Paul McCrory plagiarism row

Preface

Around a decade ago, possibly around 2012-2013, I was doing a literature search when I came across a snappily titled editorial from 2005 called The time lords – measurement and performance in sprinting by a P McCrory. It was in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a pretty decent publication published by the British Medical Journal. On closer inspection, I found that the opening words sounded very familiar. I quickly looked back at one of my own articles in Physics World in 2000 called Physics, technology and the Olympics.

There on the page were the exactly the same words: McCrory had copied them verbatim. I put the articles side by side and compared them: of 1,106 words in McCrory’s article, 560 were mine (50.7%). Not only that, but the narrative arc of the article was exactly the same from my starting words of

“The modern Olympic Games were founded by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, with the intention of improving health and education, promoting world peace, and encouraging fair and equal competition”

to my finishing thought of

“A century on from Baron de Coubertin’s original vision of the Olympics, the motto swifter, higher, stronger reassuringly still depends on the skill of the athlete

Just one word in the final sentence had been changed – the word ultimately to reassuringly.

My original 2000 Physics World article
McCrory’s 2005 ‘warm up’ editorial showing the plagiarised parts (highlighted)

I was outraged. I emailed Physics World expecting them to feel the same, but nothing happened. Fast forward to 2021 and, as an editor of a set of conference proceedings back in 2006, I had to deal with one of the contributors copying one of their own journal articles – self-plagiarism. Springer, the publisher, led me through what to do and the article was eventually retracted after 3 months. I realised that I could do something about McCrory’s article.

Who was this guy McCrory? I’d never heard of him. It appeared that he was an Associate Professor and a consultant neurologist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne and had an impressive 530 articles and 34,502 citations on Google Scholar. He had the longest set of letters after anyone’s name I’d ever seen – 55 in total and – wait for this – had been the editor of the BJSM when he stole my article!

On 23rd June 2021, I sent an email to the editor of the BJSM notifying them of plagiarism by McCrory. They got back to me the same day to say it would be investigated by the parent company, the BMJ. I gave them everything I had: my article, his article and markups showing where the words had been copied.

It was a pretty open and shut case – I expected a quick retraction. This is the timeline of what happened next.

Monday 20th September 2021

After almost 3 months, I get a response from the BMJ Research Integrity Manager to say that they were close to an outcome of their investigation and would be in touch again very shortly.

Thursday 16th December 2021

Three months later – six months into the investigation, I finally get another email from the BMJ saying that they agreed with me and that they had made the decision to retract the article. This would happen in January 2022. They ask me not to publicise the outcome on social media or contact Paul McCrory. In return, I ask to see the wording of the retraction before it goes out – they promise they will send it.

Friday 25th February 2022

The first I hear of the retraction is when I get an email from Ivan Oransky from Retraction Watch telling me that the retraction will come out the next Monday – and would I like to comment? He sends me the wording:

“This article has been retracted due to unlawful and indefensible breach of copyright. There was significant overlap with a previous publication, Physics, technology and the Olympics by Dr Steve Haake.”

BMJ 28th February 2022

He asks, innocently, do you think that “unlawful and indefensible breach of copyright” captures what happened here? I almost explode.

Monday 28th February 2022 23.30 GMT

Over the weekend, I go for a long run and think about what I want to say. Eventually, my email back to Ivan turns into a guest blog for Retraction Watch. It is scheduled to go out the same time as the retraction is published – 23.30 GMT. I feel that I’ve said my piece, I call him out and ask that he apologies publicly (in front of his mum!). I don’t really expect and answer.

Paul McCrory

Tuesday 1st March 2022 10.35 GMT (21.35 Melbourne time)

I’m surprised to receive an email from Paul McCrory. I hadn’t really expected him to have the courage to respond. He starts off with a grovelling apology which, to be honest, I don’t really want to hear. This evolves into an unlikely excuse. This is what he says:

“Professor Haake

First let me apologise for my appalling breach of trust in plagiarising your article in an editorial piece I published 

In no way does any explanation suffice to explain this behaviour but please allow me to explain the circumstance for what happened.  In the mid 2000’s, I wrote a series of (attempted) humorous warm up pieces for the Journal when I was editor. I have now found out that what was uploaded in this particular situation was the initial working draft of the manuscript not the final version and as the draft was incomplete, it failed to appropriately cite your original and excellent work as the source of the manuscript. This was entirely my error which I did not pick up on at the time and I again apologise.

