New plagiarism claims against sport concussion guru Paul McCrory

The world-renowned concussion expert Dr Paul McCrory has been accused of 10 more cases of plagiarism, prompting experts to question how much original research the neurologist has produced and whether he deserved the hundreds of thousands of dollars in research grants he has received.

McCrory stood down as chair of the influential Concussion in Sport Group (CISG) in March after the British Journal of Sports Medicine retracted one of his 2005 editorials, citing an “unlawful and indefensible breach of copyright” of the work of Prof Steve Haake.

At the time McCrory was quoted apologising on Retraction Watch, saying his failure to attribute Haake’s work was an error and “not deliberate or intentional”.

That month Guardian Australia reported further plagiarism allegations against McCrory, an honorary associate with the prestigious Florey Institute for medical research in Melbourne. McCrory did not respond to requests for comment at the time.

Now, Nick Brown, a data analyst at Linnaeus University in Sweden, alleges he has found a further 10 examples of plagiarism by McCrory, including failing to attribute material taken from his own previously published work.

“Dr McCrory has been churning out very similar stories for 20 years, while, as far as I have been able to establish, performing very little original empirical or other research in that time,” Brown said.

“If you’re saying exactly the same thing about this topic as you did a decade ago, what kind of research are you doing?”

The new plagiarism allegations involve works published between 2001 and 2018. Brown says in most cases McCrory appears to have recycled up to 90% of his own previously published work for publication elsewhere without attribution, including in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which he once edited.

In one case, Brown alleges McCrory incorporated the work of a Washington Post journalist, without attribution, for a chapter he contributed to a book on recovery from sports concussions. In another alleged example, in a paper he authored on brain swelling after head injury, McCrory appears to have copied chunks of text without attribution from a book on traumatic brain injury in children and adolescents.

In many of the cases, Brown says McCrory appears to have taken chunks of work from his previous papers and combined that work to form a new paper or a book chapter. None of the pieces contain new, original clinical research.

Having a history of frequently publishing papers is key to researchers and academics securing funding and grants for further research, and to building their reputation.

The neurophysiologist Dr Alan Pearce, an associate professor at La Trobe University, said this makes self-plagiarism unethical in academia as it may give the impression a researcher is consistently producing new work.

“There’s no excuse for any form of plagiarism, including self-plagiarism,” he said.

“It is still dishonest and unethical.”

He said research funding, both government and philanthropic, “actually doesn’t place enough value on what is produced – for example, original research papers – but rather they place value on a researcher’s track record of winning grants”.

“So someone who has won millions of dollars in, particularly, NHMRC [National Health and Medical Research Council] or Australian Research Council grants will be deemed as having a better track record than someone who has published dozens of original research studies, but hasn’t won many grants.”

Pearce said the lack of funding for original research into sports-related head injuries, and concussion policy guidelines being influenced by a well-connected network of a few people including McCrory, meant new developments were slow. He believes funding bodies should be working harder to ensure money is being used on original research in this field.

“In the case of concussion, there are people literally dying because no one is able to help and the research moves so slowly,” he said.

Dr Chris Nowinski, the chief executive and founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation in the US, has previously accused McCrory of misinterpreting and misrepresenting Boston University brain injury research and downplaying the prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of retired athletes.

Nowinski said US sporting codes, to improve concussion protocols, have sought representation from experts named by players associations or player advocates, not just team doctors. He is pushing for similar action in Australia.

“You need a public health voice that recognises that whatever happens in the [professional leagues] will influence what happens to children, and the protocols and messages must be aligned to protect both groups,” he said.

Former Western Bulldogs player Liam Picken is assisted off the field after a concussion in 2017.
Former Western Bulldogs player Liam Picken is assisted off the field after a concussion in 2017. Photograph: Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images

In March, the AFL announced a comprehensive and independent review of the work of McCrory, who for years treated and diagnosed AFL players and provided concussion advice to the league.

