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In September the copycat paper was retracted, and corresponding author of the paper Carmine Finelli wrote that he and his coauthors acknowledged the “unauthorized reproduction of confidential content of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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  • This happened to me several times in the 90s. When I tried to obtain repair I was hunted down like a wild animal until complete breakdown. I just had to quit the field, my lab and my instrument. The guys who did it are thriving.

  • I never stop trying to obtain right a wrong. My Ph.D. advisor asked me to write up a manuscript based upon my original dissertation so that we could submit it to JBC for publication. I submitted the manuscript to my advisor for editorial comment, named him my gratuitous co-author….and he proceeded to submit and publish the paper with JBC after removing my name from the byline and removing all reference to my dissertation in the bibliography. JBC was alerted to the wrongs committed. JBC was sent a copy of my dissertation, a copy of my registered copyright and a copy of the manuscript that I wrote. Clear evidence that the advisor took full credit for six years of research that he did not do. He was not a co-author of my dissertation, nor was he a co-owner of my copyright. JBC and their publisher recently sent me a letter from their attorney expressing that any further communication from me asking them to address and investigate this egregious act of the publication of my original work without proper citation to my dissertation and without authorship credit being reinstated, would be considered harassment. So much for journals claiming to care about enforcing integrity in the published literature. I know of no other organization that will take on the oversight of journals that refuse to adhere to their own published integrity policies. The paper remains accessible on pub med and continues to be cited to authors that did not conceive or or execute the work described. This was a travesty and tremendous obstacle to my career as it began after I successfully completed my Ph.D. as I was blocked from publishing my own work under my own name while others took all the credit.

  • My articles are so outlandish that peer reviewers do not discover their value and are rejected. However many of them have been published after tens or hundreds of submissions of identical papers to different journals. A case in point is my article ‘The cognitive capacity of the human brain: Evolutionary evidence of eternal barriers’ . It took about a hundred submissions of this article until one was successful, and nobody has as yet contested this theory of mine.

  • Happened to me once—but it was the editor who ripped off my work, later having one of his students publish it. Complaints to the journal involved were just passed on the editor. I ended up leaving that field of research, since all the journals in the small field were dominated by the same research group. There has been almost no progress in that field for 20 years now, as all the competent people left it for fields with more ethics.

  • There’s an incident of this type in Kingsley Amis’s 1954 first novel Lucky Jim, in which a struggling young academic has his paper on medieval shipbuilding, critical to his chances of staying on at a red-brick university, ripped off by a reviewer for publication in another journal of which the latter was editor. (I was introduced to this work in an undergraduate course on the modern novel; the professor intended it as a break from some of the other, much heavier, reading. At the time I thought it enormously funny; however, over my years as a professor I came to realize that Amis’s portrait of academia wasn’t far off the mark.)

  • I would love to read Carmine Finelli’s peer review report of the paper that was submitted to and rejected by the Annals of Internal Medicine, which Finelli later claimed as his own. . . . .

  • Kind of a feeling that the excoriation did go through and made news just because the victim was an exemplary US American man of integrity.
    As it usually goes the other way around, with good ol’ Americans getting “inspired” by little known researchers from all over the world.
    But I guess, Italian mafiosi supersede that by definition

  • It would be interesting to discuss preprints (e.g. biorxiv.org) in this context:

    – if the manuscript were on a preprint, the claim of the original author would be officially dated and public;

    – when people are afraid of scooping when submitting to preprint servers, they should remember this very real possibility of copying in peer-review, much harder to catch and to prove.

  • A review of Carmine Finelli’s credentials and body of work would no doubt reveal additional fraud. It is hard to believe that something so egregious would be an isolated event.

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