I was unaware this problem had happened until I was contacted by the editor of the BMJ in December 2021 and once I realised this terrible error I requested that the paper be retracted formally. The BMJ editor told me that any retraction would likely result in adverse media for me and possible academic sanctions. Nevertheless I felt it important that the retraction should be made as soon as possible.

I have only heard via retraction watch over the past weekend that this has now happened. I have no idea why there was any delay in this process.

I completely agree with your point re research integrity and this episode reflects extremely poorly on my due diligence in this regard.

I am in the process of removing any reference to the article on the various databases and also rechecking the series of warmup articles that were uploaded at that time to see whether there are other errors that occurred in the upload process.

Once again I offer my sincere and humble apologies for this episode and would emphasise that this was an isolated and unfortunate incident

With kind regards, Paul”

With kind regards? Right.

Let’s dig further into his words.

  1. I have now found out that what was uploaded in this particular situation was the initial working draft of the manuscript“. According to Retraction Watch, this is a popular excuse for plagiarism. Someone has pointed out that that either he has a really good memory or that he can see what is still in the journal system (unlikely since he is no longer editor). Either way, I presume that there is actually a final version in the system that he meant to upload instead. Where is it? Why have we never seen it? And why would you change just a single word of my final paragraph rather than rewrite the whole thing?
  2. “…once I realised this terrible error I requested that the paper be retracted formally“. I was sent the intention to retract on 16th December 2021, presumably at the same time as Paul (he says he only found out about this when the BMJ contacted him in December 2021). It’s more likely that he was presented with the retraction and had to agree to it. He did not request it, the BJM did following my complaint. I ask the BMJ to clarify Paul’s claims in the email.
  3. “I am…rechecking the series of warmup articles that were uploaded at that time to see whether there are other errors that occurred in the upload process” This is an interesting comment. What is he saying here? That with his decades old memory he remembers doing the same thing repeatedly, by accident? Or does he know something that he isn’t letting on?
  4. I wouldemphasise that this was an isolated and unfortunate incident” Despite his previous warning of identical problems to come, here he contradicts himself by emphasising that it was an isolated incident.

His ‘isolated incident’ doesn’t last long.

Tuesday 1st March 2022 22.40 GMT 9.40 Melbourne time

Later that night, while Melbourne is asleep, I get an email from Nick Brown of Linneaus University in Sweden telling me that he has already found two further editorials by McCrory in which 80-90% of the words have been copied from elsewhere.

We have to wait until Friday 4th for Nick to finish his detective work…

Wednesday 2nd March 2022

03.00 GMT 16.00 Melbourne. AFL’s key concussion adviser accused of ‘inventing research’ after plagiarism storm published by News Corp Australia. The Herald Sun reports concussion campaigner Peter Jess as saying, “This is a scandal. The fundamental basis of research is integrity and honesty. And he’s been found guilty of taking something that is not his and saying it is.”

15.33 GMT 02.33 Melbourne +1. The previous night’s email from Nick Brown prompts me to find the right words to respond to Paul’s email apology:

Paul,

Thank you for your email and your apology.  I have to take your word of honour that what you are telling me is the truth and that this was, as you say, “an isolated and unfortunate incident“.

Given this truth, I am sure you will be Ok if I share your apology with those who ask to see it.

Yours sincerely,

Steve

Thursday 3rd March 2022

12.00 GMT 23.00 Melbourne

Retraction Watch publish a further article called Was leading sports medicine researcher’s plagiarism ‘an isolated and unfortunate incident? In it, Nick Brown suggests that there are more plagiarised articles to come (already knowing that there are at least two). With his 200 articles in the BJSM, he suggests they might like to check them.

