Despicable


I’m resorting to name-calling, and I don’t even know who I’m talking about.

Retraction Watch carries the story of a peer reviewer who published a paper he or she reviewed as his or her own. Stole the paper, in other words:

…after Michael Dansinger of Tufts Medical Center realized a paper he’d submitted to Annals of Internal Medicine that had been rejected was republished, and the journal recognized one of the reviewers among the list of co-authors, it published a letter from Dansinger to the reviewer, along with an editorial explaining what happened.

The journal published both an open letter from the (real) author and an editorial:

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.

Heinous is a good way to describe it. Retraction Watch covers the story well, so I won’t rehash it here, but I do have one thing to add.

I review a lot of papers, and predictably, most of them are relevant to my own research. Predictably, I say, because this is how peer review works: the editors of a journal intentionally send manuscripts to reviewers who do similar research, because these are, generally speaking, the people best qualified to judge the manuscript.

Human memory being fallible, this creates a potential problem: I could easily commit plagiarism unintentionally. Since the topics in the papers I review are often similar to the topics of my own writing, I could steal a phrase (or more) by misremembering it as my own. I know I have reconstructed memories incorrectly, for example in an argument over what had happened in a meeting: it turned out that my ‘memory’ of the meeting was entirely based on the account of the person I was arguing with! That’s right: I hadn’t been there, and I was arguing with the person who had. I had internalized the story, gotten it partly wrong, and converted it into a first-person memory. At least, that’s the way I remember it. Stephen Jay Gould gave a great example of this kind of thing in  “Muller Bros. Moving & Storage,” and I recounted another in “Relentless use of passive voice” (I still don’t know where that really came from; maybe it is my phrase and I’ve misremembered it as someone else’s!).

The Louie episode “Oh, Louie/Tickets” describes the kind of thing I worry about: hearing (or reading) something, forgetting the source, and eventually coming to believe that you came up with it yourself.

Something like that would be bad but understandable. I’m sure it happens, and I’m not sure it hasn’t happened to me. But, at least by the original author’s account, that’s not what happened here:

After serving as an external peer reviewer on our manuscript, you published that same manuscript in a different medical journal a few months later. You removed the names of the authors and the research site, replacing them with the names of your coauthors and your institution.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It’s despicable, and probably criminal.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m sure you know the Tom Lehrer song.
    “I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, who has a friend in Omsk…”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL4vWJbwmqM

    A few years ago I was searching for a paper I wrote (I didn’t have the original) and much to my surprise I found it on a university site in India; some computer science student had submitted my paper as his own. I contacted the dean at the university in question and was told “it happens all the time, fuhgettaboutit.” Uh, yeah.

  2. says

    Wow. In my own domain of pure maths, I’m pretty sure that nobody could get away with such a ridiculous theft, even for a moment. I hope. Stealing an idea, OK, that’s quite hard to prove, but a whole ready-to-publish paper? The real author would surely find out about it, and the small community of experts in the concerned topic would be able to tell the real author without any trouble.

    It helps though that we typically publish much fewer papers than other kinds of scientists, and most of them only have one or two authors.

    (I love Tom Lehrer’s song though.)

    • Matthew Herron says

      I don’t know if this is relevant for this case, but the rapid proliferation of predatory open-access journals makes me think this would be pretty easy in biology. Most of these journals aren’t indexed anywhere, and of course they’re almost never cited outside of their own pages, so a duplicated article could (I think) go undetected by its authors.

    • YsannePDE says

      I don’t know, does stochastic processes, martingales and ergodic theory still count as pure for you? Happened to my ex’s supervisor. He had his manuscript stuck in the review loop for a reputable journal for a year, and then the person who turned out to have been the reviewer “suddenly” had the exact same paper published in some semi-crap journal — that’s where you get away with this stuff.
      A bit more on the funny side is how this works in my neck of the woods — PDE regularity/existence: People there are regularly sent papers to review that are verbatim copies of their own ones, except for different authors — submitted to some other journal. And then find with Google scholar/translate that its exact translation has been published already in some Chinese-language journal, and this is just the authors getting carried away and trying to also publish the original under their own name. The infuriating bit is when you reply with “I refuse to review this blatant piece of plagiarism in detail: compare with paper XY” and then the journal still publishes the copy. There are a few journals specialised in doing exactly this, named really similarly to actually reputable ones.

    • KG says

      I love Lehrer’s song too, but it’s worth noting that it’s completely unfair to Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky! Lehrer has said he chose the name “solely for prosodic reasons”. Lobachevsky was a brilliant mathematician, the pioneer of hyperbolic geometry, and not a plagiarist (Gauss had some of the same ideas first, but never published them).

  3. DonDueed says

    The Boston Globe had a good article about this (behind a paywall so I won’t go hunting for the link unless someone asks). One rather ironic part of the story: the original paper was rejected after peer review and wasn’t published; only the plagiarized version was.

  4. says

    @YsannePDE: OK, I have seriously underestimated the sleaziness of the lowlife journals, probably because I avoid them like the plague and generally try not to think about them at all. Any journal that publishes a blatantly plagiarised paper the way you described should end up on all the black lists, and be sued into the dust. Yeah, I know, that’s hard to do when their legal seat is in Antartica 🙂

    (Just for the record, while PDE and ergodic theory are totally pure maths, I remember that in my student years stochastic processes and martingales were squarely in the applied part of the curriculum.)

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