HMS Professor Caught Plagiarizing

Harvard Medical School has launched an inquiry into allegations of plagiarism after a British medical journal retracted one of its professor’s articles this week.

Medical School professor Lee S. Simon’s review of treatments for rheumatoid arthritis was retracted on Tuesday from the biomedical journal “Best Practices & Research: Clinical Rheumatology” after the journal found similarities between his article and another author’s work.

The 2004 article reproduced several sections of text and portions of the reference list from a paper by Roy M. Fleischmann, according to a statement by Elsevier, the journal’s publisher. Fleischmann’s article was published in 2003 in “Expert Opinion on Drug Safety.”

The duplicated sections of Simon’s article were first discovered by eTBLAST, a text similarity search engine developed by Harold “Skip” R. Garner, Jr, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern.

In response to the allegations, the Medical School has formed a fact gathering ad-hoc committee concerning Simon’s case, according to spokesman David J. Cameron. After reviewing the two articles, the committee will then determine whether to proceed under the school’s policies for faculty misconduct.

“This entire situation is all very preliminary,” Cameron said. “Right now, this is not an investigation—it is a review.”

Fleischmann—whose work in rheumatology has brought him into contact with Simon in the past—was first notified of the duplication of his 2003 article in early December.

“I was in shock,” Fleischmann said. “I didn’t know whether it was true at the time.”

Fleischmann, a professor at University of Texas Southwestern, said he was surprised to see the extent of the duplication by Simon, whom he had always viewed as a “well-respected rheumatologist.”

“This is truly an unethical breach,” Fleischmann said. “As the author who was violated, all I can ask for is a retraction.”

Fleischmann added that Simon has yet to contact him or apologize since the allegations surfaced.

To prevent future instances of plagiarism, Elsevier will require all of its editors to join the Committee on Publication Ethics, a forum that advises editors on issues of integrity. The initiative will be formally announced next week, according to the publisher’s director of relations Shira D. Tabachnikoff.

After detecting nearly 7,000 instances of unverified duplications in medical articles in the five years since he created the program, Garner said he has come to realize eTBLAST’s value in uncovering possible cases of plagiarism.

“Overall 99 percent of medical literature is fantastic and in great shape,” said Garner. “However, it is important to find those occurrences that may be questionable.”

Simon did not return requests for comment.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.