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Credit for U.S. journal article at issue

A leader of a Hollywood hospital's parent firm was listed as the fertility piece's main author. But a fellow Korean says it's a copy of his thesis.

February 18, 2007|Charles Ornstein | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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