Dear Plagiarist: Physician Confronts Reviewer Who Stole Study

Marcia Frellick

December 12, 2016

A former peer reviewer for the Annals of Internal Medicine has admitted to taking a paper rejected from that journal, changing the author names and title, and publishing it as his own in another journal.

Today, the true author of the study, Michael Dansinger, MD, from Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, published an open letter to the plagiarist in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

In it, he excoriates the reviewer, saying, "After serving as an external peer reviewer on our manuscript, you published that same manuscript in a different medical journal a few months later.... As you must certainly know, stealing is wrong. It is especially problematic in scientific research. The peer-review process depends on the ethical behavior of reviewers."

The reviewer, Carmine Finelli, MD, PhD, from the Stella Maris Mediterraneum Foundation, Chiaromonte, Potenza, Italy, does not dispute the facts, according to both Dr Dansinger, who exchanged emails with him, and Christine Laine, MD, MPH, Annals editor-in-chief, who wrote an editorial published online alongside Dr Dansinger's letter.

In fact, in the retraction notice, published in the EXCLI Journal, Dr Finelli admits to taking the data. "As corresponding author I ask for retraction of our article Finelli et al. (2016) with the consent of all co-authors, because of unauthorized reproduction of confidential content of another manuscript. The data in the retracted article actually are from a cohort of patients from the Boston, MA enrolled in a trial registered in, NCT02454127."

When asked to comment by Medscape Medical News, Dr Finelli acknowledged he received the questions but declined to answer them. The president of the foundation, Mario Marra, told Medscape Medical News that Dr Finelli had received a stern rebuke for his actions.

How the Author Caught the Plagiarism

Neither Dr Dansinger nor Dr Laine refer to Dr Finelli by name in their letters. Dr Dansinger told Medscape Medical News his objective is "not to tattle, but to raise awareness of a growing problem." Dr Laine made a similar comment to Medscape Medical News when asked about publishing the letters.

Dr Dansinger said he had submitted the original paper to the Annals about a year ago, and it was rejected. Then, 3 months ago, he was updating his resume and did a literature search for papers he authored and quickly saw that the paper that had been rejected by the Annals had been published in EXCLI Journal, based in Dortmund, Germany, but with his name removed and other names inserted. The institution name and the title of the paper were also changed.

"Otherwise, they left it almost entirely intact," he said.

He said he was horrified and enraged and started putting the pieces together. He contacted the Annals. After investigating, editors there confirmed his suspicions.

He then emailed a letter to Dr Finelli very similar to the one published in the Annals today and detailed the 4000 hours of work by his team over the course of 5 years that went into the findings.

"He responded with acknowledgment that he had stolen the article," Dr Dansinger said. "He took responsibility. There was no good explanation for it. He didn't offer anything beyond retracting the paper."

Editor Calculates the Damage

When Dr Laine heard from another editor about what Dr Dansinger suspected, she said her first thought, after an expletive, was, "I hope he's not right.... Unfortunately, he was."

In her editorial, Dr Laine adds up the damage done to the original research team, the blow to trust in scientific research, and the potential for other researchers or clinicians to use results from a made-up cohort in their decision-making. Dr Dansinger's cohort was in Boston, but Dr Finelli and colleagues falsely said the cohort was from southern Italy.

Dr Laine has questions about whether the coauthors are real, and if they are, did they know their names would be used with this research? If they did know, how could they allow their names to be attached to research they had no knowledge of?

She said she had received a response from a director at Dr Finelli's institution saying he was aware of the findings and he was sorry this had happened. However, there was no indication disciplinary measures had been taken.

If the situation were reversed, Dr Dansinger said, he would expect to lose his job and academic credentials, perhaps his medical license, and his career as a scientist.

However, "In some academic communities, it's not considered as serious as it is here in the United States," he said.

Dr Laine said by publishing both letters, the Annals hopes to remind reviewers that they are required to keep the material confidential and not use it for their own purposes.

She said to her knowledge, this is a first at Annals.

"I'm mortified that this was one of our reviewers, and we take this seriously," she said.

Rare Occurrence

Art Caplan, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center in New York City, put the case in perspective: "This is far out in the extreme, but it's every researcher's nightmare."

"People do worry when they send things into journals that a peer may swipe, if not the whole paper, at least some of the ideas," he said.

He said he did not think the level of plagiarism demonstrated in this case could get by an editing staff at a more prominent journal. And with journals being online now, this kind of behavior is fairly easy to track.

But this case spotlights some of the problems with peer review, he said. There is no training for being a reviewer, and they are getting harder to find because increasingly busy people are refusing to serve as a reviewer.

He said there should be more transparency in peer reviews so that the reviews appear as part of a package with the registered trial results. After about a year, the names of the reviewers could be disclosed to add accountability, he said.

"Having this amateur business try to regulate what has become high-stakes big business — we have to rethink peer review. I'm not talking about this one bizarre incident. But it's the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Dr Dansinger said he hopes to eventually publish his original research, titled "One-Year Effectiveness of the Atkins, Zone, Weight Watchers, and Ornish Diets for Increasing Large High-Density Lipoprotein Particle Levels: A Secondary Analysis of a Randomized Trial," in another journal.

In the meantime, he wants other researchers to be aware that this can occur. He added that there were some red flags in wording and references to previous research that might have led editors at the publishing journal to detect the fraud.

"It's so easy to email a paper across the ocean to a place that may or may not have as rigorous standards," he said.

As for the decision to use Dr Finelli as a reviewer, he does not fault the Annals. "He had published about 50 papers before this, and there was no reason to suspect. I can see why he seemed to be the perfect person to do the peer review."

Dr Dansinger and Dr Laine have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr Caplan is a regular contributor and adviser to Medscape and has no relevant financial relationships.

Ann Intern Med. Published online December 12, 2016.

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