Author blames “multitasking dementia” for duplicated cancer paper

Robert Gatenby

The authors of a 2017 paper on resistance to cancer chemotherapy have retracted and replaced the article after learning that it included duplicated material from previously published work by one of the duo. 

The article, “The evolution and ecology of resistance in cancer therapy,” was written by Robert Gatenby and Joel Brown, of the Moffitt Cancer Center, in Tampa, Fla. It appeared in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine

Richard Sever, the editor of the journal, told us that sometime after publication, a reader alerted his office that the paper included passages of text that were identical to those in a 2015 paper in Cancer Research, published by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), by Gatenby and two other co-authors:

Apparently our plagiarism check had actually identified problems with the initial submission, but an administrative error at our end meant this was not addressed prior to publication.

Given authors routinely write multiple review articles on the same topic and presumably juggle and re-write text that covers the same area, one can imagine how this might happen. I’d add that while there’s also of course a spectrum of opinions over the issue of self-plagiarism in general, in this instance any debate is academic since the authors were not copyright holders for the original article so AACR were perfectly within their rights to request a retraction.

According to the retraction notice

Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine is retracting the above article owing to significant text overlap with an earlier article coauthored by Dr. Gatenby (Enriquez-Navas et al. 2015), which was not cited in the Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine paper and for which American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) holds copyright. During the preparation of their manuscript, the authors accidentally submitted the wrong source file, which included duplicated text from the earlier paper, and this incorrect version was carried forward to publication. This retraction is made at the request of the copyright holder. The authors have published a new paper (Gatenby and Brown 2020) to address the issues raised.

Gatenby attributed the duplication to “mutitasking dementia”  — the “embarrassing and often problematic lapses in attention due to the frantic pace of work life that we all experience.”

He told us: 

The publication of an incorrect version of the paper has been an embarrassing lesson and resulted from an extraordinary series of mistakes, most of which were mine.  In generating a rough draft of this perspective paper, I used material from my prior perspective papers for older material as an initial filler while Joel Brown and focused primarily on new concepts (e.g. curative cancer treatment strategies based on Anthropocene extinction dynamics) that we found particularly exciting and interesting.  

In this back and forth, I lost track of what had come from prior manuscripts (all of which were mine and, so, never seemed out of place). Fortunately, the overlap was picked up by the journal editors and we then revised the manuscript to eliminate it.  Somehow, the initial version rather than the revised version was printed.   In reviewing the proofs, I simply responded to the editorial questions and did not recognize it was the earlier version since they were generally quite similar.

So what have I learned? First, although the sequence of events was extraordinary (unprecedented in my experience), I (and not Joel Brown) bear full responsibility.  In general, it is clearly much easier to segregate data into discrete manuscripts than ideas.  The latter is typically a continuum as new concepts emerge from old.  The former are highly dynamic but the latter, once established, tend to be described using the same language. This is useful for precision and consistency in conveying concepts but generates danger of overlap among my own review and perspective articles.  

Gatenby added that, in light of the episode, he will focus more on:   

how older ideas are expressed in any new manuscript and, more generally, focusing on smaller details particularly in reviewing manuscript proofs.

The corrected version of the article is available here.

Like Retraction Watch? You can make a tax-deductible contribution to support our work, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, or subscribe to our daily digest. If you find a retraction that’s not in our database, you can let us know here. For comments or feedback, email us at team@retractionwatch.com.

8 thoughts on “Author blames “multitasking dementia” for duplicated cancer paper”

  1. “Given authors routinely write multiple review articles on the same topic and presumably juggle and re-write text that covers the same area, one can imagine how this might happen.”

    Why do that?

    1. Improve h-factor. My most highly cited paper is where I am first author on a review article.

      Also, writing reviews is a good way to learn a field to see where the unanswered questions are.

      1/2 the job of being a PI is self promotion, and writing reviews is a part of that . No wonder assistant professors jump at a chance to get free fake data from someone else (Pruitt or a chinese paper mill).

  2. Thank you for posting.

    I shall shamelessly borrow the phrase – multi-tasking dementia – whenever I need to disguise my carelessness whilst presenting myself as heroically busy.

  3. Frankly, I can see how something like this could have happened if, as described, an author was writing multiple manuscripts about the same topic and used earlier disseminated work as filler for one of the manuscripts. Anyone who engages in heavy multitasking knows that it can most certainly affect memory. In this particular, single instance, failing to recognize the earlier written text as new material could be easily interpreted as a case of cryptomnesia.

    1. The dean of my college once jokingly said that the world of science would be better if everyone were allowed to write no more than 3 papers per year. And I’ve heard similar statements from others. As an about 3-papers-per-year guy myself, I can assure everyone that this is a wonderful method to keep your head above the water, your cognitions tidy and lined up like ducks in a row, and in general to NOT republish something that you’ve already published only because your frontal lobes were too frazzled to notice.

  4. There is an operational technique to avoid this particular error.
    If you are going to used blocks of copy-pasted text as informative placeholders in the process of composition, then make sure they are visually marked as such in drafts: different colored text, different fonts, different font sizes, colored backgrounds.
    Then only delete the marker characteristics when new, original text is inserted as a replacement.

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.