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When Peer Reviewers Steal

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Mar 3, 2017 3:58:47 PM

whenpeerr.pngBack in December, Retraction Watch told the story of Michael Dansiger, a researcher at the Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

Dansiger submitted a paper to the Annals of Internal Medicine, which rejected it for publication. While even good research can be rejected, the story took an unexpected twist when the paper was republished in EXCLI Journal with different authors, and one of the peer reviewers who originally rejected was listed as an author.
The plagiarism resulted in the published article quickly being retracted at the request of the corresponding author. It also prompted a deeply personal response from Dansiger himself, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and an editorial note entitled “Scientific Misconduct Hurts” from the editor-in-chief of the journal.

Without a doubt, this is the one of the most egregious breaches of trust that’s possible in scientific research. Peer reviewers are meant to be the guardians against research misconduct but, in this case, the reviewer abused their position to perpetrate it and in the most heinous way.

As Dansiger pointed out in his response, the reviewer didn’t just steal his paper, but a project that took five years to complete and required the work of multiple researchers. As explained in the editor’s note, the plagiarism was complete with data, charts, graphs and near-verbatim text being used. It also required fabrication of data since Dansiger’s research used patients from the United States but the plagiarized paper claimed they were from South Italy.

Fortunately, this type of plagiarism is exceedingly rare. While it has happened before, it’s far from a common occurrence. In terms of frequency, it’s far less common than predatory journals or duplicative publication.

Still, the fact it happens at all is disconcerting. This is made worse by the fact that the Annals of Internal Medicine has declined to name the peer reviewer involved. However, Dansiger and Stat News has identified the researcher as Carmine Finelli, who was both lead author and corresponding author on the plagiarized paper.

Regardless of what is known now, the reluctance to name the reviewer involved can only embolden others who may attempt a similar scheme. Though Dansiger’s desire to not “tattle” on the perpetrator may be coming from a noble intent, it not only risks the other authors taking the blame but allows the reviewer to continue working for other publications, and possibly committing other ethical violations, with editors and and researchers unaware.

When egregious crimes against research ethics are committed, there is an ethical and practical imperative for them to be pointed out. As long as the worst violators are unknown, they can continue working and that opens up the possibility of further infractions and further challenges for research.

In the end, scientific research is built as much upon the trust the public has in the process as it is the hard work of the researchers that carry out the studies. Stories such as this one greatly erode that public trust and undermine the entire process through which research is carried out and verified.

While we can’t stop unethical people from participating in academic research, the system should be designed to spot them and weed them out as quickly as possible. Hopefully this case will serve as a reminder of that importance and, in the long run, help journals and academic institutions draft policies that can deal with the most egregious offenders.

Because, while they may be rare, the damage such egregious offenders can do to trust in the process is beyond measure. Something that Finelli likely didn’t consider before submitting the paper.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.