Intended for healthcare professionals

Editor's Choice

Plagiarism and punishment

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39392.602523.47 (Published 08 November 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:0

The Kurjak plagiarism case: the vicious circle of academic corruption

The cloud now hanging over Croatia's research community (1) is dark
indeed. The Court of Honour of Zagreb University’s Medical School has
dismissed proven allegations of Professor Kurjak's misconduct (2) on the
grounds that his misconduct had occurred long ago, that the culprit had
already apologised, and that he recently retired (3). The decision of the
Court of Honour did not refer to the fact that the national Committee for
Ethics in Science and Higher Education of the Republic of Croatia (4) had
confirmed the allegations made in Chalmers’ article published in the BMJ
last year (2), and had found additional examples of Kurjak’s unethical
practices after evaluating his whole publication opus (5). Nor did the
Medical School’s Court of Honour mention that, in July this year, the
Ministry of Science, Education and Sports suspended the funding of
Kurjak's research grant (6).

Following the publication of Chalmers’ allegations of Kurjak’s
recurrent plagiarism, the BMJ and Croatian Medical Journal (CMJ) were
asked to investigate Kurjak’s articles they published (7). As co-editor in
chief of the CMJ, I wanted to exclude any, even perceived conflict of
interest, and asked the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and the
World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) for their expert opinion on
the articles by Kurjak which had been published in our journal. This
investigation revealed unacknowledged duplicate publications (8,9). A
report documenting this was sent to the Dean of the Medical School, Prof.
Nada Cikes, on 14 March 2007.

I was surprised to discover that my report was not mentioned in the
ruling of the School’s Court of Honour, but hoped that it might be in the
full report produced by the Court. However, at the meeting of the School’s
Council, held on 27 November 2007, I learned that my report and findings
in the CMJ had not been mentioned in the full report either. When I asked
about this omission, Prof. Branimir Jaksic, the president of the Court of
Honour, replied that the Court had never received my report. When I asked
the Dean why my report had not been sent to the Court of Honour, she told
me that she cannot recall ever receiving my report; this despite the fact
the report had been filed officially with the School authorities. On 7
December 2007, I received a different explanation from the Dean: this time
she stated that she had received my report on the Kurjak case and had sent
it on to the School’s Committee for Academic Integrity, although she did
not specify when this had happened or what the outcome of this referral,
if any, had been. Certainly, I have heard nothing from the Committee for
Academic Integrity. At the School’s Council meeting, I learned that the
Court of Honour also did not receive the national Committee for Ethics in
Science’s report on the Kurjak case (5), although Dean Cikes told to the
BMJ in May 2007 that “it [the report] would be considered by the
university’s court of honour” (10).

Another aspect of the Kurjak affair that bears scrutiny is the way in
which it has been handled by Dean Cikes in the Croatian media. After the
president of the School’s Committee for Science, Professor Boris Labar,
had spoken publicly about the Committee’s investigation of Kurjak, and
after I had spoken about the state of affairs at the Zagreb Medical
School, Dean Cikes issued a faculty-wide ban on any further communication
with the media. As our journal represents three Croatian medical schools
in addition to the Zagreb School of Medicine (11), I protested about her
ban at a meeting of the Zagreb Medical School Council. At that meeting
Professor Kurjak disclosed that Dean Cikes had allowed him to appear on TV
after her ban had been issued, and had advised him on how to handle his
interview. I reported Cikes’ ban to Minister Dragan Primorac and to the
Rector of the University – Professor Aleksa Bjelis. The former forwarded
the complaint to the latter, who forwarded it to Dean Cikes to “process
the complaint”.

The Economist recently suggested that “the concept of conflict of
interest is little understood” in Croatia (12). The actions of the
University of Zagreb and the Medical School suggest that the academic
community in Zagreb believes that its autonomy provides it with immunity
from its responsibility to the public. Invited to comment on Kurjak’s
misconduct during a TV show, University Rector Bjelis stated that
plagiarism was a benign problem and that the University had more important
problems to address. Institutional failure to deal with research
misconduct occurs in other academic communities (13), but a worrying
aspect of the failures described above is their possible impact on the
prospects for Croatia’s accession to the European Union (14).

I welcome the spotlight that has been provided by international
exposure of the scientific misconduct of a Croatian academic, and of the
events which followed, in the BMJ. My response to the decision of the
Court of Honour of Zagreb University’s Medical School is neither a cry for
help, nor an attempt to pursue further allegations of Kurjak’s scientific
misconduct. It is simply a first-hand testimony that many Croats detest
certain aspects of the status quo in Croatia and wish to fight it, but
that it is difficult to confront entrenched academic attitudes during the
transition from authoritarian to more democratic and accountable
structures.

Matko Marusic

Editor in Chief

Croatian Medical Journal

Zagreb, Croatia

1. Godlee F. Plagiarism and punishment. BMJ 2007;335,
doi:10.1136bmj.39392.602523.47.

2. Chalmers I. Role of systematic reviews in detecting plagiarism:
case of Asim Kurjak. BMJ 2006;333:594-6.

3. Kmietowicz Z. University drops case against Croatian academic
accused of plagiarism. BMJ 2007; 335:1014,
doi:10.1136/bmj.39392.474711.4E.

4. Puljak L. Croatia founded a national body for ethics in science.
Sci Eng Ethics. 2007;13:191-3.

5. National Board for Ethics in Science and Higher Education,
Republic of Croatia. Ruling on the Kurjak case [in Croatian]. Available at
http://www.azvo.hr/Default.aspx?sec=142.

6. Ministry of Science, Education and Sports of the Republic of
Croatia. Public statement of 23 July 200 [in Croatian]. Available at:
http://public.mzos.hr/Default.aspx?art=8009&sec=2998.

7. Godlee F, Marusic M. Re: journals are also responsible. Rapid
response to Chalmers I, BMJ 2006;333:594-595. Available at
http://www.bmj.com/cgi/eletters/333/7568/594.

8. Marusic M. Notice of retraction: "Intervillous blood flow in
patients with missed abortion" (Croat Med J. 1998;39:41-4). Croat Med J.
2007;48:390.

9. Marusic M. Notice of retraction: "What do contrast media add to
three-dimensional power Doppler evaluation of adnexal masses?" (Croat Med
J. 2000;41:257-61). Croat Med J. 2007;48:145.

10. Watts G. Croatian academic is found guilty of plagiarism. BMJ
2007;334:1077.

11. Marusic M, Bosnjak D, Rulic-Hren S, Marusic A. Legal regulation
of the Croatian Medical Journal: model for small academic journals. Croat
Med J. 2003;46:663-73.

12. Charlemagne. Post-enlargement stress. The Economist, 8 November
2007. Available at:
http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10097850.

13. Brumfiel G. Misconduct? It's all academic... Nature. 2007;445:240
-241.

14. Economist Intelligence Unit Briefing. Croatian crackdown. The
Economist, web edition, June 19, 2007. Available at:

http://www.economist.com/agenda/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9356168&CFID=2....

Competing interests:
I am co-editor in chief of the Croatian Medical Journal.

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 December 2007
Matko Marusic
Editor in Chief
Zagreb University School of Medicine, Salata 3, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia