By David Woods

Such ethical issues as truth, deception, confidentiality, paternalism, relativism, conflict of interest, and personal and social responsibility have an impact both on healthcare and on publishing. We’ll be examining some of these issues in future issues of HOC; but we’ll start here with deception, whose most obvious example is plagiarism.

Plagiarism has been a hot topic recently. Reporters have been fired from such august publications as the New York Times for fabricating stories. And in the UK, Ian McEwan was accused of using some brief wording in his best selling novel Atonement that was drawn too directly from another author’s romantic novel.

But plagiarism isn’t new. The Financial Times notes (and I’m quoting here with full attribution; not copying) that ‘Shakespeare… took a large number of his plots straight from a contemporary source, Holinshed’s Chronicles,’ and that ‘no less upright a figure than T.S. Eliot grandly declared that ‘immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.’’

Plagiarism is often hard to pin down since much published work can be a mixture of originality and half digested ideas vaguely plucked from memory. Nonetheless, it’s the imperative to compete or to ‘get there first’ that can sink writers and publications into an ethical swamp. According to the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center: ‘Seventy six per cent of [Americans] believe that journalists often or sometimes plagiarise material and 66% said that stories are often made up and passed off as real.’ Respondents to the survey blamed the rash of debacles on weak editing and pressure to beat the competition.

In medicine, if there’s a serious error, there’s a funeral and a lengthy lawsuit; in publishing, an error usually produces an apology and a retraction in four-point type buried in a subsequent issue of the publication.

In medical publishing, the issue is far more critical than in the general media. At the American Medical Publishers Association’s annual meeting a couple of years ago, The Economist’s then healthcare correspondent Shereen El Feki observed that publications can carry outlandish medical stories, stir up a furore with them, and then later countermand them. ‘Oops, sorry, we were wrong about [name the substance] being a cancer cure. At the same meeting, mathematician and author (Innumeracy) John Allen Paulos noted the tendency for writers in scientific publications to play fast and loose with numbers and statistics.

Publish or perish may be part of the problem, and peer review may be part of the solution. But not always. There can be selective underreporting of unfavourable results and overhyping of positive ones.

Plagiarism comes from the Latin for kidnapper. Rather than paying a ransom for it after your work is published, be vigilant as you write it. And don’t give your editors cause to suspect you of literary theft. Unlike Shakespeare’s editors, they can Google you if they think some part of your work may be less than pristinely original.

Google, by the way, apparently has some 10 million entries for plagiarism. The first one listed is plagiarism.org. One hopes they all meet ethical standards.