If a plagiarist plagiarizes from an author who has plagiarized, do we call it a wash and go for a beer?

That scenario is precisely what Steven L. Shafer, MD, found himself facing recently. Dr. Shafer, editor-in-chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia (A&A), learned that authors of a 2008 case report in his publication had lifted two-and-a-half paragraphs of text from a 2004 paper published in the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia.
A contrite retraction letter, which appeared in the December 2010 issue of A&A, from the lead author, Sushma Bhatnagar, MD, of New Delhi, called the plagiarism “unintended” and apologized for the incident. Straightforward enough.

But then things got sticky. The December issue of A&A also retracted a 2010 manuscript by Turkish researchers who, according to Dr. Shafer, plagiarized from at least five other published papers—one of which happens to have been a 2008 article by Dr. Bhatnagar in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

“Dr. Bhatnagar’s paper in Anesthesia & Analgesia was retracted because it contained text taken from a paper by Dr. Munir,” Dr. Shafer said. “However, Dr. Bhatnagar’s paper in the Journal of Palliative Medicine is one of the source journals for the plagiarism by Dr. Memis. To give you an idea how widespread this is, we recently rejected a paper that copied large blocks of text from a paper by Dr. Memis”

Plagiarism’s No Joke
As farcical as the case of merry-go-round cheating might be at first blush, journal editors are far from amused by the episode and similar incidents. Dr. Shafer, for example, estimates that he spends up to one-third of his time dealing with lifted text or, less commonly, fraudulent presentations of data in manuscripts. He still devotes several hours each week to sorting out the aftermath of the Scott Reuben, MD, fiasco—a sweeping case of data fabrication that led to the retraction of 21 papers, 11 of which appeared in A&A. He expects the fallout to linger for years.

Dr. Shafer said his journal is now running every submitted manuscript through CrossCheck, a copy-checking system that allows editors and publishers to screen papers for signs of plagiarism. A&A, through its publisher Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, belongs to a consortium called CrossRef, one of whose goals is to prevent misuse of previously published material using CrossCheck, which screens manuscripts against a database of articles in order to detect possible plagiarism. 

Robert Creutz, general manager of iThenticate, which makes the software that powers CrossCheck, said the plagiarism catcher now has access to some 50,000 titles and 28 million published articles. “We can generally evaluate a manuscript in anywhere from 45 seconds to three minutes,” Mr. Creutz said.

Individual customers pay $1,000 per year for 500 pages of checking. Members of the CrossRef consortium have a different arrangement. They pay 75 cents per manuscript (under 25,000 words) but earned the discount by agreeing to provide iThenticate with access to thousands of papers upfront as seed for the database.

“I’m seeing a lot of journals overseas that are taking advantage of the technology,” Mr. Creutz said. The motivation appears to be competing with established journals and improving impact factor, he added.

Dr. Shafer said that since his journal began screening manuscripts routinely for signs of plagiarism, he has identified about a dozen papers with unacceptable amounts of verbatim text from other sources. That’s a rate of approximately one in 10 submissions to A&A, he said.

Authors for whom English is not their native language may inadvertently commit plagiarism, Dr. Shafer observed. “I am very sympathetic to the challenges faced by investigators struggling to write a scientific paper in an unfamiliar language. However, I have no choice but to retract papers that contain plagiarized text, even if it is only a single paragraph, and even if the intent was simply to express an idea in proper scientific English,” he said.

The U.K. journal Anaesthesia has been using CrossCheck to screen every manuscript it receives, according to Steven M. Yentis, MD, editor-in-chief of the publication. In a recent editorial, Dr. Yentis said his journal publication rejected 4% of submitted manuscripts in 2010 because the software turned up evidence of plagiarism.

For example, how common are retractions from the anesthesia literature? Dr. Yentis looked at this question last June, and came up with the following numbers: 26 from the eight leading titles in the specialty dating back to 1993. Of those, 16 (62%) involved papers on which Dr. Reuben was a co-author.

The tally does not include the retraction in the December issue of A&A of an article by German researcher Joachim Boldt, MD, PhD, and colleagues. It does, however, include a retraction in Anaesthesia—evidently the first yet by the title—of a paper on the safety of cardiac surgery without transfusions in Jehovah’s Witnesses.

According to the retraction notice, “the study did not have ethical approval as claimed. In addition, the article was written and submitted without the knowledge or consent” of three of the four authors, who agreed to the retraction. “It has not been possible,” the notice concludes, “to obtain a response from the corresponding author”—who, to add insult to the injury of forgery, evidently misspelled the surname of one of his unwitting collaborators.

Recently, an Internet forum for medical editors was buzzing with complaints about author misconduct.

“The kinds of crimes I have seen over the years are at best belief defying,” wrote Udo Schuklenk, PhD, professor of philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and co-editor-in-chief of the journals Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics. “My all-time favorite, by a long stretch, was the medical journal deputy editor who plagiarized a whole piece we had published in his medical journal (a paper on medical ethics, appreciate the irony of it all). We duly contacted his editor-in-chief as well as the journal’s editorial board. After extended umming and aahhing we were told that a correction (!) would be published, and that—given the deputy editor’s seniority, experience and professional standing—they had accepted the ‘honest mistake’ explanation of their plagiarizing medical ethics expert.

By the way, A&A retracted another article in the December issue, but it doesn’t involve plagiarism, at least not from someone else’s text. In this case, the authors republished a paper they had previously published in German.