Advertisement

Credit for U.S. journal article at issue

Times Staff Writer

A prominent fertility scientist whose firm owns Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles is embroiled in a plagiarism dispute that straddles two continents, has triggered legal battles in South Korea and has raised questions about the practices of a leading U.S. fertility journal.

Dr. Kwang-Yul Cha, whose company also owns fertility clinics and a large hospital in Seoul, is listed as the primary author on a medical paper that appeared in December 2005 in the U.S. medical journal Fertility and Sterility.

But that paper appears to be nearly a paragraph-for-paragraph, chart-for-chart copy of a junior researcher’s doctoral thesis, which appeared in a Korean medical journal nearly two years earlier, according to a Times review of both papers and the findings of a Korean medical society.

Cha has denied any wrongdoing.

Advertisement

The allegations mark the latest example of a challenge facing the editors of scientific journals: how to ensure that the work they print is honest and original. Doctors often base medical decisions on articles printed in such journals, and researchers similarly rely on them for their studies.

In an international scandal in late 2005, the work of another South Korean scientist was exposed as fraudulent. Hwang Woo-Suk claimed to have created 11 stem cell lines from the DNA of sick and injured patients, publishing his work in the well-respected journal Science. But the articles had to be retracted after questions were raised about his claims, and he ultimately apologized.

The current dispute involves the much more modest thesis of Dr. Jeong-Hwan Kim, 36. He showed that a simple blood test might be able to predict which women are at risk for premature menopause. The test would allow those women to have their eggs retrieved and frozen for later use if they wanted children.

Kim said his research was conducted while he was pursuing doctoral studies at Korea University and doing clinical work at CHA infertility medical center in Seoul, which is part of Cha’s medical group.

Advertisement

Cha, 54, has received international accolades for his work on egg freezing and is well known in medical circles in South Korea. But in the United States, he is a somewhat controversial figure. He came under criticism a few years ago for his involvement in a study suggesting that anonymous prayers from strangers might double a woman’s chances of fertility.

Nearly a year ago, Kim notified Fertility and Sterility that he believed his thesis had been copied by Cha and his colleagues. But it wasn’t until last week that editor in chief Dr. Alan DeCherney said he would recommend retracting Cha’s article at an editorial board meeting in April. DeCherney also said he would seek to ban Cha and all of the listed authors from publishing in the journal for three years.

“I’m sure that it’s plagiarism,” DeCherney said.

Cha did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Advertisement

He previously told South Korean prosecutors investigating Kim’s allegations that he had contributed ideas and patient blood samples for Kim’s thesis, according to Korean legal papers. He said he had not known that he would be listed as the primary author on the second paper.

DeCherney’s decision to recommend retraction of Cha’s paper came days after he received an official request to do so from the editor of the Korean Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which published Kim’s thesis in January 2004.

That journal’s editor in chief, Soon-Beom Kang, “denounced” Cha’s article as “a case of multiple publication,” according to a Feb. 9 e-mail, which was reviewed by The Times.

Kang also wrote that a “stern warning” had been issued to one of Cha’s co-authors, Dr. Sook-Hwan Lee, who is set to stand trial later this month in Seoul on copyright infringement charges pertaining to the research. Cha has not been indicted in the case.

Advertisement

Lee told The Times that the work submitted to Fertility and Sterility was her own.

“I myself wrote the article published in Fertility and Sterility,” she said in an e-mail. “This was the outcome of the work done at my laboratory.... Dr. Kim was one of the researchers and was involved in the project on a very limited scale.”

She did not explain why she listed Cha’s name first. Kim’s name was left off the Fertility and Sterility piece, Lee said, because she could not locate him to fill out the necessary paperwork.

Charges and countercharges are flying. In Korean courts, Kim has sued Cha and Lee, and Lee has sued Kim. All parties deny the accusations against them.

Advertisement

It is not Cha’s first foray into controversy. Three years after the article on prayer and fertility appeared in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 2001, one of the authors pulled his name off the research, saying he had served only as an editorial advisor. Another went to federal prison on unrelated fraud charges.

