The World Medical Association’s Plagiarism War

When your inauguration speech goes very, very wrong...

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When most people think of plagiarism, they think of high school or college students plagiarizing on their essays. At the upper end, they might think of a Ph.D. candidate plagiarizing their dissertation, as we’ve seen with several politicians, or a professional report being plagiarized by an organization.

However, what few think of is someone who has reached the very pinnacle of their field plagiarizing in something as mundane as a speech. 

However, that is exactly what happened with Dr. Leonid Eidelman, the new head of the World Medical Association (WMA). Shortly after giving his inaugural address to the organization, 

But, as bizarre as the plagiarism story is, it is having some significant real-world fallout. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has resigned from the WMA and the reputation of the WMA, an organization that deals heavily with medical ethics, has been tarnished.

So what exactly happened and what can be done to salvage the seemingly broken relationships and reputations? To answer that, we have to first start at the beginning.

The World Medical Organization Plagiarism Scandal

Canadian Medical Association

The World Medical Organization was established in 1947 and is an international confederation of some 113 (formerly 114) medical organizations (The American Medical Association is the representative from the United States). The organization aims to, among other things, improve communications between physicians and set standards for medical ethics. 

As part of their general assembly in Reykjavik earlier this month, the incoming president, Dr. Leonid Eidelman, gave his inaugural speech. However, during the talk, parts of the speech began to feel very familiar to Dr. Chris Simpson, a former head of the CMA, who recognized passages of the speech from his inaugural address when be became president of the CMA in August 2014

Upon investigation, Dr. Simpson and other Canadian attendees of the assembly discovered that Dr. Eidelman’s speech had also copied from other resources including “various websites, blogs and news articles.”

This prompted the CMA, under its current president, Dr. Gigi Osler, to file a motion calling for the resignation of Dr. Eidelman. That motion was denied. Following that denial, the CMA resigned from the WMA saying that, “CMA officials determined that they could no longer lend their support,” to the WMA.

For its part the WMA doesn’t deny the plagiarism and Dr. Eidelman even apologized for the plagiarism before the assembly.

According to the WMA, Dr. Eidelman wasn’t responsible for the plagiarism. He had used speechwriters to draft his talk and was completely unaware of the ethical issues contained within it. The WMA would add that most doctors at the assembly accepted his apology and explanation.

From the WMA’s perspective, this is closed matter though the CMA is holding firm. As of this writing, it is still resigned from the WMA and is said to be seeking other ways to engage with the international medical community.

This leaves us with something of an impasse, one that pits the Canadian medical community against the world. This leaves a simple question: Who’s right?

A Complicated Situation

To be clear, there’s no dispute about whether or not plagiarism took place. Everyone involved admits that Dr. Eidelman’s speech was a plagiarism. The dispute is over who is at fault.

The WMA believes that, since Dr. Eidelman used speechwriters and was unaware of the plagiarism, he can’t and shouldn’t be held responsible for the plagiarism. The CMA, and certainly Dr. Simpson, disagree saying that he should resign for the ethical infraction.

When it comes to speechwriters, there isn’t a great deal of consistency in how plagiarism is enforced. There are many situations where such an infraction would be relatively easily dismissed. 

For example, when a non-politician is asked to give a speech at a major event, it’s largely assumed they are reading remarks prepared by someone else and aren’t responsible for any plagiarism. The same holds true for celebrities such as sports figures and artists who don’t routinely give public speeches as part of their duties.

But there are times where we absolutely do take people to task for plagiarism by their speechwriters. Political figures, including recently Melania Trump, are routinely held responsible for plagiarism in their speeches, even if they didn’t write them.

