Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Salami slicers and other intellectual irregulars

Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica. 2008; 87: 1264-1265

Acta has had a good name throughout its 87-year history. Running the journal means a lot of work and the Editors and Reviewers do their best to ensure quality. But intellectual irregularities happen to us like other journals from time to time and it is regrettable when someone tarnishes the journals’ hard-won image. This year two cases have come to our notice. In the USA, a powerful new search engine has been developed to spot verbatim publications, useful for intellectual theft (called plagiarism in English) or for the so-called practice of publishing in a ‘salami’ way, i.e. slicing one material into several smaller parts and publishing with virtually the same words closely related aspects of a research project, in several different journals (also called dual publication). From this search engine we were made aware earlier in the year that authors in Turkey had four years ago published an article (1), which is almost virtually the same as one published in Acta by authors from Israel five years before (2). There are slightly different figures given, but that is really all. The authors of both articles were written to. The former did not reply, which hardly was surprising, while the Israeli authors who had their intellectual work stolen, replied and seemed not to care, which also was surprising.
In April of this year, a group of researchers in Austria published two articles which are almost identical to a very large degree, one on interleukin- 10 and one on interleukin-6, one in Acta (3) and the other in the American Journal of Reproductive Immunology (4). A bit like publishing separately on twin A and twin B and letting it moreover look like they were singletons.
This turned out to be a somewhat sad story of copy-paste. The authors submitted both articles to both journals in September 2007 but omitted to tell us that two very closely related articles were being sent to these respective journals. To both journals it would have looked like they had done one unique study in one material on one particular substance, interleukin-10, in our case. Unfortunately there was a fault with hindsight relating to interleukin-6 in the interleukin-10 article sent to Acta, so we rejected it. The authors gave an explanation for some misunderstanding when they re-submitted a revised article. Never was the existence of the other article mentioned. In due course we published this revised article in good faith in our April issue. By chance, I discovered in June the other article in the American journal.
Correspondence with the authors and a prompt internal enquiry at the university concerned produced explanations and counterclaims between authors as to how this happened. Perhaps this is likely to occur in a competitive environment where careers are to some extent dependent on academic achievement measured in numbers of publications. It is not an unfamiliar situation and can be found anywhere in the world. But the articles have now to stand as they are because there is nothing to indicate that the data are false, - it is just the way the authors chose to present and publish their work, with a lack of the transparency and honesty that should prevail in academia. At Acta as elsewhere, this is an unacceptable practice. We take it seriously in our dealings with the authors at fault.
We will have more of this happening since humans are not infallible. It would be less than honest to say that any of us go like saints through life, and it would be hard to define that sort of person anyway. In moments of weakness, absentmindedness, misguided ambition or vanity anything can happen to all of us, even wilful deception. Just google the words ‘scientific misconduct’ and see what you find. Amazing stuff. There will be conflicts of interest that are not revealed, ghost-writing that is not discovered, authors whose name is on papers even though they have done very little to deserve to be there and those who have hardly seen the article until after it is in print. There are even those who fabricate science, lie about Material, Methods and Results or steal what others have worked hard to create. It happens at even the most widely distributed and best respected journals that authors deviate from accepted standards of scientific conduct. There are well known examples, also from the Nordic countries, most recently the infamous falsification case by Jon Sudbø (5). We in the Editorial Board try to discover this, to ask for information on articles submitted, to ensure that genuine, good and reliable information is being presented and to make what is published in Acta stand up to scientific scrutiny. But we cannot avert every misadventure. We will then not refrain from letting you, the  readers, know aboutthis as we do now. At the same time we alert the international community. It is wise to remember that we have a duty to expose such things if we are aware of them, and that includes at our own institutions.
Science is necessary for advancement and understanding of what we do in medicine, but itwould not be right to portray its proponents as infallible.
1. Arslan S, Gokmen O, Tuncay G. The office hysteroscopic evaluation of postmenopausal patients. Arch Gynecol Obstet. 2004;/270:/31-3.
2. Orvieto R, Bar-Hava I, Dicker D, Bar J, Ben-Rafael Z, Neri A. Endometrial polyps during menopause: characterization and significance. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 1999;/78:/883-6.
3. Stonek F, Metzenbauer M, Hafner E, Philipp K, Tempfer C. Interleukin-10-1082 G/A promoter polymorphism and pregnancy complications: results of a prospective cohort study in 1,616 pregnant women. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2008;/87:/ 430-3.
4. Stonek F, Metzenbauer M, Hafner E, Philipp K, Tempfer C. Interleukin 6-174 G/C promoter polymorphism and pregnancy complications: results of a prospective cohort study in 1626 pregnant women. Am J Reprod Immunol. 2008;/59:/347-51.
5. Horton R. Retraction - non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of oral cancer: a nested case-control study. Lancet.

Reynir Tomas Geirsson
Chief Editor
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Landspitali University Hospital, University of Iceland
101 Reykjavile
E-mail: geirsson.acta@landspitali.is