Dartmouth Health Policy Expert’s Plagiarism Accusations Underline Risk of Data Fraud

Plagiarism

H. Gilbert Welch, a health care policy scholar at Dartmouth College, reportedly plagiarized part of the contents in a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine article. The article focused on breast cancer screening and the increased likelihood of tumors being overdiagnosed.

The Dartmouth Interim Provost David Kotz published a letter on June 14 saying the committee that investigated the allegations concluded that Welch “engaged in research misconduct, namely, plagiarism, by knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly appropriating the ideas, processes, results or words of Complainants without giving them appropriate credit…”

The letter was addressed to Samir Soneji, an associate professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. Soneji and colleague Hiram Beltran-Sanchez, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), made their allegations in 2016 that Welch appropriated their work.

Welch, on his part, told Retraction Watch that the NEJM article is a “natural progression of his work” and that “underlying data are publicly available—all the analyses, all the figures and all the writing in the article are my co-authors’ and mine.”

Dartmouth declined to say whether Welch had been sanctioned, although the institution’s research misconduct policy provides a range of potential disciplinary actions from a letter of reprimand to demotion or termination.

Although academic and biopharma industry instances of plagiarism and data fraud are not common, they are not unheard of, either.

For example, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI) made a final decision on Igor Dzhura, saying he had “engaged in research misconduct in research supported by U.S. Public Health Services (PHS) funds.” Dzhura, a former research associate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, had included fraudulent data in some of the papers he submitted in his application for employment at Novartis. He was subsequently fired from Novartis.

In 2015, the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation (SIRF) alleged that Insys Therapeutics had been misleading insurers to change documents to state that pain was cancer-related in order to prescribe Subsys, a painkiller based on fentanyl. The company responded that it had submitted quarterly reports to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) related to any “adverse events related to Subsys since INSYS launched this product in March of 2012.” The company was later sued by a number of entities, including the Arizona Attorney General, over paying physicians fake speaker fees in exchange for writing prescriptions of Subsys and misleading insurers.

In 2017, Acerta Pharmaceuticals was forced to retract claims of the therapeutic benefit of its drug acalabrutinib in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer it had published in three medical journals in 2015. Those claims were published in the NEJM. The claims were so impressive that AstraZeneca invested $4 billion in 2016 for a majority stake in the company. Acerta admitted that at least one of those studies, published in Cancer Research, contained fake data.

Also in 2017, a Pfizer employee’s publications came under question. Five papers published by Min-Jean Yin, who worked at Pfizer in La Jolla, California as a senior principal scientist from 2003 to about September 2016, came under scrutiny for problems with some of the images published in several papers in PLOS ONE, Cancer Letters, Clinical Cancer Research, and Molecular Cancer Research. Pfizer subsequently reviewed the researcher’s publication history and found two more papers that merited retraction. Ming-Jean Yin was fired from Pfizer.

In terms of the Dartmouth plagiarism allegations, Dartmouth forwarded its finding to the NEJM, which wrote back to the college saying it had concluded the issue was an “authorship dispute,” and was not “sufficient grounds” for retracting the article. The NEJM continued, saying, “We are happy to work with you and the article authors to reach a solution whereby sufficient acknowledgment is given so that the contribution of the complainant is adequately recognized.”

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