviews. Just a few examples:

Pag 3 ” The ozone treatment is now envisaged as a transitory…” and “if the disease has gone too far”..

Pag 8 at the bottom: ” So far the most advanced..” Nobody else except myself has never used “the stoichiometric fashion..” terminology

Pag 9 The strongly oxidized blood, including the foam… ” and little later : ” ozone doses are always applied by the physician using the strategy: start low, go slow..” This is an expression that I wrote the first time and published in my 2002 book.

I am glad that you used my expressions because obviously you appreciated them but, as I am an old scientist, allows me to suggest that when you report sentences of other authors, you should always include them within inverted commas plus their relative source.

But Bocci misunderstood, author Gregorio Martinez-Sanchez responded. This wasn’t plagiarism:

In fact, I appreciate a lot your entire job and expressions. The manuscript includes 11 references (14 %) of your job of a total of 78 references. Even if there is any involuntary omission, I think that is very positive that the paper was accepted by the pioneer of the hormesis, and is a good thing for all ozone/therapist. I apologize for the omissions of the reference in these sentences, but you should know that all the scientist in this field know clearly that those phrases are coined by Bocci, no by Sanchez even when any punctual reference could not was cited. As always, it is an honor for me to hear your comments, suggestions and tips. We still should learn a lot about your job and scientific experience.

In other words, there’s no need to use quotations, because everyone knows these were Bocci’s words. A strange argument — but certainly an original one, unlike plagiarism.

The rest of the letter — we’d urge you to read it — includes a rather condescending passage in which the authors explain the concept of a scientific review to the journal’s editors, and a point-by-point refutation of the plagiarism charges, which we find hard to follow at best.

Given all that, we’re now not surprised that the paper was retracted. But we’re still puzzled as to why the journal wouldn’t come out and say why.

Thanks to Peter Lipson for pointing us to the Siena paper. 

0 thoughts on “Hormesis? Information scant in unhelpful retraction notice (Psst: It was plagiarism)”

  1. “The rest of the letter — we’d urge you to read it — includes a rather…”

    Before anybody slaps a value judgement on the letter by Martínez-Sánchez and Lamberto, several aspects of the alleged plagiarism should be considered. The authors of the retracted article intended to re-use previously published text, but did they intend to deceive readers about the origin of the texts? The explanations they offer suggest that they did not have this intent.

    They seem to have assumed that their peers–specialists in the subject–would easily remember who the original author was. (However, for the benefit of readers who lack highly specialized knowledge, it’s always better to mark verbatim quotations explicitly with both a reference and quotation marks.)

    Editors and readers familiar with the research culture in Latin countries (such as Italy, Cuba and Spain) may not find the use of a historical or literary quotation to frame the arguments such an odd thing, and may not find the tone of the letter’s description of peer review “condescending”. Readers with different cultural backgrounds will have different reactions to different writing and rhetorical strategies–but “different” should not necessarily be assumed to mean “better” or “worse”.

    The author whose words were apparently plagiarized identified some relatively short phrases that some readers may not consider to contain novel, original information or insights, but to be phrases that any writer reader might end up using in the same context. Other examples refer to methodological aspects of the research, which, for the sake of clarity and precision, perhaps should not be paraphrased (although they should, of course, be cited correctly).

    To avoid problems, it is probably better for writers to be scrupulous in citing and using quotations marks. The original author of certain phrases or sentences used in a specialized context may be the only expert who is able to perceive whether the text contains a novel insight that nobody else would ever have thought of–and it is better for readers to indicate explicitly that the words were first written and published by somebody else. The editor can (should) then decide whether any quotation marks are not needed.

    Plagiarism is a nasty label to throw around, and definitions of plagiarism in academic publications are evolving day by day. Before assumptions are made about the “plagiarizing” author’s intentions, the potential for the re-used text to mislead readers and deprive the rightful author of appropriate credit should be considered, and authors should explain honestly why they did not meet the readers’ expectations for apprproiate citation. The reason is more likely to be carelessness or ignorance of the expected citation methods than actual intent to steal credit from the original authors.

    1. To the best of my understanding, taking the words of someone else without indicating the fact explicitly is the very definition of plagiarism, which is the literary mode of theft. I cannot see what else they could have done to make the theft more explicit — we do not label our narrative in our paper as “OK this is now mine”: it is the other way around.

      It is general consensus and good practice that scientific papers are to be written for the general community, not only for some selected readers in the minds of the authors (who obviously cannot know everyone who gets interested in their field). Scientific knowledge is for everyone, thus again: the other way around.

      I do not think there should be much discrimination between stealing a little bit, or the whole paper. The authors admitted they had copied the text directly, and even attempted to suggest a review is all about doing this. This misconcept of a review is a dangerous idea that has to be purged.

      These arguments sound to me as clear inversions of values, which can easily corrupt the field when used with good oratory skills. Their use makes (for me) the bad intentions even more apparent, as they are not apologizing but spreading their seed.

      I ought to note that I am Latin American. I have seen so much of these fast-talk justifications in my country that maybe that is why it is easy for me to dissect the matter. I think many others here see it that way.

    2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Karen. Just to be clear, what we found condescending was the description — to journal editors — of a “scientific review,” in other words a paper, not a description of “peer review.” From the letter:

      First to begin a step by step analysis of the highlighted comments in the manuscript I would like to introduce the concept of Scientific Review.

      How is a Review? (according to Robert Day).4

      A review paper is not an original publication. On occasion, a review will contain new data (from the author’s own laboratory) that have not yet appeared in a primary journal. However, the purpose of a
      review paper is to review previously published literature and to put into some kind of perspective. A review article is usually long, typically ranging between 10 and 50 printed pages. (Some journals now
      print short “minireview”). The subject is fairly general, compared with that of research paper. And the literature review is, of course, the principal product. However, the really good review paper are much
      more than annotated bibliographies. Offer a critical evaluation of published literature, and often provide important conclusions based on that literature.

      According to this, our current review fits this concept.

    3. I am Italian and strongly disagree with the notion that plagiarism is considered as an ok practice in Italy.
      Those who plagiarize text from other authors without proper attribution deserve the plagiarism label. Even those who do self-plagiarize as far as I am concerned.

  2. As their letter indicates, the authors of the retracted review are not fluent English users, so lifting pieces of text from the papers they were reviewing was very tempting as it made their job much easier. Their only sin was the failure to use quotation marks every time something was cited verbatim. However, had they used the quotation marks whenever needed, the manuscript would most likely have been unsuitable for publication. Writing a review is not a copy-and-paste business.

  3. A plausible explanation for this is the difference of consequences between “article retracted” and “Article retracted for plagiarism.” if for some reason, the editors thought there was some fuzziness or mitiaging circumstances, they may have decided on the milder retraction.

    After all, in this case the editor-in-chief tried fairly hard to avoid retraction-for-plagiarsim in article by an old friend.

    Then there is this, this. this, with a summary here.

    Summary: Ed Wegman, Yasmin Said, and David Scott edit WIREs:CS. Said&Wegman(2009) and Wegman&Said(2011) have massive plagiarism, the former mostly from Wikipedia. Wiley was informed in March and April, 7-8 months ago.

    Wiley just says: “rest assured that any changes to the record will be made on the record.”

  4. I screen every submission to Anesthesia & Analgesia for plagiarism. This example shows why that is necessary. Whether or not the authors intended to deceive readers, they have used the text of another author without attribution. If the editors screened all submissions for plagiarism, this would have been caught on submission. That protects both the authors and the editors from the consequences of publishing a plagiarized manuscript.

    iThenticate is very thorough, and would very likely have flagged all of the offending text. If I believe the plagiarism is not intended to deceive the readers, then I identify for authors the verbatim text and instruct them to either identify the verbatim text with quotation marks and provide accurate citations, or rewrite the text in their own words.

    In our first year of using iThenticate I have found plagiarism in 10% of submissions, prompting either a rejection for plagiarism or, in cases like this, a request for proper identification of verbatim text. It takes me about 20 hours a week to accomplish this screening, so it is not a trivial task. However, it has proved well worth the effort. I have also found multiple cases of duplicate publication, inappropriate salami slicing of data, and and theft of research results.

    1. This comment was very informative, I would like to thank and congratulate the care taken in this periodical. One day maybe journals will adopt similar measures in a joint attempt to remedy scientific fraud as best as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.