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Plagiarism Found in Residency Applications

Janice Simmons, for HealthLeaders Media, July 21, 2010

Plagiarism can be found in many types of applications—including applications to large medical residency programs, according to researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. In a study of 4,975 residency applications essays sent to the hospital for an 18-month period, at least one in 20 essays—and maybe more—appeared to be plagiarized.

To determine if plagiarism occurred, application essays were compared to a database of Internet pages, published works, and previously submitted essays by specialized software that returns a "similarity score" using a scale of 0-100—representing the percentage of the submissions matching another source.

An essay matching more than 10% to existing work was defined as evidence of plagiarism, according to the findings published in the July 20 Annals of Internal Medicine. The applications were received for the five large residency programs: anesthesia, emergency medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology and surgery between September 2005 and March 2007.

"I think that for a long time people have been discussing anecdotal reports of this—a case here and there," says study co-author Scott Segal, MD, vice chairman for education in the Department of Anesthesiology Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Brigham and Women's.

Segal says he recalls hearing a presentation by an official of the National Residency Matching Program who said that only in the most egregious cases would they discipline applicants—for instance, if someone plagiarized their essay. This implied that "in their opinion, it was a rare event," he says. "But to think that one in 20 or more application essays are plagiarized, is disturbing and dismaying to us."

Segal and his co-author, Brian J. Gelfand, MD, noted in their study say that while their intent was not to pinpoint who was likely to plagiarize, several differences emerged among various subgroups of applicants.

For instance, non-U.S. citizens' essays were more likely to demonstrate evidence of plagiarism: Among foreign nationals, the rate was 13.9%; among permanent residents, 13.6%; and among others, 9.1%. Among U.S citizens, the rate was 1.8%.

Other characteristics associated with the prevalence of plagiarism included medical school location outside the U.S. and Canada; previous residency or fellowship; lack of research experience, volunteer experience, or publications; a low United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 score; and nonmembership in the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

The reasoning for plagiarism cannot be answered with this study, Segal says. "Really all we can say is whether the material was original or not. It's very difficult to make any sort of inference to the motive of the authors of these essays."

Much literature on plagiarism discusses the variations of cultural attitudes about copying materials, he adds. "There is some evidence that different cultures may approach the copying of previously authored materials differently than they do in the West. We consider it a major academic sin to do this, whereas it may not be in other cultures."

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