T

he New England Journal of Medicine is again refusing to retract an article co-authored by one of the country’s leading health policy scholars even after the researcher resigned his position this week following a misconduct finding last month.

As STAT and Retraction Watch reported Thursday, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch resigned from his faculty position at Dartmouth following an internal investigation, which found that Welch had plagiarized material from a Dartmouth colleague and a researcher at another institution for a 2016 paper published in the venerable journal. The paper was an analysis of how breast cancer screening led to the overdiagnosis of tumors and unnecessary treatments. Welch disputes Dartmouth’s conclusions.

The journal’s continued refusal to retract isn’t sitting well with the aggrieved researchers. Samir Soneji, of Dartmouth, and his co-author Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez said Friday that they “are disappointed at the Journal’s decision to not retract the plagiarizing article,” and “the Journal is violating accepted practices of scientific research and eroding the scientific process.”

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“We believe the failure of the New England Journal of Medicine to retract creates a dangerous precedent whereby plagiarism is allowed in the most prestigious journals,” the researchers wrote in an email. “We hope the Journal will adhere to the highest ethical principles and retract the plagiarizing article.”

NEJM has said the case is an authorship dispute, and left it to Soneji and Welch to work out their differences. As a result, Soneji last month asked the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a membership organization for publishers and journals, to weigh in on the case. COPE’s guidelines say that journals should consider retraction if there is “clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)” or that the paper “constitutes plagiarism.”

Dr. H. Gilbert Welch
Dr. H. Gilbert Welch The Dartmouth Institute

In a letter to NEJM obtained by STAT and Retraction Watch, COPE’s facilitation and integrity officer, Iratxe Puebla, wrote, “Given that the investigation at Dartmouth College concluded that the author had plagiarized a portion of this work, the circumstances fall within one of the situations outlined above and thus it appears that a retraction should be considered.”

Puebla went on: “Insofar as an institutional inquiry issued a finding of plagiarism against one of its faculty members, we would appreciate your comments on why this would not be grounds for the retraction of this publication.”

The journal said again Thursday that it has no plans to retract the paper. “The communication from COPE does not change our decision, and our view matches that of the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which determined that the case represents an authorship dispute,” NEJM spokesperson Jennifer Zeis told STAT and Retraction Watch. In a letter to COPE dated Friday, NEJM Editor-in-Chief Dr. Jeffrey Drazen reiterated the same points.

Dartmouth, however, does not seem to see ambiguity in the issue. In a letter Welch sent by email announcing his resignation, he said the institution demanded that he request adding Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, as authors to the already-published paper — and that he stepped down rather than comply.

“I cannot in good conscience accept the demand that I make the complainant an author — much less the demand that I make him the first author,” Welch wrote. “Doing so requires that I falsely attest that he meets the requirements of authorship: namely, that he materially participated in the work and is able to defend it. Much as I have enjoyed working at Dartmouth, I am not willing to falsely attest to anything simply to stay here.”

Even if Welch had agreed to save his job and add the other names, NEJM would need more to act. Zeis said Thursday that such a request “must come from all of the authors,” citing an International Committee of Medical Journal Editors policy.

Welch did not respond to a request for comment.

The Dartmouth investigation said that the paper’s other authors were not involved in any alleged wrongdoing. The paper’s last author, Dr. Barry Kramer of the National Cancer Institute, referred STAT and Retraction Watch to Dartmouth for comment.

This story is a collaboration between STAT and Retraction Watch.

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  • More detail in this discussion would be helpful. What was plagiarized? Some people wrongly think that referring to a previous publication or citing a reference is plagiarism rather than properly crediting a reference.

  • I think NEJM’S point is likely that the research appears to be solid, so why retract the paper? Retractions are to remove bogus research results, not punish the world (by expunging the science) because an author stole someone else’s work, in their view (I’m hypothesizing).

    They’re forgetting that the _real_ authors of the stolen work could publish their work, when it is ready. Similarly, the plagiarizing authors could resubmit their paper without the plagiarized material, if there’s anything substantive to publish.

    However, to leave the paper out there without any additional attributions or editorial comment on the history of the controversy, the findings of Dartmouth College, and so forth, seems very unseemly, as if they were supporting a cover-up … or just not living in the same ethical universe as do the rest of us.

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