Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Plagiarism: How Large a Problem?

Good question. Iain Chalmers discusses what should be done to researchers who plagiarize. He says Name 'Em and Shame 'Em. I say that's a good start. Here's what he says in the latest BMJ...

During a search for studies that might be eligible for inclusion in a systematic review of controlled trials of epidural analgesia in labour in the late 1980s, I identified a paper by Asim Kurjak and John Beazley published in Acta Medica Iugoslavica. Well over half of the text and some of the data in this paper were identical to material in an unacknowledged paper published three years earlier by other authors in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Commonwealth. In correspondence, I learnt that these authors had not been contacted by Professors Kurjak or Beazley.

Professors Kurjak and Beazley had both worked at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in London, but the paper purported to be a report of a clinical trial done in Croatia. I first wrote to the British author, Professor Beazley. In a letter sent to me on 25 February 1991 Professor Beazley expressed his surprise and dismay because he had never seen the paper bearing his name. He requested an explanation from Professor Kurjak, now professor of obstetrics at the University of Zagreb, who wrote to me on 26 February 1991 confirming that Professor Beazley had not been involved in the paper. Professor Kurjak's letter to me made no comment on his obviously plagiarised text.

In the report of our systematic review of epidural analgesia in labour, my coauthor and I stated that we had excluded the Kurjak and Beazley article "because it contained long passages of text, and some data, which were identical to material published three years previously in an unacknowledged article by different authors."

Because Professor Kurjak had failed to explain the plagiarism, I reported our findings to those whom I thought should investigate it. The editor in chief of Acta Medica Iugoslavica, Nikola Pers, writing from the Croatian Academy, concluded his letter to me:

As a colleague and psychiatrist I believe that the stated problem should be solved in the way which would not harm (the) professional and scientific reputation and respect which Prof. Kurjak has earned in 16 years since the problem paper has been published. (10 June 1991).

I wrote to Stojan Kneceviz, Professor Persic's successor as editor of Acta Medica Iugoslavica (now renamed Acta Medica Croatica), requesting a copy of any notice placed in the journal to draw attention to the plagiarism, but I have never received any response to my request.

Four years ago it was discovered5 that Professor Kurjak had plagiarised material from a Norwegian PhD thesis6 and published it as a book chapter coauthored with a Croatian colleague.7 A copy of the thesis had been given to Professor Kurjak two years previously by its author (H-G Blaas, personal communication). After the publishers of the book had been informed of the plagiarism, they stopped distribution of the book and republished it without Professor Kurjak's chapter. Professor Kurjak and his coauthor did not deny the accusations of plagiarism but tried to play down their "errors of judgment" (H-G Blaas, personal communication).

The plagiarised Norwegian author and his PhD supervisor (Blaas and Eik-Nes) informed the executive committee of the International Society for Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology, which decided that Professor Kurjak and his coauthor would be "ineligible for membership of the Society and associated benefits for a further three years" (Karel Marsál, personal communication). The Norwegian investigators also reported Kurjak's plagiarism to the then dean of the medical school at the University of Zagreb, Boris Labar, in March 2002 but they have not so far received any response.

The example of Professor Kurjak's plagiarism that I identified occurred more than a quarter of a century ago. Thanks to an astute referee of an earlier draft of this article, the plagiarism turns out to have been even more blatant than I had thought. In his comments, the referee, Jim Neilson observed:

The 1974 Acta Med Iug paper...is clearly an amalgam of two papers—one of which is, as pointed out by Iain Chalmers, the 1971 paper by Noble et al in J Obstet Gynaecol Br Cwlth 78: 559-63. I have done a little detective work and the maternal acid-base work has been lifted from Pearson and Davies, J Obstet Gynaecol Br Cwlth 1973;80: 218-24.[ISI][Medline] As with the Noble paper, large parts of the text have been used verbatim, with little modification, and with no acknowledgement of the Pearson and Davies paper...The figures in the tables have been modified slightly from both original papers, in the Kurjak and Beazley paper—so this is not only plagiarism, it is also scientific fraud."

Link to the full text of Chalmers’ investigation here.

It would be nice to see more serious discipline on the part of universities. If your faculty are repeatedly plagiarizing or engaging in other forms of gross scientific misconduct, you should FIRE the offending parties. An accidental swiping of a sentence here or there -- oops, a little mistake. But cases like the above call for much harsher discipline. Of course, if someone is bringing in the grant money, what university will have the intestinal fortitude to give a corrupt researcher the boot?

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