Friday 4th March 2022

01.57 GMT 12.57 Melbourne

After 4 days, Paul emails me to say I am ok to share his apology: he has also put an apology in Retraction Watch and is working through the other editorials to see if there are any similar issues. The email has weird font changes, almost like a copy and paste.

03.58 GMT 14.58 Melbourne

A couple of hours later, Paul McCrory emails me again. He’s obviously been looking at his online publications and tells me that there are further errors in other articles that he uploaded at the same time. He says that he is telling me this as he wants me to know that his intention was not deliberate and that it was an error on his part.

He later emails Retraction Watch to say that he wants to retract a further article (although I can’t initially work out which one this is). He repeats the assertion that he was the one that requested the retraction of my article. I’m still waiting for the BJSM to clarify.

Retraction Watch publishes his email in which he explains that the warm up article “Definitions for the Purist” (Br J Sports Med 2005;39:786) was originally part of the retracted Time Lords piece and was intended as a run-on article. He says, “it was uploaded at the same time as the retracted article and has the same error of being a initial draft not a final version and an accidental error. I have already requested through the BMJ editor that this is retracted as well.”

Nick Brown’s incisive analysis below destroys this idea immediately.

Quickly, Nick Brown posts a tweet about the next article he has found: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints…Br J Sports Med 2006;40:565. It seems that this is plagiarised article number three.

20.14 GMT 07.14 Melbourne +1

The Athletic appears to be the first to break the news that Paul has resigned from the Concussion in Sport Group (CISG). In their haste to get the scoop, The Athletic mistakenly say that the plagiarised ‘warm up’ editorial was not about technology and the Olympics but about warm ups! [NOTE: this has now been corrected].

The relentless Nick Brown finds another two articles in the BJSM plagiarised by Paul McCrory Commotio cordis and A cause for concern.

Saturday 5th March 2022

The number of plagiarised articles has reached five. The Mail Online just beats the Guardian to an piece about Paul’s resignation from the Concussion in Sport Group. The NY Times Post suggests that sport’s concussion protocols are in jeopardy.

The Guardian

In the Mail (and the NY Times Post) repeats the error from The Athletic that it was about ‘warm ups’. The Mail reports that Paul has not only resigned from the CIRG but has also resigned as chair of the 6th International Conference on Concussion in Sport. In the Guardian, Paul repeats that it was he that requested the retraction despite it being imposed on him after an 8 month investigation (the BJM have still yet to respond to my requests for information on this).

Monday 7th March 2022

It’s a week on from the original retraction and the plagiarism takes a new twist – not involving Paul McCrory (to his relief). Super sleuth Nick Brown – armed with nothing but a Windows 3 computer and a battered dictionary – (9-Mar edit OK – this was a cheeky exaggeration: he actually uses a Window’s 10 computer, Google search and Poirot-like perseverance) finds a 2002 student called Daniel Lenord (now a Business Systems Analyst in Oregon – apologies if this is a different person) who also copied my article. He also finds that the bits Paul McCrory didn’t plagiarise from me has been plagiarised by a wonderfully named South African masters student called Sarel Wilhelmus Jacobus Bekker.

The day ends quite remarkably. Super sleuth Nick Brown publishes a withering piece, listing in a scarily forensic manner ten publications by Paul McCrory that have either plagiarised others or are self-plagiarised (i.e. copying your own work in more than one publication).

On Twitter, Jim asks, “Could an (sic) computer tool go through every published article to compare them? These seem so outrageous as to be able to be caught by an automated tool.” Stunningly, Sean Rife steps up to announce that he has written some code to do exactly this. Reading between the lines, it seems that he and James Heathers are going to assess all of Paul McCrory’s papers: it’s likely further plagiarism will be found. (The scientist in me wonders if they will create some sort of network analysis: it would make a lovely infographic!)

Finally tonight, Sam Peters identifies the significance of what is going on, although it’s understandable that the world’s media is distracted by events in Ukraine. It does seem that the likes of the NFL, AFL, IOC and FIFA are going to have to deal with a significant blow to their research integrity around concussion. Watch this space, I guess.

