Yup, this happened: “Mystery” writer impersonated cardiovascular pathologist, penned published letter

A 2014 letter in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has been retracted because editors aren’t sure who wrote it.

“Can Grayscale IVUS Detect Necrotic Core-Rich Plaque?”, a letter on the potential of intravascular ultrasound, was submitted under the name of a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Erling Falk. The paper was sent with a Gmail account (a technique used by some academics to conduct fake peer reviews), and editors communicated with the author through the acceptance process.

Shortly after the letter was published, Erling Falk of Aarhus University contacted the journal and asked who wrote the letter. They discovered that nobody by that name worked at the University of Copenhagen and emails to the author’s Gmail address went unanswered. So the journal issued a retraction.

Here’s the complete notice:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief. We cannot confirm the identity of this author after an inquiry from a reader. We contacted the author directly but did not receive a response.

In an emailed statement, the editors at the JACC explained what happened:

  • This Letter to the Editor, submitted by an author calling himself Erling Falk, MD, from the University of the Copenhagen in Denmark, underwent the usual peer review process and was accepted by the JACC editors. The Journal staff and its publisher communicated with this author during the acceptance and galley proof processes.
  • After publication, prominent cardiovascular pathologist Erling Falk, MD, PhD, from Aarhus University and Skejby University Hospital in Denmark, called into question the identity of the author.
  • After repeated attempts to contact the author of the Letter through the email address that he provided and to which he had previously responded, the Journal did not receive a response.
  • The JACC staff also confirmed that no one by the author’s name was professionally associated with of the University of Copenhagen nor its affiliate hospital, Gentofte University Hospital, through their respective Human Resources departments.
  • Due to an inability to confirm the identity of this author, the JACC editors felt it necessary to retract the Letter to the Editor.

We spoke to Falk, and he’s as perplexed by this as we are. He confirmed that he wasn’t the author of the letter and said he still doesn’t know who the author might be.

Yes, it is indeed a mystery.

I became aware of the letter in JACC when one of my colleague mentioned it, soon after it was published online.

I contacted the Editorial Office of JACC and told [them] I was not the author.

The letter is well-written and dealing with a topic that has my interest. I have published papers on the topic. The author bears my name (Erling Falk), with a corresponding address in Denmark, and with a gmail address containing my name followed by a number.

I think I am the only person in Denmark with the name “Erling Falk”. I emailed to the given gmail address, but got no reply (but the mail was apparently received by someone). I contacted the HR department of the Institution given in the corresponding address (University of Copenhagen), but they did not know about any person with this name.

I am not happy with my name being connected to a retracted paper, so if you could find the impostor it would be fantastic.

The only clue I have is the following email address: erlingfalk478@gmail.com

It is given in the corresponding address at the end of the letter in JACC, and I think the letter was submitted to JACC from this email address.

We’ve contacted the “mystery” author through the Gmail account provided by Falk and we’ll update this post if we receive a reply.

Part of what’s incredible about this is that the author seems to know what he or she is talking about — Falk himself said the letter was well-written. It even inspired a formal response from a group of authors it references, also published in JACC.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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6 thoughts on “Yup, this happened: “Mystery” writer impersonated cardiovascular pathologist, penned published letter”

  1. I must say that the retraction notice could have been a bit more informative, since as Falk notes, his name is now attached to a retraction.

    1. True! When I first read the retraction, I thought the “real Dr. Falk” might have theoretically written the paper, but no longer stood by it. Who would have thought that there was a “bad Dr. Falk”?

  2. I thought it happened at some obscure journal, but dang, and impact factor of 16. Who would waste their best results for a hoax?

    1. This was closer to a comment than to a “real” paper. So no real results are contained. Seems that someone wanted the name of E.Falk to argue against some published results. The formal response quoted was the answer to the comment.

  3. Apart from not now being able to contact the author, who may well be pseudonymous, is there in fact anything wrong with the letter? It did pass normal peer review and editorial requirements. I recall a dog being a co-author on some well known papers – should those also be retracted?
    Agreed – on the face of it whoever wrote it is possibly attempting to pass themselves off as another person. Would a clarification letter from the known Dr Falk agreeing or not with this letter and clearly indicating he is not the author of the original not have cleared this up better?

    1. Impersonating another in order to publish is unethical and should absolutely result in retraction, whether or not there is anything wrong with the content.

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