The AFL at the time said the review would be undertaken due to the plagiarism allegations and after the league was unable to answer questions about concussion research McCrory was said to have led for the governing body, including how players were recruited for the study and the evidence McCrory used to inform policies. The review is ongoing.

Separately, the Guardian revealed that in May 2018 McCrory voluntarily “provided an enforceable undertaking to the Medical Board of Australia that he will not perform neurodiagnostic procedures, nerve conduction studies, or electromyography until approved to do so by the Board”. The AFL was not aware of this until informed of the undertaking by Guardian Australia. McCrory did not respond to requests for comment.

Guardian Australia analysis reveals that McCrory has directly received at least $1,530,552 in four publicly funded individual grants and fellowships through the NHMRC. He has also been named as an investigator on three further group projects that received public funding.

Analysis of McCrory’s publishing history reveals little evidence of original research into concussion and head trauma. Guardian Australia could identify no peer reviewed publications relating to clinical studies or randomised controlled trials led by McCrory relating to concussion in sport. McCrory did not respond to questions on this.

In the early 2000s, McCrory was named as an associate investigator on a project looking at the cognitive and behavioural outcomes of concussion in young children, run by Prof Vicki Anderson at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Anderson said McCrory had no role in the collection or scoring of the data, nor did he perform any data entry or analysis for the project, and received no income from the grant. Neither Anderson nor McCrory responded to further questions about what McCrory’s role in the study.

McCrory is also named as an investigator on a 2017-2019 project conducted out of the Florey Institute, which received $1,102,245.74 through the NHMRC, studying the accumulation of CTE-linked proteins in the brain and the brain function of concussed individuals several decades after head injury.

Prof Christopher Rowe, the chief investigator on that project, did not respond to questions about McCrory’s involvement in the project or any published peer-reviewed research that resulted from it. McCrory did not respond to requests for comment on this grant either but there is no suggestion that he benefited personally from it.

McCrory was also named as the lead investigator on a randomised controlled trial that studied the effect of acupuncture on knee pain in 2008 that received $701,120.13 in public funds. A paper listing McCrory as a co-author was published out of this research, and it has no connection to concussion.

This raises questions around how McCrory was able to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for concussion research when some of his only original clinical research appears to be in the area of acupuncture.

The most recent grant to McCrory is a $577,188.50 Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Next Generation Clinical Researchers grant, which was awarded in 2017 and announced in a press release by the former health minister Greg Hunt. It is due to be acquitted in 2023.

The funding is to be used to examine the long-term effects of mild traumatic brain injury and “close the current knowledge gap of the impact of this disorder on individuals,” the press release from Hunt at the time said.

Health department ‘concerned’ about allegations

A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Aged Care said “the department is aware of and concerned about the allegations [of plagiarism] made about McCrory”.

“The department has been advised that the responsible institution is investigating the allegations and will provide advice on the outcomes.

“Once received, the department will consider any actions that may be required in response to the outcomes of the investigation. It would be inappropriate to comment on these matters ahead of receiving advice from the institution.”

A Florey Institute spokesperson said: “The MRFF Next Generation Clinical Researcher Program is an ongoing five-year Fellowship undertaken by Dr Paul McCrory that is due to end on 31 December 2022. Grant-related obligations for reporting and acquittals relating to the Fellowship have been met, including the submission of annual financial expenditure reports.

“A summary of the completed project outcomes and papers published will be included in the final project report.”

The institute did not respond to questions about the scope of the project or how participants for studies were being recruited.

Next Generation Clinical Researcher Program grants are fellowships, solely for the salaries of recipients.

A spokesperson from the NHMRC said all financial reports for the other grants had been submitted as required and reviewed and accepted by NHMRC.

“Research funding grants are awarded based on rigorous, competitive peer review with the independent peer reviewers assessing applications against assessment criteria which are described in the relevant scheme guidelines,” the spokesperson said.

Do you know more? Contact melissa.davey@theguardian.com

The Guardian

Leave a Reply