One of the country’s most influential researchers in cancer screening has resigned from his post at Dartmouth College, after a two-year internal investigation concluded he had plagiarized a graph included in a paper published in a prominent journal.
The researcher, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, has published widely on the risks of aggressive screening and over-diagnosis, including Op-Ed articles in The Times and several popular books. He disputed the university’s findings against him.
“I am saddened to say that I am resigning from Dartmouth,” Dr. Welch wrote in an email to colleagues. “I feel that I can no longer participate in the research misconduct process against me — as I fear my participation only serves to validate it.”
In a prepared statement, Dartmouth said the university had “reviewed this matter in accordance with its research misconduct policy and procedures, which defines plagiarism as ‘the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving them appropriate credit,’” and found Dr. Welch guilty.
The resignation comes at a time of escalating scrutiny and self-policing across the sciences. Retractions in academic journal retractions are at a historic high. Some experts argue that the heightened sensitivity to misconduct is a long-overdue corrective; others say it has gone too far, creating a culture of suspicion in which even the hint of misconduct can sometimes end a scientist’s career.
The dispute between Dartmouth and Dr. Welch, first reported by STAT News and Retraction Watch, revolves around a figure in a 2016 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, on screening and over-diagnosis of breast cancer. In the paper, Dr. Welch included a figure, a graph, that is similar to one presented in 2015 by a Dartmouth colleague, Samir Soneji.
Misappropriation of figures has become an increasingly frequent charge leveled against scientific authors, in part because of new digital tools that flag copied text and graphs.
The Dartmouth investigating committee concluded that the figure in this case was reproduced without proper attribution.
In a timeline he sent to the Times, he acknowledged that he reviewed Dr. Soneji’s graphic figure before publishing the New England Journal article. He said he made adjustments to the graph based on his own analysis of the underlying data, so the graphs look similar but are not identical.
In his letter to colleagues, Dr. Welch said Dartmouth demanded that he ask the New England Journal make Dr. Soneji the first author of the paper, and forfeit his teaching privileges, to remain at the medical school.
“I cannot in good conscience accept the demand that I make the complainant an author — much less the demand that I make him the first author,” he wrote. “Doing so requires that I falsely attest that he meets the requirements of authorship: namely, that he materially participated in the work and is able to defend it. Much as I have enjoyed working at Dartmouth, I am not willing to falsely attest to anything simply to stay here.”
Dr. Welch’s research and commentary had prompted health officials worldwide to review their cancer screening guidelines, which he found often led to over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatments.