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A Croatian government committee that is investigating a senior academic and obstetrician has ruled unanimously that allegations of plagiarism in his published work are well founded.
In an opinion issued on 15 May the Committee for Ethics in Science and Higher Education declared that Asim Kurjak of Zagreb University Medical School was guilty of “violations of the [committee's] ethics code . . . and of common norms in biomedical publishing.”
The allegations were originally made in the BMJ by Iain Chalmers of the James Lind Library in Oxford (BMJ 2006;333:594-7 doi: 10.1136/bmj.38968.611296.F7).
The saga began in the late 1980s when Dr Chalmers was preparing a systematic review of epidural anaesthesia. He noticed that much of the text and data in a 1974 paper co-authored by Professor Kurjak were identical to those in a paper from a different group of authors published three years previously.
He reported his observations to the editor concerned and to Professor Kurjak's university. Both requested that the matter be handled discreetly.
In 2006 Dr Chalmers discovered that Professor Kurjak continued plagiarising. A report in 2002 showed that he had taken material from a Norwegian doctoral thesis and published it under his own name as a chapter in a book on fetal neurology.
The Zagreb University committee that investigated Professor Kurjak has only an advisory function. Its president, Vedran Katavic, is an assistant professor at the medical school. “Hopefully the school by itself will find the strength to decide what to do,” he says, “rather than just sweep it under the rug as they have done for a long time. If the school does not manage to do that by itself we hope the ministry (of science) will enforce some action.”
The Croatian Medical Journal has also become embroiled in the affair. Its insistence on appointing someone to oversee research integrity had already aroused local opposition. The journal found itself in disputes over integrity issues with what its co-editor Matko Marusic calls “influential members of the academic community” in Croatia.
Demands have been made for Dr Marusic and his co-editor (and wife) Ana Marusic to be sacked. More recently, Dr Marusic adds, it has been suggested that he and his wife had been “behind the article in the BMJ—even that we wrote the article together with Sir I Chalmers while he was in our house on the Adriatic coast.”
Dr Chalmers says this is nonsense. He has not been to Croatia since the 1960s. But why did he write the 2006 piece in the BMJ? “When I found out after 14 years that he (Professor Kurjak) was still at it, I felt stupid for having acquiesced in the [original] request to be discreet.”
What next? “The University of Zagreb now has to decide how it's going to protect its reputation,” said Dr Chalmers.
As at the beginning of this week the dean of the medical school, Nada Cikes, said that she had still not received a copy of the committee's opinion. However, she confirmed that she was aware of its content, she said. All she could say was that it would be considered by the university's “court of honour.”
She added: “This has to analyse all relevant facts, including [holding] a hearing with Professor Kurjak, and then it will reach a final decision.”
When asked to comment on the committee's decision, Professor Kurjak said (on 21 May) that he had not received a copy of the decision and had been informed by the medical school that no decision had been made. He added that the medical school's internal investigation into the allegations against him of plagiarism was “not finished.”