Update (September 13): H. Gilbert Welch announced his resignation from Dartmouth College today. “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,” he writes in an email to colleagues, STAT News reported.
When Dartmouth College Professor H. Gilbert Welch published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2016 arguing that mammograms can lead to the treatment of non-life-threatening tumors, he was “appropriating the ideas, processes, results or words of Complainants without giving them appropriate credit,” according to a letter by Dartmouth Interim Provost David Kotz, obtained by Retraction Watch and STAT News.
Welch and his colleagues argued that mammograms are more likely to lead to unnecessary treatment than to save lives, drawing headlines from the press and citations from fellow researchers. In fact, the NEJM paper ranks in the top 1 percent of the most highly cited papers of 2016 in its field, according to Clarivate Analytics’s Web of Science. But less than a week after it was published, fellow Dartmouth faculty member Samir Soneji accused Welch of stealing his ideas and results.
In an email to Martin Wybourne, Dartmouth’s vice provost for research, Soneji said that Welch had requested a slide from one of Soneji’s lectures. Soneji added that he had explicitly requested to be a coauthor on any paper that might result from the results depicted on the slide, and said that Welch had responded it was for a class. But that result and the ideas it generated are part of what Welch and colleagues published in NEJM in 2016.
Soneji and University of California, Los Angeles, colleague Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez submitted their own manuscript on the use of mammograms to NEJM in August 2015, the researchers tell Retraction Watch, but it was rejected. And when they submitted to another journal the following fall, a peer reviewer noticed the high degree of overlap with Welch’s now-published paper.
Welch disputes the university’s finding of misconduct, arguing that the paper is a “natural progression” of his work, he tells Retraction Watch. But in his 2016 complaint email, Soneji recounts an interaction with Welch in which Welch admits to having failed to think of some of the ideas Soneji presented in a workshop Welch attended—the very same ideas included in the NEJM paper.
Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez issued a statement calling for the paper to be retracted, and Dartmouth sent its findings to NEJM for consideration, but the journal decided that the issue at hand is an “authorship dispute,” which is insufficient for a retraction. “We are happy to work with you and the article authors to reach a solution whereby sufficient acknowledgment is given so that the contribution of the complainant is adequately recognized,” Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen and Deputy Editor Dan Longo wrote in a response to Dartmouth administrators.