Anna Geraci, International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP); Eric Y. Wong,* PhD, MBA, ISMPP CMPPTM, Janssen Scientific Affairs, LLC

Plagiarism in scientific literature took center stage in a harrowing letter published in Annals of Internal Medicine on December 13, 2016. The letter, penned by researcher Michael Dansinger, MD, was directed to the individual who had admitted to unethically stealing and publishing Dansinger’s work as his own. (Dansinger M. Dear Plagiarist: A Letter to a Peer Reviewer Who Stole and Published Our Manuscript as His Own. Ann Intern Med. doi: 10.7326/M16-2551)

Dansinger’s paper was initially submitted to Annals of Internal Medicine, and was later published in JAMA. During the review process at Annals, the work was plagiarized by an external peer reviewer, who later published the same manuscript in a different journal, with different authors and his own institution named in the paper.

The Dansinger situation is of particular interest given the level of egregious and bold scientific misconduct, which was pointed out by Dansinger himself and in an accompanying editorial by Christine Laine, MD, MPH, editor-in-chief of Annals. (Laine C. Scientific Misconduct Hurts. Ann Intern Med. doi: 10.7326/M16-2550)

There were “several layers” of scientific misconduct highlighted by Dansinger and Laine:

  • A peer reviewer who did not maintain the confidentiality of a paper he was responsible for reviewing, and who ultimately published the work as his own.
  • The overt plagiarism of the work conducted by Dansinger and his colleagues, in which text, tables, and figures were largely reproduced.
  • The fabrication of a European patient cohort that did not exist, which could lead to treatment decisions based on fraudulent data.
  • The culpability of the co-authors in allowing themselves to be associated with research that they had not contributed to.

Overall, as stated by Dansinger in his letter, the peer reviewer was “falsely claiming credit for all of this work and for the expertise gained by doing it.”

Instances of plagiarism – from a cut-and-paste of text to “passing off someone else’s work as one’s own” – have appeared in the scientific literature for a very long time. However, reports of plagiarism have risen substantially in recent years. Reasons for the increase have included the influx of online journals with wider availability and greater opportunity to detect cases of plagiarism, a publish-or-perish culture that stresses rapid publication and can pressure researchers to misconduct, and a higher number of researchers for whom English is a second language and temptation exists to lift text from a “well-written” paper published in English.

Efforts to curb the incidence of plagiarism exist. Software-assisted detection systems are readily available that allow large volumes of documents to be compared to each other. Many colleges and universities have policies in place to discourage plagiarism by its students and researchers. Journals also have policies to deter plagiarism by authors for manuscripts submitted to them.

Yet, plagiarism still occurs, and the consequences are dire. As expressed by Dansinger in his letter, “Such cases of theft, scientific fraud, and plagiarism cannot be tolerated because they are harmful and unethical. Those who engage in such behavior can typically expect their professional careers to be ruined: Loss of reputation, loss of employment, and ineligibility for future research funding are the norm.”

* Disclosure: This article was prepared by the author in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed within are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Janssen Scientific Affairs, LLC.

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