I

t’s a researcher’s worst nightmare: Pour five years, and at least 4,000 hours, of sweat and tears into a study, only to have the work stolen from you — by someone who was entrusted to confidentially review the manuscript.

But unlike many sordid tales of academia, this one is being made public. Dr. Michael Dansinger, of Tufts Medical Center, has taken to print to excoriate a group of researchers in Italy who stole his data and published it as their own.

Writing in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine — which unwittingly facilitated the episode by farming the paper out for review and then rejecting it — Dansinger calls out the scientists who published their nearly identical version in the somewhat less prestigious EXCLI Journal.

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“As you must certainly know, stealing is wrong …” he writes. “Physicians and patients depend on the integrity of the [peer review] process. Such cases of theft, scientific fraud, and plagiarism cannot be tolerated because they are harmful and unethical.”

The offending individuals are with the Center of Obesity and Eating Disorders at Stella Maris Mediterraneum Foundation in Potenza, a hilly town in the ankle of Italy. Dansinger was tipped off to their duplication while searching the internet for papers bearing his name.

In September the copycat paper was retracted, and corresponding author of the paper Carmine Finelli wrote that he and his coauthors acknowledged the “unauthorized reproduction of confidential content of another manuscript.” “We deeply regret these circumstances and apologize to the scientific community,” the retraction letter read. Finelli told Retraction Watch that he “had the responsibility for the plagiarism.”

The bogus article claims, among other things, to include data from “160 consecutive subjects referred to our out-patient Metabolic Unit in South Italy.” That, in short, is a lie. In fact, those patients were from the United States — which is, of course, far from South Italy geographically, and, more importantly, medically.

As Dr. Christine Laine, editor in chief of the Annals, writes, fabricating a group of patients is a “particularly egregious act that could have resulted in clinicians (unknowingly) basing decisions about patient care on fraudulent data.” Laine tells STAT she left out the name of the responsible author because “readers can easily identify who the guilty party” was.

Perhaps. But given the long list of coauthors, failing to name the shamed here opens a door to unnecessary ambiguity, risking tarring underlings in Finelli’s lab with crimes in which they may have had no role. (Though, since all authors should attest to their role in a paper, every coauthor was at least partly complicit in this fraud.)

Dansinger says his goal in writing the letter was not to humiliate the thief, whom he identifies as Carmine Finelli, the first author of the offending article. “My aim is to raise awareness in the scientific/academic community and general public that it is possible for peer reviewers to steal an entire manuscript and publish it as their own in an unsuspecting academic journal,” Dansinger told STAT. “I’m not looking to ‘tattle’ on the perpetrator — doing so starts to look like revenge rather than achieving the more important objectives, and may even draw attention away from those objectives.”

Dansinger is far from the only scientist to be ripped off by unscrupulous reviewers, a particularly “heinous intellectual theft,” as the Annals puts it. Indeed, we’ve heard this story before from others. And, whether plagiarists are reviewers or readers, their victims share a sense of shock and disgust at discovering the con.

A more subtle, but in many ways more insidious, kind of theft, likely happens even more often. Many researchers can tell stories of being beaten to publication by competitors whom they are fairly sure reviewed their work and delayed it long enough to make sure their own study was published first.

But perhaps the most telling part of the letter is how, from the victim’s perspective, it’s not just the words that plagiarists take from them, but the associated years of work that the project represents. “When you published our work as your own,” Dansinger writes, “you were falsely claiming credit for all of this work and for the expertise gained by doing it.”

Dansinger says he is still working to get a paper out of the study, which would be some consolation. But if this open letter of his manages to deter a few cases of misconduct, it could be the most significant publication of his career.

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