Dr. Gilbert Welch, health policy researcher, allegedly plagiarized colleague's work: Dartmouth investigation

One of the country's most prominent healthcare policy researchers, Gilbert Welch, MD, reportedly plagiarized material from one of his colleagues at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H., and another researcher at a different institution for a 2016 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, according to STAT.

The paper in question involved a study of unnecessary medical screening and overtreatment, which Dr. Welch has written several books on. Specifically, the paper found that screening for breast cancer was more likely to overdiagnose tumors than identify early cases that would become life-threatening. The work was widely praised and ranked in the top 1 percent of all papers in its field the year it was published.

However, a June 2018 letter from Dartmouth Interim Provost David Kotz and obtained by Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers, claimed Dr. 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" in the paper, and argued that "these actions represented a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community."

The letter was addressed to Samir Soneji, PhD, an associate professor at Dartmouth who works at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice with Dr. Welch. Dr. Soneji and Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, PhD, a UC Los Angeles associate professor, raised concerns in 2016 that Dr. Welch had copied their work.

Drs. Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez claimed Dr. Welch's paper was "identical or virtually identical … in numerous key aspects" — for example, the idea and motivation for the research, as well as the analytic approach — to a paper they submitted to NEJM in 2015 that was rejected.

In 2016, Dr. Soneji claimed that Dr. Welch had asked for a slide that he presented at a lecture earlier that year. Dr. Soneji shared the slide with Dr. Welch, but told him "If this result/figure ultimately becomes part of a paper, I'd like the opportunity to be a coauthor (sorry if this comes across as a bit odd — I've had a few negative experiences this year when sharing results)."

Dr. Welch allegedly confirmed the information would not be used in a paper. However, when Drs. Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez tried to resubmit their rejected paper to another journal in the fall of 2016, a peer reviewer marked it as being too similar to the recently published article by Dr. Welch and his colleagues.

Drs. Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez have asked NEJM to retract Dr. Welch's paper, but NEJM said it was a matter of "authorship dispute," leading Dartmouth to inform the biomedical research watchdog U.S. Office of Research Integrity. The agency said it "does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation."

A Dartmouth spokesperson wouldn't disclose whether Dr. Welch had been sanctioned, but he pointed STAT to the Dartmouth's research misconduct policy, which lists a range of possible disciplinary actions such as a letter of reprimand, monitoring future work, suspension and demotion or termination.

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