TDI professor resigns following inquiry

by Anthony Robles | 9/21/18 2:45am

H. Gilbert Welch, a professor at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, resigned on Sept. 13. His resignation follows a College-conducted investigation spanning over 20 months that found him guilty of having committed plagiarism regarding his authorship of a 2016 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The article in question, entitled “Breast-Cancer Tumor Size, Overdiagnosis, and Mammography Screening Effectiveness,” detailed findings that mammograms are likely to lead to unnecessary treatment through the discovery of tumors that will never become life-threatening. It was ranked in the top one percent of all research articles with similar subjects.

Welch had taught at the College since 1990 and served as a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine, an adjunct public policy professor and adjunct professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business. He is also an esteemed health policy scholar in the United States, known primarily for his work on the topic of overdiagnoses.

The investigation followed an allegation made by a fellow TDI professor, Samir Soneji, and Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez, community health sciences professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Soneji said that after giving a presentation in May 2015, he was asked by Welch if he could use one of the slides for his class. The presentation given by Soneji focused on his and Beltran-Sanchez’s findings on over-diagnosing tumors during breast cancer screenings.

In a timeline of events that Welch compiled and distributed to his colleagues, he acknowledged asking for the slide, but also stated that the biggest influence that the slide had on him was that he “realized it contained errors,” which “drove [him] to look directly at the data itself.” At this point, Welch wrote that he created the “precursor” to a graph eventually printed in the NEJM by reanalyzing the cancer data that Soneji used.

Later in 2015, Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez submitted their findings to the NEJM but were rejected. In October 2016, NEJM published Welch’s article, which was co-written with three other authors. Shortly thereafter, Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez attempted to publish their findings in another journal but were told by a peer reviewer that their article was too similar to Welch’s recent publication.

On June 14, a letter written by interim provost David Kotz ’86 was sent to Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez, stating that the College had accepted a report made by an investigation committee that found Welch to have “engaged in research misconduct, namely, plagiarism, by knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly appropriating the ideas, processes, results or words of Complainants without giving them appropriate credit.” Kotz further added that Welch’s actions had deviated from standard norms established in the academic community.

In a letter that Welch sent to his colleagues on Sept. 13 and shared with The Dartmouth, he announced that Geisel School of Medicine dean Duane Compton had asked him to contact the NEJM and request that Soneji be recognized as first author of the article. Furthermore, Compton informed Welch that he would be allowed to stay at the College but would not be allowed to teach. Welch, however, declined to acquiesce to Compton’s request.

“I cannot in good conscience accept the demand that I make the complainant an author — much less the demand that I make him the first author,” Welch wrote. “Doing so requires that I falsely attest that he meets the requirements of authorship: namely, that he materially participated in the work and is able to defend it. Furthermore, the demand that I no longer teach subverts the very reason I came to work at Dartmouth.”

In a case summary written by Welch and shared with The Dartmouth, Welch said he and the College agreed that his co-authors were neither involved in or responsible for the article’s disputed authorship.

Welch’s co-author Barnett Kramer could not be reached by the time of publication, and Phil Prorok, another co-author, declined to comment.

“An appointed panel of Mr. Welch’s peers at Dartmouth College conducted a thorough and extensive 20-month investigation, which carefully evaluated all evidence including Welch’s claims,” Soneji wrote in an email statement. “Ultimately, Dartmouth concluded Welch committed plagiarism — a serious breach of professional conduct.”

Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez have requested that NEJM retract the article. In light of the findings of the College’s investigation, however, the publication described the incident as an “authorship dispute” in an Aug. 10 letter sent to the College and declined to retract the article.

“The failure of NEJM to retract the plagiarizing article — which was also authored by senior staff at the U.S. National Cancer Institute and another professor at Dartmouth College — violated principles of scientific integrity and creates a dangerous precedent whereby plagiarism is allowed in the most prestigious journals,” Soneji wrote in an email.

Beltrán-Sánchez could not be reached by time of publication.

Welch’s case summary said that while Dartmouth had found that he had “engaged in research misconduct, specifically, idea plagiarism,” both the United States Office of Research Integrity and NEJM — which used the College’s own report — had determined that this was an authorship or credit dispute. Welch also wrote that ORI had “discouraged Dartmouth from pursuing a charge of idea plagiarism.”

He further wrote that he believed Dartmouth’s finding was “undermined by three fundamental issues,” which include “vagueness about what idea was allegedly plagiarized” and “lack of evidence that any of these ideas originated with the complainant.” Additionally, Welch wrote that despite multiple attempts to obtain Soneji’s own paper, the College “never provided [him] a copy of [Soneji’s] paper.”

In his resignation email, Welch said it had “been an honor” to work at the College, and that he had “been blessed to be able to work with the many fine staff, and clinicians.” This sentiment was echoed by some of Welch’s now former colleagues.

Rockefeller Center for Public Policy director and economics professor Andrew Samwick, who knew Welch through Welch’s teaching of Public Policy 26, “Health Policy and Clinical Practice,” described Welch’s resignation as a “tragic loss for the Dartmouth community.” He added that the course would not be offered during the upcoming spring term, as there was no way to “replace [Welch] as an instructor,” and there other health-related classes that can be used for the public policy minor.

“His teaching evaluations I would summarize as outstanding,” Samwick said. “He had quite a rapport with the students. He inspired quite a lot of learning.” There are other classes related to health that students can swap in and out of their interdisciplinary public policy minor, so we’ll probably hold off on having someone teach that class.”

TDI biostatics professor, and one of the co-authors on Welch’s article, A. James O’Malley said he found “the whole episode ... to be sad” as it had led to Welch’s departure.

“I just feel frustrated,” O’Malley said. “Hopefully some good will come of this.”

Soneji declined to comment on Welch’s resignation.

Welch’s resignation marks the second incident involving a high-profile academic at TDI in the last couple of months. Director Elliot Fisher, along with chief of strategy and operations Adam Keller, are both under investigation for their workplace conduct. On July 31, The Dartmouth reported that both individuals had been placed on administrative leave and were prohibited from entering college property.

Kotz declined a request for comment.

Correction appended (Sept. 21, 2018): This article has been updated to correctly abbreviate the New England Journal of Medicine.