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Journal to retract article in dispute

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. medical journal will retract an article that set off an international plagiarism dispute but will take no action against the lead author, a prominent South Korean scientist whose Los Angeles institute is in line to receive state funds for stem cell research.

The article, published by Kwang-Yul Cha and others in the journal Fertility and Sterility in December 2005, had been published the year before in a Korean journal by a former doctoral student in Cha’s lab in South Korea. The former student, Jeong-Hwan Kim, was not credited in the American journal. Four other authors were replaced with different authors before the paper was published in English.

The incident led Kim to accuse Cha and others of plagiarizing the article, his doctoral thesis. It also has led to a criminal indictment of one of Cha’s underlings in South Korea and helped prompt watchdog groups in California to question whether the Cha Regenerative Medicine Institute should be granted $2.6 million in research funding from the stem cell initiative.

In an upcoming issue, Fertility and Sterility will publish a statement retracting the article because of “duplicate publication,” said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, which oversees the journal.

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The journal’s editor, Alan DeCherney, had said earlier that he believed the article to have been plagiarized. Tipton said this week that the problem was rather that it had been published elsewhere, which violated the journal’s rules, and suggested that the responsibility rested with Cha’s underling, Sook-Hwan Lee, who submitted the article to Fertility and Sterility.

Tipton said the society followed the rules of the World Assn. of Medical Editors, which say that plagiarism essentially is authors stealing from each other. This case would not meet that definition because two of the authors were the same on both of the papers: Lee and Sung Won Cho.

Lee, who worked for Cha in South Korea, took responsibility for having the paper published twice, Tipton said.

“Dr. Lee told us that no other members knew that it was a duplicate publication,” Tipton said, a point Cha has made as well.

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Lee, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, will be barred from publishing in the journal for three years. The five other authors listed on the Fertility and Sterility piece, including Cha, will not face discipline by the journal, Tipton said.

A spokesman for Cha said the journal’s decision vindicates Cha and most of his coauthors. “We were hopeful that the paper would not be retracted, but we are pleased that the board recognized its scientific merit,” the spokesman, Jason Booth, said in a prepared statement.

Kim, who now works in Singapore, said he was disappointed.

“They said before that they knew it was plagiarism.... But now they are saying it was duplication. By doing that, they have given some sort of exit to K.Y. Cha. He can now say, ‘They decided I didn’t know anything about this.’ ”

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But experts contacted by The Times said they thought the American Society for Reproductive Medicine made the right decision.

“It’s clearly egregious, but it would not rise to a level of what we would call plagiarism because of the common authorship, no matter how limited it might be,” said John Dahlberg, director of the Division of Investigative Oversight for the federal Office of Research Integrity.

Cha, coauthor of an earlier controversial research article on the power of intercessory prayer to help women become pregnant through in vitro fertilization, has substantial medical investments in Southern California. A few years ago, his healthcare system bought Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. He also set up the Cha Fertility Center in Los Angeles at the same address as the regenerative medicine institute.

Lee and the other authors on the paper have all worked under Cha in South Korea either at his hospitals or at his university.

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After the plagiarism controversy was reported in The Times in February, Cha’s attorney threatened both The Times and the journal’s editor, DeCherney, with legal action for alleged defamation. DeCherney has since stopped speaking to the media.

Cha, through his attorney, has maintained that he initiated the research that was the basis for the paper, which was about premature ovarian failure. He has said he did not know that Kim, who was working in a lab attached to Cha’s hospital in South Korea, had already published the article in that country. Cha’s attorney said in a letter to The Times that Lee could not reach Kim to sign the necessary paperwork to have him listed as an author before the article was published in Fertility and Sterility.

Kim first notified Fertility and Sterility last summer alleging that his article had been plagiarized. Afterward, the Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology asked that the U.S. journal retract the article. Lee then sent a long letter to the journal taking the blame and declaring that it was a tradition in South Korea to publish research papers in different publications.

In that country, Lee has been charged by prosecutors with violating Kim’s intellectual property rights. She has maintained her innocence.

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william.heisel@latimes.com


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