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3rd Story

Cybersleuth sniffs out medical plagiarism

The age old adage of there being nothing new under the sun apparently applies to medical research. Using a new computer program, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have found about 9,000 "duplicate articles." Some reportedly borrowed greatly from the originals while others used large portions of the previous text and even graphs and data. This came as a shock to many of the journal editors who published the alleged plagiarized papers.

"There can be no doubt this is willful and deliberate plagiarism," said one anonymous editor, as quoted by the researchers in a March 5 National Post article. "Like the chance of monkeys typing out the works of Shakespeare, it would be incredible that the similarities could arise by chance."

The "Déjà Vu" project developed and employed a computer program called eTBLAST. It randomly searched Medline, a large online source of medical research, and came up with about 9,000 articles by different authors that were very similar.

After a manual screening process, the researchers, headed by Dr. Harold Garner and funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, sent out questionnaires to the authors and journals involved in 163 incidents of possible plagiarism. Of the researchers whose work had been plagiarized, more than 90 per cent said they were unaware, with responses ranging from concern to outrage, according to a March 5 Ars Technica website story.

Meanwhile, researchers said only 60 responses were received from the alleged plagiarizers and that what they had to say varied. Roughly a third confessed to using others' material and were regretful. Twenty-eight per cent emphatically denied their papers plagiarized previous work. In many cases, co-writers were involved and the respondents claimed they were not involved with the work at all (17 per cent) or were not involved in the writing process (22 per cent).

Of the journal editors who responded, half said investigations had been launched to look into the matter. The others indicated they were taking no official action.

"Believe me, the data in any paper is the responsibility of the authors and not the journal," one editor told the researchers. Garner said as well as being morally wrong, medical research plagiarism could have a serious effect on people's lives. Physicians routinely use medical databases and they could be reading plagiarized reports of studies that contain errors.

"It could lead people to being inappropriately influenced by papers that are questionable," Garner was quoted as saying in a March 6 Globe and Mail article.

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