Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Imitation may be a form of flattery, but plagiarism hurts

I don't envy Dr. Michael Dansinger, whose scientific paper on the effects of commercial diets on surrogate markers of cardiovascular disease, originally submitted to the Annals of Internal Medicine, was stolen by one of the paper's external peer reviewers and published as the reviewer's own research in another medical journal. But unlike others whose work has been plagiarized, he had the satisfaction of not only seeing the plagiarized article retracted with an apology, but being able to publicly call out the plagiarist in a letter published yesterday in the Annals. As further explained in an accompanying editorial from editor Christine Laine, the plagiarist, Italian researcher Carmine Finelli, invented an imaginary cohort of European patients to replace those in Dansinger's U.S. study and recruited seven co-authors to play supporting roles in this scientific charade: "They allowed their names to be used, apparently without contributing anything of value - not even verification of the study's existence."

When I tweeted a link to Dansinger's letter early yesterday evening, some followers responded with incredulity that Finelli (whose scientific stature was high enough that he was invited to review for such a prestigious journal) thought he could possibly get away with such a brazen act without having it ruin his career. But plagiarism in the medical literature is unfortunately quite common, and as the popular blog Retraction Watch illustrates, often goes undetected for years.

Although ripping off an entire study, as in this case, is relatively rare, more frequently authors will plagiarize only parts of articles and/or make perfunctory efforts to reword stolen paragraphs to obscure their original source. This actually happened to me in 2010, when the entire introduction to my previously published review of screening for prostate cancer ended up in a ghostwritten primary care supplement sponsored by the American Urological Association (which, ironically, has strongly disputed the findings of my review).

One of my miscellaneous duties as a medical editor for American Family Physician has been investigating accusations of plagiarism. In one year, my investigations led three different articles to be retracted from their respective journals for plagiarizing all or part of reviews published in AFP. Unfortunately, I found that many journal editors (especially those operated by predatory publishers) were not nearly as enthusiastic as Dr. Laine about getting authors to admit any wrongdoing. And in more than one case, after I contacted the plagiarist's academic institution, it was unclear to me whether he or she would be subject to any disciplinary action.

Nineteenth-century English cleric Charles Caleb Colton is generally acknowledged as the source of the quotation "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." But I agree with the unnamed author of this 2011 blog post that plagiarism is neither imitation nor flattery:

The reason I am against this notion of plagiarism as flattery is that it is used as a reason to discourage the aggrieved author from taking action or being less stern with the action they take. While it is one thing to try to provide comfort to someone who is upset, I routinely read on forums that the victim should just “drop it” as they should feel “flattered” by the use and “let it go”.

Strangely, this is one of only a few situations where we tell the victims of an act that they should feel flattered. We don’t tell people who had their car stolen to be grateful the thief thought they had a nice car or someone who was mugged that they looked like a wealthy person. ... Plagiarists aren’t misguided critics or failed creators who are giving tacit approval of a work as they plagiarize. The victims of plagiarism are chosen the same way as any other victims are chosen.

Kudos to Dr. Laine for publishing Dr. Dansinger's broadside against plagiarists everywhere, and putting intellectual thieves on notice that they can and will be called to account for their crimes.