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Good Practices

Letter to a plagiarist

Daniel BuenoThe editors of the scientific journal Annals of Internal Medicine, published since 1927 by the American College of Physicians, were alerted in August 2016 that fraud was suspected in its peer review process. Physician Michael Dansinger had discovered that a manuscript that he and colleagues at Tufts University, in Massachusetts, had sent to the journal in 2015 had been plagiarized and entire excerpts reproduced in a paper that appeared in the February 2016 issue of the Excli Journal, a German periodical.  What was intriguing is that the article, which compared the effects of different kinds of diet on lipoproteins in blood, had never been published. This was because it had not met the quality standards of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Dansinger suspected that the person responsible for the plagiarism was someone who had been involved during the review—an evaluation done by one or more researchers as to the quality and originality of the content of submitted articles. The doctor was right. The editors of the U.S. publication found that one of the authors of the article in the Excli Journal had, in fact, reviewed the rejected article. The reviewer was contacted and admitted the misconduct. The plagiarized paper was retracted.

In the chronicle of cases of plagiarism in scientific journals the episode attracted attention because of the straightforward approach taken by the Annals of Internal Medicine. In an editorial published in the January 17, 2017 issue, editor Christine Laine made the case public, apologized to Dansinger, and reiterated the principles that govern the review process performed by serious journals, which is based on confidentiality and respect for intellectual property. “My colleagues and I find it deeply disturbing that someone whom we selected to review a manuscript entrusted to us would commit such heinous intellectual theft,” she wrote. Transparency was not complete, however, because Laine had refrained from naming the author of the plagiarism, letting suspicion fall on the eight Italian physicians who had signed the retracted paper. They were affiliated with a center and hospital in the city of Potenza. “The coauthors are also culpable,” she wrote. “They allowed their names to be used, apparently without contributing anything of value.”

The journal made space available in the same issue to include an open letter signed by Michael Dansinger. It reads: “Dear Plagiarist: a letter to a peer reviewer who stole and published our manuscript as his own… .It is hard to understand why you would risk so much. You have no doubt worked hard to become a physician and scientist. I know that you have published many research papers. It just doesn’t make sense,” Dansinger wrote. Specialized in diabetes and in risk factors for cardiovascular disease, he is often quoted in magazines and appears on television in the United States. Dansinger said in the letter that he had dedicated five years to the research that was plagiarized. “Furthermore, the work was funded by the U.S. government and my academic institution…. In all, this body of research represents at least 4000 hours of work. When you published our work as your own, you were falsely claiming credit for all of this work and for the expertise gained by doing it.” he wrote.