One in 20 applicants for Harvard Medical residencies plagiarized their personal essays

Five percent of personal essays in residency applications to a Harvard teaching hospital were plagiarized, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

"I was dismayed by the extent we found," lead author Dr. Scott Segal of Brigham and Women's Hospital, a Harvard teaching hospital, told the Boston Globe. "A professional lapse as great as this is unacceptable."

The copycat material included stories about patients, family members or fellow students, with only a few words changed.

"I think that is the part that bothered me the most," Segal told the Globe. "You read this heartfelt anecdote about a person's illness or a family member's illness or a particular patient and it turns out not to be their experience at all."

The idea for the study took root when Segal and co-author Dr. Brian Gelfand were skimming through applications and encountered two that contained the same paragraph.

Researchers used special software to compare resident application essays in residency program applications to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston with a database of Internet pages, published works, and previously submitted essays to calculate the percentage of a submission that matched another source. A match of more than 10 percent to an existing work was defined as evidence of plagiarism.

Essays from applicants who had been members in Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society and those who had research experience, volunteer experience and higher U.S. Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 scores were less likely to reflect evidence of plagiarism. Essays from international applicants, whether defined by citizenship, medical school type, or medical school location, were more likely to demonstrate evidence of copied material.

Researchers found evidence of plagiarism among applicants in all specialties, but it was more common in some: 8 percent of OB/GYN applicants and 6 percent of internal medicine residency applicants plagiarized. Using copied material was less common among emergency medicine applicants (2 percent).

An editorial in the same issue of Annals of Internal Medicine called for personal statements to be dropped from residency applications. Now that applicants can get online editors to help them with their statements, one can never know to what extent the statement represents the applicant's own ideas and effort, according to an associate dean of admissions and a member of the admissions board at the medical school at University of California, San Francisco.

In reaction to their findings, the authors of the original study called for a concerted, nationwide effort to detect and deter plagiarism.

To learn more:
- read the abstract and related editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine (sub. required for the full editorial)
- check out this Boston Globe's piece
- here's the Chronicle of Higher Education's story