Cha continued to defend the article, and the journal did not retract it.

Cha also appears to be violating state law by using MD after his name on websites and in news releases in California. He is not licensed to practice in the state, records show. His resume says he received his medical training in South Korea.

“We don’t believe it’s lawful for him to hold himself out in this manner,” said Candis Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Medical Board of California.

Advertisement

Hollywood Presbyterian, purchased by Cha’s medical group in 2004, has been involved in its own scandal, the alleged dumping this month of a homeless paraplegic patient on skid row without a wheelchair or walker. Hospital and law enforcement officials are investigating.

The plagiarism allegations have revived debate about what research journals should do in the case of alleged wrongdoing by their contributors.

Kim and some medical journal experts questioned why it took so long for Fertility and Sterility to acknowledge the problem publicly. Kim first alerted the journal to his claims of plagiarism last March.

In July, DeCherney wrote Kim an e-mail saying the journal’s editors “have observed considerable overlap” between the two articles. But DeCherney said at the time that it was up to Kim’s institution -- Cha’s medical center in South Korea -- to investigate the matter and report back.

Advertisement

DeCherney suggested that the journal could publish an erratum saying Kim “should have been included among the authors of the article.”

DeCherney, chief of the reproductive biology and medicine branch at the National Institutes of Health and former chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA, defended his actions.

“We have to depend upon the authors to have integrity,” he said in an interview. “We’re not the policemen.”

He also said there was no need for speed in this case, because the article was about scientific observation and not clinical findings.

Advertisement

“What’s the harm?” he asked. “I’m going to fix it, but it’s not like somebody published that vitamin B cures infertility or vitamin B causes your hair to fall out.... This is not Nobel Prize stuff.”

Marcia Angell, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said Fertility and Sterility should have responded sooner.

“It sounds to me like an awful, awful tangle of problems across the Pacific Ocean,” she said. “Nevertheless, the journal here has got to deal with it.”

A review of Fertility and Sterility’s standards for authors shows that Cha’s article violated at least one rule: Published articles may not have appeared elsewhere or be under consideration by other journals. In addition, the rules state, listed authors must have “participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for the content.”

Advertisement

“It’s very shameful,” said Kim, a South Korean national who now works in Singapore. Cha and other authors tried to advance their careers, he said, “using someone else’s very junior work word-for-word. That is a very shameful thing.”

According to Kim, he submitted the paper to the Korean Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology on July 31, 2003, as he was preparing to leave the country for Singapore. Kim said he did the vast majority of the work, but listed other authors who advised him or provided bits of assistance.

Although the work showed promise, it was based on a small sample, and Kim acknowledged that it would have to be tested and replicated by others.

In March 2006, one of his colleagues in the U.S. alerted him to the paper published in Fertility and Sterility without his name.

Advertisement

“Then, I searched the Internet myself and found a huge amount of articles, including major TV news, on it,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Kim found out that Cha’s group of authors had presented the research as their own at a meeting of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine in October 2004. Lee also had filed a patent on the findings.

Kim began to publicly protest, making his case on a website. In April 2006, lawyers for Cha’s hospital in Seoul wrote Kim a letter accusing him of libel, divulging trade secrets and theft of study notes and data. The letter, which The Times had translated into English, said Cha’s institution in South Korea “cannot take it anymore. Please understand and take it to heart that this is a last straw.”

Two months later, however, Lee sought to settle the matter. “Let’s just forget about this thing,” she wrote Kim. “I will admit to the fact that I was careless.”

Advertisement

Because the dispute involved a well-known researcher, Kim said some colleagues began to question his legitimacy.

“My colleagues in two countries ... were wondering if I had ‘bought’ an article for my PhD thesis,” he said in an e-mail to The Times. “As a result, I had to convince colleagues and bosses one by one that it was done by me, and I was indeed a victim.”

*

charles.ornstein@latimes.com

Advertisement

Times special correspondent Jinna Park in Seoul contributed to this report.


Advertisement