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The World Journal of Surgery retracted an article for plagiarism and discovered that it was written not by the authors, but by a professional medical writer, reports  journalist Adam Marcus on the blog Retraction Watch.

Marcus sharpens his sardonic attack by pointing out an earlier study by a medical communications group, which argued that hiring medical writers is the best insurance against an article retraction.

The Retraction Watch piece reads much like “Man bites dog,” “Line editor can’t spell,” or “Angry patrons shush loud librarians.” Its humor is clearly derived at the expense of mocking others.

A good joke always has an element of truth or plausibility behind it, which is partly what makes it funny. Some of our most popular April Fool’s headlines, such as Librarian Caught in Bed with Book or Mergers Create Über Publisher contained elements close enough for the reader to suspend belief. At the same time, they poke fun at underlying fears — that commercial publishers will become even more powerful, or that librarians are embarrassed to align themselves with traditional media — to evoke a sardonic smile.

Others poke fun at serious organizations or individuals, like putting CrossRef’s Geoff Bilder on the body of a runway model (CrossDress: A New Fashion-Forward Service Where Social Media Meets Glamor). Here, humor is derived by taking swipes at authority.

Plagiarism itself is not a funny topic, but it can be crafted into hysterics when used to attack someone in power. The former German defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, was accused recently of plagiarizing large sections of his 2006 doctoral dissertation, an accusation that earned him several nicknames by the German press, including “Baron Cut-and-Paste,” “Zu Copyberg” and “Zu Googleberg” according to the BBC News.

These stories of Schadenfreude are funny if they are used to discredit an unpopular individual, but they start becoming dead serious when they describe a systemic problem in German society.

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Aisha Labi describes that German reverence for scholars in leadership positions outside of the universities — in politics and business — may be partly responsible for the rash of plagiarism allegations against German politicians. According to Nature, nearly 20% of German members of parliament hold PhDs.

But the problem may run even deeper. The culture that allowed Guttenberg to get away with such an egregious violation may reflect serious flaws in the German higher-education system, which allows higher status individuals to claim intellectual authority over those below them, Labi writes.

In Germany the professors let their doctoral students write for them and then publish under their own name. Doctoral students then steal from the bachelor’s and master’s students under them. We end up having plagiarism all the way down.

Still laughing?

The cultural conditions that reward and promote non-academics for their academic achievements are not limited to Germany, and these incentives may create a climate for academic dishonesty, like plagiarism, to flourish. In 2009, Nature uncovered numerous instances of plagiarism by senior officials and ministers in Iran, covered here and here in two separate news stories.

The type of narrative found in the stories posted on Retraction Watch evoke mockery precisely because the stories focus on the incompetence of individuals and ignore the cultural context. For scientific authors who are not native speakers of English, hiring a professional writer or editor may be necessary for a shot at publication in an international journal, and this practice is now encouraged by journal editors prior to submission. Unfortunately, the authors of the article retracted from the World Journal of Surgery chose poorly.

The public humiliation that comes from a retraction acts as a social stigma to prevent others from similar academic dishonesty and Retraction Watch serves, in part, to amplify that warning. No one wishes to be made into a laughingstock. On the other hand, by focusing on the retraction and and ignoring its broader context, Retraction Watch is not as the authors purport, a “window into the scientific process.” It is more of a comedic string of one-liners.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


4 Thoughts on "Medical Writer Caught Plagiarising — and Other Man Bites Dog Stories"

The question is if plagiarism has been part and parcel of communicating knowledge ever since humans began to research and write centuries ago, and we have stricter standards and are better at uncovering this plague today, or people actually plagiarize more today in relation to earlier times?

Thanks for picking up our post. We’ve been avid readers of Scholarly Kitchen, which has a prominent place in our RSS reader. We always appreciate feedback, particularly as one of us has experience working at a peer-reviewed journal, and we’re happy to acknowledge that irony is not always easy to pull off.

We do have to take respectful issue, however, with the idea that Retraction Watch ignores context. First, if the suggestion is that we ignored the “cultural context” here of the authors’ likely lack of fluency in English, we refer you to our last paragraph:

At the risk of mounting too high a horse, let’s just say that plagiarism is bad, but plagiarists who trade on — we’re assuming here — a researcher’s relative lack of fluency in a language — English, in this case — to avoid detection deserve particular scorn.

But we imagine that you’re suggesting a more significant lack of context on Retraction Watch, because you refer to a plural “stories” on our blog, and to it being “more of a comedic string of one-liners.” Just as no one article makes a journal’s reputation, nor its context, no one article on our blog can accomplish that. For that reason, we routinely include content and context about how scholarly publishing works, how accusations or fraud are handled and retracted, and how researchers and journal editors actively involved in publishing handle those situations. Some examples include:

Those are just several posts among nearly 200 to date. We look forward to a continued dialogue with Scholarly Kitchen about the context in which we present specific cases.

Adam Marcus
Ivan Oransky
Retraction Watch

Hi Ivan and Adam,

The Scholarly Kitchen is a bunch of individuals, not a single voice. I’m personally an avid reader of Retraction Watch. I think your journalistic restraint is to be commended — often, you’re reporting, and leaving the interpretation to others, which is something I think we could use more of nowadays. With an active commentary string on most of your articles, the contextualization follows pretty naturally anyhow. And, as you note, you often bring in interesting aspects of contextualized thinking and perspectives.

Keep up the good work!

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