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After more than a year of deliberation the journal of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine is to withdraw a Korean paper at the centre of a dispute about authorship and plagiarism (BMJ 2007;334:717-20, 7 Apr doi: 10.1136/bmj.39168.517234.AD), solely on the grounds that it had been published previously in another journal.
In a statement issued last week the board of Fertility and Sterility made no reference to the allegations of perjury and plagiarism that had been made by its editor in chief in the LA Times two months earlier. On 18 February Alan DeCherney had told the newspaper, “I'm sure that it's plagiarism,” and said he would be recommending to his editorial board that all the listed authors be banned from publishing in Fertility and Sterility for three years (www.latimes.com, 18 Feb, “Credit for U.S. journal article at issue,” www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-research18feb18,0,6268481.story?coll=la-headlines-california).
In the event Fertility and Sterility has announced that only one of the authors will be banned.
The decision has infuriated Jeong Hwan Kim, a Korean doctor now working in Singapore, who wrote to Fertility and Sterility in March last year to alert the journal of his concerns relating to the paper “Quantification of mitochondrial DNA using real-time polymerase chain reaction in patients with premature ovarian failure” (Fertility and Sterility 2005;84:1712-8).
In an email sent to Dr DeCherney on 21 March, Dr Kim claimed not only that the paper had already been published in the Korean Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in January 2004 but also that he was the true author of the paper, and yet his name had been left off in the version published without his knowledge in Fertility and Sterility in December 2005.
Furthermore, he said, “This study was not performed by the group in the authorship and instead was copied from my doctorate dissertation without my consent.”
As reported in last month's BMJ article, the lead authorship was attributed to Kwang Yul Cha, a fertility specialist with important medical business interests in Korea and the United States. Dr Cha, as owner of CHA Health Systems, had been Dr Kim's employer when the doctor worked at CHA General Hospital in Seoul.
Dr Kim says that Fertility & Sterility's handling of the dispute has been slow and inconsistent. Initially, he was told by Dr DeCherney that the problem would be resolved at a meeting of the publications committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in April last year.
It was not resolved, and Dr Kim grew frustrated as the dispute dragged on. In July 2006 Dr DeCherney, even though he already knew he was dealing with a duplicate publication, appeared willing to fudge the issue of authorship. In an email he suggested, “One of the options would be for us to publish an erratum indicating that you should have been included among the authors of the article.” Dr Kim replied that he did “not want my name to be simply ‘slipped in' as if it had been an error. That is not fair nor justified.”
On 7 March 2007, after the statement in the LA Times, Dr Cha's US lawyers wrote to Dr DeCherney, demanding that he sign a statement withdrawing the allegations, acknowledging that Dr Cha was entitled to be credited as an author of the paper, and agreeing not to take action against any of the authors.
The next development was the statement issued last week by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine: “Based on the prior publication of the article, which is contrary to the standards of Fertility and Sterility and medical and scientific publishing, Fertility and Sterility has decided to retract the article and will publish that fact in an upcoming issue . . . This decision was based only on the issue of duplicate publication and does not reflect on the scientific validity of the paper.”
Only one of the authors, Sook-Hwan Lee, who was listed as corresponding author in both versions of the article, was to be banned from publishing in Fertility and Sterility for three years. The statement added that Dr Lee had “admitted responsibility for the duplicate publications of the article and states that none of the other persons listed as authors had knowledge that the article submitted to Fertility and Sterility had been previously published in KJOG [Korean Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology].”
The statement made no mention of Dr Kim or the issue of disputed authorship.
A simultaneous statement from CHA Health Systems welcomed the decision: “The board said its decision to retract the article was based only on the issue of duplicate publication. We were hopeful that the paper would not be retracted, but we are pleased that the board recognized its scientific merit. We have said from the beginning that [the other five authors] knew nothing of the paper's prior publication. We are gratified that the F&S [Fertility and Sterility] board reached the same conclusion.”
Dr Kim told the BMJ: “I feel cheated and powerless. The F&S statement doesn't even mention my name. Can an academic journal whose editor in chief denies his own words within months have credibility?”
Sean Tipton, director of public affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, denied that the journal's apparent U turn had been inspired by the threat of legal action from Dr Cha's lawyers. “Our decision was made based on the facts presented,” he said. “We did not make a decision based on possible reaction from anyone's legal advisers.”
Both sides declined to confirm whether or not Dr DeCherney had agreed to sign the statement of retraction demanded by Dr Cha's lawyers on 7 March.
Dr Kim now says he is preparing a detailed account of the episode for the consideration of the World Association of Medical Editors.
Because the CHA organisation is a growing force in stem cell research in the US and Korea, Dr Kim also plans to contact the US House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology.
A spokesman for the CHA organisation told the BMJ that it was Dr Cha who had “originated the idea for the project, and provided guidance and oversight for the collection of the patient samples for the research data upon which the F&S article was based. He is therefore fully entitled under the relevant rules to a credit as a first author.”