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Ann Plast Surg. 2012 Apr;68(4):391-5. doi: 10.1097/SAP.0b013e31823d2c4e.

"Phantom" publications among plastic surgery residency applicants.

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Stanford University School of Medicine, Department of Surgery, Division of Plastic Surgery, Palo Alto, CA 94304-5715, USA.



Previous studies in other medical specialties have shown a significant percentage of publications represented in residency applications are not actually published. A comprehensive evaluation of applicants to plastic surgery residency over an extended period has not been previously reported in the literature. The purpose of our study was to determine the incidence of misrepresented or "phantom" publications in plastic surgery residency applicants and to identify possible predisposing characteristics.


We used the Electronic Residency Application Services database to our plastic surgery residency program during a 4-year period from 2006 to 2009. Applicant demographic information and listed citations were extracted. Peer-reviewed journal article citations were verified using robust methods including PubMed, Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) Web of Knowledge, and Google. Unverifiable articles were categorized as phantom publications and then evaluated with respect to applicant demographic information and characteristics.


During the 4-year study period, there were 804 applications (average, 201 applicants per year). There was a total of 4725 publications listed; of which, 1975 had been categorized as peer-reviewed journal articles. Two hundred seventy-six (14%) of peer-reviewed publications could not be verified and were categorized as phantom publications. There was an overall significant positive trend in percentage of phantom publications during the 4 application years (P = 0.005). A positive predictive factor for having phantom publications was being a foreign medical graduate (P = 0.02). A negative predictive factor for phantom publications was being a female applicant (P = 0.03). There also appeared to be a positive correlation with the number of publications listed and likelihood of phantom publications.


Among plastic surgery residency applicants, we found a significant percentage of unverifiable publications. There are several possible explanations for our findings, which include the fact that plastic surgery is a highly sought-after specialty and applicants may feel the need to appear competitive to residency programs. Publications are an important aspect of the residency selection process and factors into applicant ranking, but our study suggests publications listed in plastic surgery residency applications may not necessarily be an accurate representation of actual published articles. Program directors and faculty are advised to scrutinize listed publications carefully when evaluating applicants.

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