Wednesday 9th March 20.00 GMT

Andy Bull of The Guardian outlines the problems World Rugby now has with the Concussion in Sports Group consensus statement. Is it now credible given that the lead author is a serial plagiarist?

Friday 11th March

A message is posted on the comments to my blog on Retraction Watch by Dr Christopher Hughes, Editor-in-Chief of the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. In it, he says,

I read your post with interest, and would like to bring attention to one small factual error within the text. The post incorrectly states that Professor McCrory is ‘still associate editor of the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.’ In fact, Professor McCrory has not been an Associate Editor of the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine (CJSM) for almost the past 8 years, and he is not on the current Journal Editorial Board.

I go back to check my source information at McCrory’s profile page which states the following:

The sentence highlighted, posted by McCrory, implies that he is still associate editor of the journal. I apologise to Dr Hughes and let him know that we will make a correction to the blog. I suggest that he might like to ask Paul McCrory to change his website.

Later that day, Melissa Davey, Guardian Australia’s Medical Editor posts an article in the Guardian noting that ten more plagiarised articles have been found by Nick Brown.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/mar/12/sports-concussion-expert-who-resigned-amid-plagiarism-claims-accused-of-copying-more-articles

Monday 14th March 13.26 GMT

Two weeks on from the Retraction by the BJSM, the fallout continues: Andy Bull and Emma Kemp write that FIFA is now looking closely at the work of the Concussion in Sport Group while World Rugby is distancing itself.

Wednesday 16th March

Paul McCrory biogaphy at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health (16th March 2022 15.07 GMT)

According to the Neurology Network Melbourne (above), Paul McCrory holds an honorary position at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. The ‘honorary’ title generally means that he is not a salaried member of the University. Today, I find out that the Florey Institute has previously tweeted the following:

The Florey Institute acknowledges recent media reports relating to an article written be A/Prof Paul McCrory in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM). The Florey Institute had no association with the retracted article, published in 2005, years before A/Prof Paul McCrory became an employee of the Florey Institute. The Florey Institute believes the integrity of all published material is critical to all forms of scientific research.”

This tweet has now been deleted.

Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health tweet on 4th March 2022.

The Institute believes that scientific integrity is critical (can an Institution actually believe anything?) and wants us to know that the plagiarism happened before he arrived there. What happens, then, if they find out that further plagiarism happened after he arrived? After all, Nick Brown has already found ten plagiarised articles between 2002 and 2015. Just how critical do they believe scientific integrity actually is?

Melissa Davey, Guardian Australia’s Medical Editor has been doing her research and publishes another article on McCrory, with the news that the AFL no longer works with him and hasn’t done so since 2021.

Tuesday 23rd March 2022

It’s gone quite. Paul McCrory’s University of Melbourne page has mysteriously vanished and now merely has the following:

Ken Belson of the New York times writes a nice overarching piece on the Paul McCrory scandal, saying,

The scandal facing the pre-eminent doctor, who has long cast doubt on the legitimacy of C.T.E., or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, has raised questions about his relationship to sports leagues and the influence they may have in shaping how the research on brain trauma is interpreted.

Ken Belson

Epilogue

26th April 2022

The quietness continues but it seems that plenty is happening behind the scenes. I’ve just received an email from the BJSM with a sort-of apology (“we are sorry to have disappointed you…”) for the way they handled the retraction of McCrory’s article. At the time, they agreed to send me the wording of the retraction but instead I heard about it from Retraction Watch.

However, in this sort-of-apology email, they included a link to an update (below). In this, they state unequivocally that “The BMJ Research Integrity team is investigating all allegations as well as a sample of other papers in which he is the first or senior author“. The go on to say “BJSM has published five iterations of the consensus statement … Dr. McCrory is first author on the latter four statements. These will also be reviewed by the BMJ Research Integrity team.”

Their original investigation into my case took 8 months so it will be interesting to see how long this one takes, given that 10 or more plagiarism cases have already been found. Watch this space!