When the Editor is the Plagiarist

Last week, Retraction Watch published a guest post by Steve Haake, a professor of sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. In it, he tells the story of a retraction that was literally more than a decade in the making.

The retraction was of a letter written by Paul McCrory and published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) in 2005. However, according to Haake, he immediately recognized the first lines from the letter being from one that he published in Physics World in the year 2000.

All totaled, Haake discovered that McCrory had copied some 560 words of his, making up just over half of McCrory’s letter.

Haake said that he reported the incident to Physics World, but nothing came of it. So, he “put it in the ‘too hard’ pile” and tried to move on. Meanwhile, McCrory’s letter was racking up citations, including one from Haake’s own research lab.

The issue was made significantly more complicated by the fact that, at the time the letter was published, McCrory was not just a contributor to the journal, but an editor

However, after recently dealing with a self plagiarism issue as an editor, he decided to try and do something about the McCrory letter. To that end, he contacted the BJSM directly and, after about 8 months of back and forth, was finally able to secure a retraction of the letter citing a “significant overlap between the two articles that would constitute unlawful and indefensible breach of copyright.”

McCrory has not made any public comment on the plagiarism or the retraction. However, in a letter to Haake, he did describe the plagiarism as “an isolated and unfortunate incident” that was caused by uploading the wrong draft to the journal. 

But it appears that may not be the case either. In a follow-up article this week, Retraction Watch highlighted the work Nick Brown, who quickly found evidence of significant plagiarism in two of the other letters written by McCrory and published in the BJSM. Those cases involved between 80% and 90% of the pieces in question.

All totaled, McCrory has some 200 articles in the publication, and it is unclear how many of them have issues.

But this raises many questions. How was McCrory able to get away with such blatant plagiarism? Is there any effort to investigate his other work? How did one plagiarism slip under the radar, let alone more likely ones? What role, if any, did McCrory’s position play?

To those questions, there are no easy answers.

A Giant in the Field

Last week, we discussed a “Nightmare Scenario” that one researcher experienced where a paper she had submitted for publication was rejected but then picked up and published by another author in a different journal. 

This one may be an even greater nightmare.

In addition to being an editor at the BJSM for seven years, McCrory is one of the best-known names in the field. For the past several years, he has been a concussion advisor for the Australian Football League (AFL). There, he has become controversial for saying that concussion issues are often overblown

In short, McCrory is well-known both the academia and the broader public. This is especially true in his home country of Australia. Because of this, the retraction of his piece has become national news in Australia

That makes this case, and it’s handling, exceptionally important. Not only is McCrory a public figure, but he’s a crucial figure in a very important and rapidly-developing field. It is critical that we find out what happened. 

That means there is likely a lot of work ahead. 

What To Do Next

The next step is a full investigation of McCrory’s work. This can be done by the BMJ or someone who is neutral outside the system. Either way, his other publications need to be checked.

While one lone plagiarism might not warrant that under normal circumstances, with two more suspected cases already found and the importance of McCrory in this field, it’s more than warranted.

Second, there needs to be an effort to determine how the plagiarism slipped through in the first place. It could be as simple as the timing. iThenticate, the service most frequently used by journals, just launched in 2004. Crossref, which helps journals check work against other journals, would not begin until 2008.  This means that the technology may not have been available to the journal at the time of publication in 2005.

However, it could also be that McCrory was able to use his position as an editor to skip steps in the publication process. It’s possible that it wasn’t vetted as strenuously as other submissions because of his position.

The goal is to find out how it was missed and ensure that it is not the symptom of a larger blind spot. 

The British Medical Journal (BMJ), the publisher of BJSM, was one of the founding members of the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE), a non-profit group that helps draft guidelines for dealing with ethical violations in research. However, even the best publishers can have issues that need to be addressed.

This may well be one of those cases.

Bottom Line

Journal editors are supposed to be the first and best line of defense against ethical issues in scientific publishing. That’s why, when an editor not only fails to provide that defense but actively becomes the plagiarist, it hits so much harder.

At the very least, editors should be held to the same standards as those that submit their work for publication. All of their work should go through the same processes and challenges as any outside work. 

However, that’s not always the case. Whether that’s what happened here or not is unclear. But the case is a reminder that, even though journals may think of editors as trusted authors, they need the same care and attention as any other submitter.

Just because the paper is from an editor, does not guarantee that it is free from ethical issues.

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