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Doctors plan to relaunch smartphone app after being cleared of plagiarism

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f5774 (Published 24 September 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5774
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

Three doctors who developed a smartphone app on critical appraisal have been cleared of plagiarism by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service.

A regulatory panel rejected charges by the General Medical Council that Afroze Khan, Shahnawaz Khan, and Zishan Sheikh acted dishonestly in knowingly copying structure, contents, and material from a book, The Doctor’s Guide to Critical Appraisal, when developing their Critical APPraisal app, representing it as their own work, and seeking to make a gain from the material.

The panel accepted the opinion of the doctors’ expert witness, Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence based medicine at Oxford University, that the subject matter of critical appraisal was widely known and used in the medical profession and that differences between the book and the app were sufficient to acquit the app’s developers of the charge of plagiarism.

In his report for the case Heneghan said that he agreed with David Sackett, a pioneer in evidence based medicine, that “critical appraisal of clinical and healthcare evidence belongs to everyone who wishes to translate evidence for the benefits of patients and the public health.”

The complaint to the GMC came from Gurpal Gosall, a coauthor of the book.1 The panel noted that the GMC did not produce an expert witness of its own and “did not subject the two works to electronic scrutiny” but relied on the evidence of Gosall, “who could not be regarded as disinterested.”

The charge of plagiarism against Shahnawaz Khan was thrown out at an early stage because the evidence before the panel was that he was not involved in the section of the app relating to the critical appraisal guide.

He and Afroze Khan, a specialist registrar in ear, nose, and throat surgery, were also accused of dishonestly posting favourable reviews of the app on the Apple iTunes Store to encourage people to buy it, without disclosing that they were co-developers and had a financial interest in the app.

In the case of Shahnawaz Khan the panel said there was no evidence that he knew that a charge was later to be applied to the app, which was free for an initial period, and his case was concluded without any findings. But the panel found that Afroze Khan’s conduct in posting the review was misleading and dishonest.

However, the level of dishonesty was significantly below the level that would constitute impairment of his fitness to practise, the panel said, and it was an isolated incident with no indication that it would be repeated. The panel considered his good character and testimonials attesting to his general probity and honesty and decided not to issue a formal warning.

The panel’s chairwoman, Wendy Kuriyan, told him, “In this case there is no identifiable victim, there is no evidence of any financial loss to anyone, and there is no evidence of any financial gain to you. You are at a relatively early stage in your career; you are enthusiastic and of good character.”

Afroze Khan told the BMJ, “Like the sword of Damocles this case has been hanging over our heads for two years. The GMC’s evidence was based solely on a complaint brought forward by a party who had a clear interest in the outcome. The GMC prosecution failed to follow the standard guidelines and protocols when assessing plagiarism, such that a university or publisher would use.

“This is not just a victory for us but for the free and open distribution of scientific ideas. The iPhone app Critical APPraisal will be relaunching very soon.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5774

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