January 18, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

Human embryo CRISPR pub includes plagiarism: the victim’s unique account

PlagiarismCut, modify, paste…

It’s kind of a CRISPR mantra for those of us using gene editing in the lab. But it’s supposed to be happening just on DNA, right?

Now it appears that someone on a team of human embryo CRISPR researchers possibly got carried away with the cutting-modifying-pasting mindset to take it beyond DNA to also do so with passages of another researcher’s published work that they apparently slightly modified and put into their own paper without any acknowledgement.

The 2016 article in question containing plagiarized passages was published by the lab of senior author Yong Fan with first author Xiangjin Kang, and was entitled, “Introducing precise genetic modifications into human 3PN embryos by CRISPR/Cas-mediated genome editing”. I blogged about the science and bigger picture policy issues of the Kang, et al. article last year here including the technical challenges of CRISPR’ing human embryos. Now the Erratum to the Kang piece in the journal JARG indicates that text plagiarism took place. I’ve included the entire Erratum near the bottom of this blog post.

Who got plagiarized?

At least 3 passages from an earlier article by Professor Tetsuya Ishii published in 2015 ended up in various forms in the Kang 2016 paper’s Discussion section. Dr. Ishii tweeted his reaction to the Erratum yesterday (see below), which is what first brought my attention to this situation. I know Dr. Ishii from his highly-regarded, scholarly work in bioethics and policy including on human gene editing.

Despite the content of the apology in the Kang paper Erratum suggesting this was just an inadvertent mistake, in my opinion this does not appear to be a simple case of “oops” we accidentally failed to quote another scientist verbatim. For instance, the three lifted passages of text in question were also in some instances slightly modified, which is a red flag.

I emailed Dr. Ishii to ask for his take on this situation and below is his response yesterday, which interestingly includes a timeline of events in dealing with the author of the paper containing the plagiarism and the journal.

“Hi, Paul,

It is not bioethics, but an issue on research moral.
But, it is important to share it with research community.

Last year, I found the plagiarism, but I had no time to respond.
This February, I sent letter to JARG to investigate it, although I know a plagiarism does not always lead to a retraction.
I just wanted apology with sincere from both JARG and Fan.

But, it was not easy.

2.06…Dr Iishi requests investigation of plagiarism charge for JARG paper by Kang et al.,
2.08…Dr Iishi notified formal investigation initiated
2.10…Dr Albertini sends request for explanation of claims from Dr. Fan
2.13…Dr. Albertini receives an inadequate response from Dr. Fan
2.14…Dr. Fan receives second query requesting more information
2.15…Dr Fan apologizes, recognizing the seriousness of this matter and will respond quickly
2.20…Dr Fan apologizes for first response and provides a detailed account
2.27…Dr Albertini concludes his investigation, submitted to Springer
3.03…Dr Albertini was informed that Springer ethics board will be delayed
3.09…Springer ethics team approves investigation, concur with proceeding with correction
3.13…Report and decision submitted to Prof. Iishi (typo!)

I was amazed to have been one-sidedly informed of decision to treat this as erratum by JARG editor and Springer.

I contended that I also have right to decide it whether it should be treated as erratum or retraction.
I requested JARG editor to explain why plagiarism detector software did not work during editorial process and urge Fan to express apology.
I also asked him to publish erratum directly attached to the original paper (otherwise, the paper will be cited without the erratum).

But, the editor  answered that they did not know why the software had not worked.
Meanwhile, he promised me to urge Fan.

But, no mail from Fan over one month.
So, I asked the editor again.
At last, I got apology email from Fan May 9.

Last night, a twitter informed me of  the erratum published.
I was not informed prior to publication by the journal.

I read it, but found it was not attached to the original paper…sigh.

You remember that the human embryo editing paper is the manuscript type of TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS in JARG. But, it included lengthy ethical consideration in Discussion, despite technique paper.
I do not know whether Fan originally included it or editor asked him to include it.

Anyway, I met a big trouble due to mistakes in both the author and the journal.
And, the 2nd human embryo editing paper lost trust in a broad sense.


Dr. Ishii, the victim of the plagiarism, really had to go through a lot to get some kind of action in response to the plagiarism of his work and in the end it seems that it wasn’t resolved satisfactorily for him. I can see why he’s upset. I thank Dr. Ishii for sharing his experience even if it was a bad one.

Here’s the Erratum (sadly at present not attached to the original paper containing the plagiarism) and below that I have a few more thoughts and questions:

“The authors acknowledge that portions of the text of their article were similar to several statements made in Professor Tetsuya Ishii’s Opinion article entitled “Germline genome-editing research and its socioethical implications”. (Trends Mol Med. 2015 Aug;21(8):473–81).

The three statements in question below appeared in the Discussion section of the Kang et al. paper and appear identical or modified with respect to wording or references used in the Opinion piece published by Professor Ishii, which should have been credited with a reference citation.

  1. On page 585: Liang et al. showed that the efficiency of HDR of the β-globin gene was 4.7% (per injected zygote) and that the modified embryos displayed mosaicism in which wild-type cells and genetically modified cells coexisted [12].

  2. On page 586: However, considering that the off-target effect is site dependent and that more specific strategies using more sophisticated enzymes and meticulous design of the guiding molecule have already been established [33–35], off-target mutagenesis may be minimized by optimizing the procedure [36]. Furthermore

  3. On page 587: Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) has already been used clinically in some countries to screen out human embryos with mutations responsible for genetic conditions such as thalassemia and spinal muscular atrophy. The clinical use of PGD appears to justify germline genome editing research because only embryos that contain no suspected mutations, but have undergone the physical intervention of embryonic cell biopsy for genetic testing, are used for embryo transfer

The authors sincerely apologize for these errors of omission in failing to cite the above statements as taken or modified from the publication in Trends Mol Med. (2015 Aug;21(8):473–81).”

Are “errors of omission” synonymous with plagiarism? I don’t think so.

More broadly in science we might be witnessing a trend where plagiarism is a moving target that is handled in very different ways by various journals ranging from no action to corrections/errata to retraction.

How do you think text plagiarism should be handled?

Should the researcher whose work was plagiarized have some say in the fate of the paper containing plagiarized material?

To flip things around, if you were an author on a published paper that unbeknownst to you had included plagiarized text that was added by one of your co-authors and then later you were notified of this, what would you do?

These can be tough questions, but this is an important area for discussion.

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