New England Journal of Medicine Caught Up in Plagiarism Accusation Scandal

August peer-reviewed publication ignores demands that article be retracted.

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) describes the recent brouhaha over a paper it published a dispute that the author H. Gilbert Welch, MD, and the two researchers who claim Welch plagiarized them must settle on their own.

The researchers who claim Welch plagiarized them—Samir Soneji, PhD, of Dartmouth, and his co-author Hiram Beltrán Sánchez, of Harvard—wants NJEM to retract the article. Welch also works at Dartmouth, or at least he did until he resigned last week after Dartmouth slapped him for misconduct after an internal investigation found that Welch had plagiarized, as STAT reports. Welch disputes Dartmouth’s findings.

The paper in question examines how breast cancer screening leads to the over-diagnosis of tumors and unnecessary treatments. Soneji and Sánchez wrote in an email last Friday that “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. We hope the Journal will adhere to the highest ethical principles and retract the plagiarizing article.”

A ruling by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an organization of publishers of journals, sided with Soneji and Sánchez. As STAT reports, COPE’s facilitation and integrity officer, Iratxe Puebla, wrote that, “Given that the investigation at Dartmouth College concluded that the author had plagiarized a portion of this work … a retraction should be considered.”

NEJM has no plans to retract the paper. NEJM spokeswoman Jennifer Zeis told STAT and the blog Retraction Watch (which is also covering the story): “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.

Welch resigned rather than accede to Dartmouth’s demands that he list Soneji and Sánchez as co-authors. In an email announcing his resignation, Welch wrote: “I cannot in good conscience accept the demand that I make the complainant [Soneji] an author—much less the demand that I make him the first author. 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.”