5% of medical residents plagiarize personal essays

5% of medical residents plagiarize personal essays

Summary: What does it mean when even our applicants for medical residency programs cheat?


Not long ago, I featured a story on Turnitin for Admissions, a powerful new tool from the same people who brought us the Turnitin service that is the bane of college students' existence. The idea behind both is simple (although the technology is remarkably robust): scour the web as well as every other essay ever screened through Turnitin for patterns of duplication and flag essays with possible plagiarism.

As Turnitin has tested and rolled out their admissions software, striking research from early adopting institutions suggests that plagiarism is rampant among graduate school applicants and new findings released yesterday point to similar trends among applicants to medical residency programs. A single study from Harvard Medical School of almost 5000 applicants to residency programs at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston exposed potential plagiarism in 5% of the personal essays.

While there were significant subgroup differences (applicants from outside the United States were more likely to plagiarize, for example, as were students with low MCAT scores, among other factors). While it may help us feel a little better here in the States to say that only 2% of US applicants (versus 14% of non-US citizens) were flagged for plagiarism, one can't help but worry about the integrity of any applicants, regardless of nationality, who might be making it through the application process to our most prestigious physician training programs when Turnitin isn't used to identify potential programs. Would you want your doctor, US citizen or otherwise, operating on your child's heart or performing a Caesarean section to deliver your baby knowing that he or she lacked enough confidence in his or her abilities to even write his own residency application?

As one of the researchers put it,

I think that is the part that bothers me most..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 research even led on doctor to suggest that the personal essay was no longer relevant in an age when cutting and pasting and paid essay-writing services and consultants abound. From my perspective, I say keep the essays and use Turnitin for Admissions to quickly weed out those doctors who lack the integrity, confidence or communications skills to bang out their own essays. If applicants are not native English speakers, then they should work with a translator rather than the Internet or an essay writer. After all, we need doctors with diverse cultural experiences and fluency in other languages to address the needs of a diverse population. More than that, though, we need doctors who are highly competent, confident, and, above all, beyond reproach in their integrity.

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Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • did someone ever test this on published scientific articles ?

    • Not sure that's comparable


      Scientific articles will by nature quote other sources. What to look for there would be uncited references, not repetition. Personal essays, on the other hand, are supposed to be original.
    • personal statements were tested

      it is important to note that it was in fact Personal Statement essays that were run through Turnitin for Admissions. By its nature, there should be very little unoriginal content in a personal statement... or else it wouldn't be so personal.

      A sister product called iThenticate (www.ithenticate.com) does work specifically with publishers and researchers, though it takes more human review to validate content matches for proper citation.
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  • Funny

    "Would you want your doctor, US citizen or otherwise, operating on your child?s heart or performing a Caesarean section to deliver your baby knowing that he or she lacked enough confidence in his or her abilities to even write his own residency application?"

    When you have to have surgery do you care if doctor is a good writer or a good surgeon?
    Too much emphasis on irrelevant skills leads to mediocre workers.
  • RE: 5% of medical residents plagiarize personal essays

    It may also have less to do with lack of confidence but ease. We humans tend to gravitate to taking the easiest path. In a busy world I suspect many might find the temptation of this path part of speeding things up. Values aren't as ingrained as when religions had a greater role to play within education (Things were more black and white then they are now)
  • Trust and Integrity DO Matter!

    The point -- to some people, including me -- is that personal virtues do matter, as much or more than a specific skill. The Doctor may be good, but if he is a liar or a cheat -- as evidenced by plagiarism -- how can I trust him to make a diagnosis in my best interests, not his? How can I trust that we didn't cheat his way through school, putting me and my family at risk? How can I even trust that he is a "good doctor"? It is difficult to find an independent, trustworthy source of evaluations of a doctor's skill.

    I trust the school's accredidation was properly performed and "guarantees" the school meets minimum acceptable standards. I trust that a degree from that school "guarantees" the graduate meets certain minimum standards. I trust the doctor to retain his skills and stay "up to date" in his knowledge. The trust thing goes on and on...

    Everything is based on trust, honor, integrity -- your character!

    President George Washington said it well:
    "I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man."

    Once that title is lost, I do not want that Doctor treating me or my family. A patient/physician relationship must be based on trust!

    That is why plagiarism matters. That is why cheating in any form matters. That is why dishonesty, duplicity, hypocrisy, and "lack of character" matters.

    Character is NOT an "irrelevant skill"! The ability to communicate is NOT an "irrelevant skill".

    I have had many medical services and met many doctors. When I needed emergency open-heart sugery, to repair a dissected aorta, there were four surgeons in the world that I considered. Did trust matter? Did reputation matter? Did the character of these surgeons matter? Did "peer review" matter? Did publishing matter? Did writing and lecturing and "sharing their skills and techniques" matter?

    Absolutely. All these mattered. All helped build the trust that allowed me to put my life (and indirectly my family's lives) into the hands of Dr. James R. Pluth of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

    I thank him for being a man of integrity. He saved my life!

    We need our trusted institutions to "weed out" any person that is not a person of integrity!
  • RE: 5% of medical residents plagiarize personal essays

    I don't believe the numbers. Doesn't anybody question the ability of the program to accurately determine plagiarism? These essays are on common themes, addressing similar concerns common to many people. I don't imagine that everybody has unique ideas on that subject. If their essays draw on previously written essays, how is that a problem? It would be stupid to completely write a different essay every time you're asked.
    Elwood Diverse