June 16th, 2008
The big news today is that ‘TV psychiatrist’ Dr Raj Persaud is being investigated by the General Medical Council for passing off other people’s academic work as his own in media features and academic journals. Dr Persaud has admitted to plagiarism, but the GMC has to decide what action to take as a result.
This poses a dilemma, since plagiarism is a major academic no-no. Due to an increase in people selling essays and the ability to copy information from the internet, cheating is a widespread problem affecting universities worldwide. That’s why most academic institutions take a very firm stance on the issue – automatically failing students who are caught passing off people’s work as their own.
Academic journals are slightly different. While they equally disapprove of plagiarism, it is down to individual authors to declare what they are submitting as their own work. That means they haven’t copied from another source – or from their colleagues or students. Unfortunately plagiarism by supervisors isn’t unheard of, nor is copying from colleagues. But in the case of journals it’s also the responsibility of peer reviewers and journal editors to check the accuracy of any work submitted.
Where complaints are made, journals and academic institutions are obliged to investigate. This could lead to an academic losing their job, but not always since those in positions of power who take advantage of students or researchers may get away with what is plagiarism by calling it ‘supervision’ or ‘management’. It takes a brave student or staff member to show (and prove) unethical practice of a senior staff member.
Within media it’s different again. The media thrives on cannibalising itself for ideas and angles, although again its poor form to copy someone’s work directly. So you could take an idea (e.g. the plot of a recent episode from a TV show) and use that to inform an article, but you couldn’t pass off the script of said show as your own work.
Dr Persaud was caught between two places, the media (where plagiarism is perhaps subject to interpretation) and academia, where plagiarism is (rightly) a big issue. This may explain why these unfortunate events arose. Moreover, while Persaud is a practitioner who works in the media and someone who does publish academic papers, it may be without formal training on how to publish that a clear understanding of what plagiarism means could have been missed. Admittedly I’m giving a very generous benefit of the doubt here, but having taught practitioners how to publish I’m frequently surprised how little they know about the logistics and ethics of this area.
I’ve followed Dr Persaud’s career with interest. I would do, as I’m also a psychologist who’s keen to work within mainstream media. As a successful media personality I’ve watched how Persaud works and made decisions about my own practice. Like Persaud I believe that we can share many ideas from psychology with the public – and we should do this as a part of our daily work. Unlike Persaud I have made decisions not to talk about celebrities and case studies. This is probably one of the reasons he’s a successful media pundit and I am not.
All day colleagues have been emailing me about this case. ‘Hey have you seen how Per-pseud (sic) has been caught out!’ was the subject heading from one. In general the tone has not been sympathetic for Dr Persaud (from my colleagues and also wider media coverage). Perhaps that’s partly because academics are a funny bunch that tend to look down on working with the media – but are still always jealous of anyone who gets a bit of publicity.
Strangely, as someone who has been critical of Dr Persaud’s approach in the past, I have taken no satisfaction in this case. Bad practice has been admitted to here, that’s undeniable. But the pressure from both academia and media will certainly have played a role. And when any practitioner is shown up as suspect it makes all of our jobs that much harder. There are still a great many academics who would rather we have nothing to do with the media, and cases like this automatically serve to bolster their arguments that nothing good can come from being part of the press.
Interestingly the media have been quick to cover the TV-doc-in-cheating-scandal angle, but very few have acknowledged the role the media may have played within this case. For practitioners who worry about working with the media this case has become a cautionary tale since the press were very happy to woo Dr Persaud back in the day, only to label him ‘rent a quote’ when he became well known, and now we see the media happy to pillory him. It’s a sad payback for someone who, whether you like his views or approach, has done a lot to bring psychiatry to society.
Critics within academia of course can argue that it’s no good bringing psychiatry (and psychology) to the public domain if what you’re sharing involves stealing someone else’s work. In an era where academics are fearful of any accusation of malpractice it is perhaps unsurprising that nobody is apparently speaking out in Dr Persaud’s defence.
There are lessons to be learned in this case. Academic journals need to take an even stronger line on plagiarism, and check more thoroughly for cases of malpractice. Healthcare practitioners who intend to publish academic books or papers require greater training in how to publish – and what constitutes plagiarism. And the media need to be careful that experts they are employing are playing fair.
The key question here is really about fitness to practice. Dr Persaud is a psychiatrist. His dealings with the media give us no real clue about how he is as a doctor. He could be an excellent practitioner. We don’t know. The question is whether passing off someone’s work as your own interferes with being a competent healthcare practitioner. And whether cheating over your writing means you can’t deliver patient care.
There’s no doubt that someone who has admitted to a fair amount of plagiarism from different sources (and seemingly denied accusations of plagiarism when first accused) will lose their credibility as an academic. It may be a case where academic journals could refuse to publish future research of someone like this – unless they could verify the originality of their work. It may also be the case that an academic institution would not have a practitioner lecturing students if they had been under such a cloud, since how can we penalise students if academics are allowed to get away with cheating?
Yet this is a separate argument about fitness to practise on a clinical level. I suspect it will be a difficult dilemma for the GMC and general opinion seems to be Persaud will not escape without a major stain on his character, but may be allowed to continue to practice clinically. Whether he has much of an academic career left is debatable, but so long as he’s happy to say what the media wants, no doubt the journalists who’re labelling him a fraud today will be happy to have a quote from him about a celebrity du jour tomorrow.
It’s one of the key differences between media and academia. Academics rarely forget, and journalists rarely remember.Tweet