Concussion Researcher Paul McCrory Earns Nine More Retractions, Nearly 40 Expressions of Concern

Ellie Kincaid

October 11, 2022

A prominent sports medicine researcher who earlier this year had an editorial from his time as the top editor of the British Journal of Sports Medicine retracted for plagiarism has lost nine more articles for stealing and recycling text and misrepresenting a reference. 

The British Journal of Sports Medicine has also placed expressions of concern on all other articles on which Paul McCrory, who was the journal's editor-in-chief from 2001-2008, is the sole author, totalling 38 articles, according to a press release from the journal. (We count 78 single author papers for McCrory in BJSM.)

McCrory is a widely cited expert on concussions, and has worked with major sporting agencies and leagues as a consultant.

The retractions and expressions of concern follow documentation of plagiarism and text-recycling in McCrory's work by data sleuth Nick Brown, a familiar name for readers of Retraction Watch, and McCrory apologizing for "errors" and telling us he was rechecking a series of articles he wrote for BJSM

In an editorial announcing the retractions and expressions of concern, research integrity staffers and the editors-in-chief of BJSM and the BMJ, which publishes the sports medicine journal, wrote that the publisher had investigated nine articles by McCrory about which it had received allegations and decided to retract five for plagiarism, three for duplicate publication, and one for distorting a source that he cited. The retracted articles have been cited more than 100 times total, according to Clarivate's Web of Science. 

The retraction notices specifically identify plagiarism and "duplicate (or redundant) publication" as the reasons for retraction, and credit Brown. They cite the original work and include these two paragraphs: 

We would like to acknowledge the preliminary work of Nick Brown in investigating publications by Dr Paul McCrory and thank him for bringing these concerns to our attention.

During 2021 and 2022 there was an investigation by  British Journal of Sports Medicine  and BMJ which found that some of McCrory's work was the product of publication misconduct.  British Journal of Sports Medicine  published a summary of the investigation.

The editors further wrote that they would investigate new allegations, but were putting an expressions of concern on the rest of McCrory's single author publications in the meantime:  

Since our investigation has revealed a pattern of publication misconduct on the part of McCrory, we have decided to place a notice to readers, an expression of concern, on all articles published in the BJSM of which McCrory is identified as the single author. If and in so far as there are new allegations against McCrory arising out of his publications in the BJSM or other BMJ journals, we will investigate them and take further action as appropriate. We have offered McCrory the opportunity to inform us of any other of his articles that may fall short of acceptable publishing standards, although he is yet to provide any additional information.

We asked the BMJ press office about the implication that the journal was waiting to receive more allegations to continue investigating McCrory's publications, and got this response on behalf of research integrity editor Helen Macdonald and BJSM editor-in-chief Jonathan Drezner: 

On the contrary, we are continuing to review McCrory's work. We have reached a stage in our investigation where we are clear that an expression of concern needs to be placed against the remainder of his single author non-research publications. We are working through these. We urge other publishers to conduct their own investigation. 

As we explain in the editorial, we have received no specific allegations about the research that McCrory has co-authored, and the primary responsibility here lies with his institution as with all potential cases of research misconduct. We will work with his institution. 

Our investigation into the latest version of the concussion consensus statement has not raised concerns about plagiarism by McCrory, and we will continue to work with the concussion statement committee. As anybody who has investigated research misconduct knows, investigating even one potential case of research misconduct consumes a large amount of resources, and there is no sufficiently reliable or efficient automated method to screen or investigate published content for multiple types of publication misconduct, such as plagiarism and redundant publication. We will continue to focus on any specific allegations and evidence that we do receive. This has been an ongoing investigation from the time we received the first allegation.

The first retraction for McCrory came at the end of February, after Steve Haake, the professor of sports engineering whose work McCrory plagiarized in his editorial, notified the journal of the problem, Haake wrote in a guest post for us. 

McCrory told Haake at the time that the wrong version of his editorial that didn't cite Haake's work was uploaded to the journal's website in "an isolated and unfortunate incident," but Brown quickly found two more of McCrory's articles contained  plagiarized text and wrote to the journal about them. 

In his only public comments on the plagiarism allegations to date, made to us in March, McCrory characterized the three instances that had come to light as "errors" and said they "were not deliberate or intentional but nevertheless require redress." He offered "my sincere and humble apologies," and said he had requested the retraction of two of the editorials and asked the journal whether the third needed to be corrected or retracted. 

Brown has since documented 17 more instances of plagiarism and text-recycling in McCrory's publications, including eight of the editorials BJSM retracted today.  

In March, McCrory left his position as chair of the Concussion in Sport Group, and the Australian Football League announced it would review McCrory's work consulting for the league, the Guardian Australia has reported

The BJSM press release stated that McCrory is currently associated with the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, but the email address on his faculty page no longer works. We reached out to the Florey's communications office to ask about McCrory's status and haven't heard back. 

The notice for McCrory's article that was retracted for misrepresenting a reference, "When to retire after concussion?," also acknowledged the scholars who reported the problem: 

This article contains inaccuracies which in our view undermine the reliability of the work.

BMJ investigated an inaccurate quotation in this article after a concern was raised to us in an editorial which has been published in  British Journal of Sports Medicine . We thank Stephen T Casper, Adam M Finkel for bringing this to our attention.

Dr McCrory purports to quote Thorndike when he writes that after experiencing "three concussions, which involved loss of consciousness for any period of time, the athlete should be removed from contact sports for the remainder of the season." This passage, which is written in direct quotation marks, is attributed to Thorndike's 1952 paper. BMJ's research integrity team and  British Journal of Sports Medicine  editor-in-chief have reviewed Thorndike's 1952 article. It does not contain the quotation which McCrory used.

Thorndike did write about management of concussion. However, he makes no reference to exclusion for the remainder of the season. Thorndike wrote: "Patients with cerebral concussion that has recurred more than three times or with more than momentary loss of consciousness at any one time should not be exposed to further body-contact trauma." Thorndike repeats his position again in his concluding remarks that: "Body-contact sports should not be permitted for any student athlete who has suffered removal of the spleen or a kidney, or who has suffered three cerebral concussions of moderate degree, or one concussion resulting in the diagnosis of laceration of the brain, or loss of an eye."

While reviewing the paper BMJ and  British Journal of Sports Medicine  also noted additional referencing errors in table one.

In view of the nature of the misquotation and based on the pattern of misconduct by McCrory that has recently been discovered we have retracted this article. During 2021 and 2022 there was an investigation by  British Journal of Sports Medicine  and BMJ which found that some of McCrory's work was the product of publication misconduct.  British Journal of Sports Medicine  published a summary of the investigation.

In an editorial, Casper and Finkel further note that since McCrory led the writing of four versions of consensus statements on concussion in sport: 

readers may question how McCrory's misquotation or the possible mindset it reveals on his part, especially when considered together with McCrory's plagiarism and the possibility of other misrepresentations, may have altered the interpretation of concussion science and thus shaped the content of consensus statements on concussion.

They continued: 

In light of his conduct in the 2001 editorial, is it not unreasonable to ask whether he might also have distorted the scientific record by unduly favouring papers which fit with his view of concussion and excluding work that did not?

If these concerns prove valid, it is important to consider how badly contaminated at least one corner of the sports medicine literature may have become. Plagiarism is an offence against a colleague who deserves attribution; it is theft. Concocting words that a scientist never wrote, in order to undermine his arguments and promote your own, is worse: it is an offence against science. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it is possible that such distortions have created victims beyond the academic fraternity and contributed to a false narrative regarding the interpretation of concussion research.

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