So where does this leave Dr. Eidelman? Well, there are five factors to consider:

  1. He is Not a Routine Speaker: Despite being a lecturer for much of his career, Dr. Eidelman is not someone who is accustomed to giving this kind of speech and certainly not at this level. His use of speechwriters was not only wise, but likely required by the WMA.
  2. The WMA’s Mission: Medical ethics are core to the WMA’s stated mission. As such, the organization and its president should be held to the highest standards possible in all areas of ethics.
  3. The Nature of the Plagiarism: Dr. Eidelman’s speech didn’t just plagiarize from random sources online, but from the former president to one of its member organizations. Furthermore, the plagiarism wasn’t a case of poor paraphrasing or weak citation, but of verbatim copying without attribution.
  4. The Stature of the Event: Becoming president of the WMA represents reaching a pinnacle in the medical field. As the new president of one of the most prominent international medical organizations, the expectations upon Dr. Eidelman are much higher than they would be elsewhere.
  5. The Aftermath: Though Dr. Eidelman did not resign, it’s worth noting that he has not denied his speech contained plagiarized passages and apologized before the assembly. Though he’s trying to put the focus on the unnamed speechwriters, he’s also not denying the problem.

This leaves us in a strange place. One where Dr. Eidelman’s doesn’t seem like the answer but it doesn’t feel right to leave it alone. With so much at stake, there has to be a better answer than the ones that have been presented.

Finding a Solution

It’s easy to see both sides to this case. For the CMA, it was their former president who was plagiarized and they are being denied any kind of justice. It’s also to see the WMA’s perspective as, if it is true Dr. Eidelman used speechwriters, he was likely unaware that any of the text was copied.

Still, something clearly broke down. There is simply no way that this speech should have made it to the assembly floor and someone does need to be held responsible.

To that end, there are a few things that the WMA could do today to help greatly.

  1. Identify the Author: Currently we don’t know who drafted the plagiarized speech. The WMA or Dr. Eidelman needs to identify the author of the speech so that person has the opportunity to apologize and/or explain. This would also prevent others from unknowingly using them as speechwriters in the future.
  2. Create New Protocols: The WMA needs to focus on ensuring this never happens again. Set up and announce new protocols to check all speeches given before the general assembly for plagiarism and other ethical issues. If they aren’t already checked, this protocol can be expanded to any papers or reports being presented and distributed.
  3. Approach the CMA: The CMA, quite understandably, feels wronged here. Their former president’s speech was plagiarized and there’s been no repercussions for Dr. Eidelman and no policy changes from the WMA. Work with them directly to establish new policies and determine what actions they would feel acceptable to resolve this issue.

That leaves an important question: What happens to Dr. Eidelman?

To that end, there’s no easy answer. Should he have been more careful with his speech? Yes. But, did he plagiarize the works himself? No, at least not according to the information we’ve been given.

The infraction he’s guilty of is not checking his pre-written speech better. Yes, it’s a mistake but it’s also understandable that he would put his trust in a hired speechwriter.

Resignation seems, to me, to be an extreme response but I agree that, by not responding, the WMA is giving the impression that it tolerates plagiarism. That is simply intolerable for an organization that works in medical ethics.

To that end, something between resignation and doing nothing seems appropriate. This could be a suspension, a dock in pay (perhaps donated to a charity of the CMA’s choosing) or even just a formal reprimand.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t that the WMA hasn’t forced Dr. Eidelman out, but that they haven’t taken any action at all, either against Dr. Eidelman or the speechwriter.

In short, all involved are escaping any consequences for their actions and that, to me, is a bigger problem than arguments over what specific action is appropriate. 

Bottom Line

In the end, the WMA needs to take this issue seriously. Not only has a prominent member organization resigned, but their standing as a world leader on medical ethics is in jeopardy. After all, if they tolerate plagiarism in a speech by their president-elect, then their standing in other ethical areas is damaged severely.

To be clear, this doesn’t need to ruin Dr. Eidelman’s career or even end his upcoming presidency. There’s a need for balance with this case. 

However, balance isn’t apologizing for it then ignoring it. The WMA needs to take action to demonstrate that it doesn’t tolerate plagiarism and to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. To date, it hasn’t done either.

Unfortunately, the WMA doesn’t just ignore these issues to their own detriment, but to the detriment of the entire medical community. Their role in fostering international cooperation is crucial and losing faith in that could be a major setback for medicine.

Here’s hoping that this doesn’t lead down that path.

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