Los Angeles Times
USC scientist’s book sales are halted over plagiarism
At least 95 passages in Dr. David Agus’ work resemble published texts available online.
The publication of a new book by Dr. David Agus, the media-friendly USC oncologist who leads the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, was shaping up to be a high-profile event.
Agus promoted “The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life” with appearances on CBS News, where he serves as a medical contributor, and “The Howard Stern Show,” where he is a frequent guest. Entrepreneur Arianna Huffington hosted a dinner party at her home in his honor. The title hit No. 1 on Amazon’s list of top-selling books about animals a week before its March 7 publication.
However, a Times investigation found at least 95 separate passages in the book that resemble — sometimes word for word — text that originally appeared in other published sources available on the internet. The passages are not credited or acknowledged in the book or its endnotes.
The Times contacted Agus and the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, with its findings late last week. On Monday, both announced that sales of the book will be suspended immediately pending a rewrite that includes appropriate credit for the passages in question.
“I was recently made aware that in writing The Book of Animal Secrets we relied upon passages from various sources without attribution, and that we used other authors’ words. I want to sincerely apologize to the scientists and writers whose work or words were used or not fully attributed,” Agus said in a statement. “I take any claims of plagiarism seriously.”
Agus added that he asked Simon & Schuster to pause the book’s publication, and the company agreed.
“Dr. Agus has decided, with our full support, to re
call the book, at his own expense, until a fully revised and corrected edition can be released,” the publisher said in a statement. “As a result, Simon & Schuster has ceased distribution of all formats of the book and advised our retail and distribution partners to return copies of the book.”
The passages in question range in length from a sentence or two to several continuous paragraphs. The sources borrowed from without attribution include publications such as the New York Times and National Geographic, scientific journals, Wikipedia and the websites of academic institutions.
The book also leans heavily on uncredited material from smaller and lesserknown outlets. A section in the book on queen ants appears to use several sentences from an Indiana newspaper column by a retired medical writer. Long sections of a chapter on the cardiac health of giraffes appear to have been lifted from a 2016 blog post on the website of a South African safari company titled, “The Ten Craziest Facts You Should Know About a Giraffe.”
The book also takes sentences written or spoken by other scientists and presents them as Agus’ original thoughts.
“At the moment, even in mice which have been genetically engineered to have the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, there are no tangles and very little damage to brain cells,” Simon Lovestone, a professor of translational neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said in a 2017 interview with Oxford University’s news service about a study he led. “This makes it difficult to find new targets for curing the disease, as well as studying how a potential drug can change the disease. But if altered insulin signaling can make an animal more susceptible to Alzheimer’s Disease, we might be able [to] produce mice that are a true model of the disease, which we can then test to find new treatments.”
Those sentences appear nearly verbatim in Agus’ book, with no mention of Lovestone or the university’s news release.
Page 224 of Agus’ book mentions “a seminal 2017 study, led by a team at the University of Oxford,” with a footnote citing the research paper. But three pages later, in a passage on the relationship between insulin and Alzheimer’s disease, the following sentences appear: “[E]ven in mice that have been genetically engineered to have the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease, there are no tangles and very little damage to brain cells. This makes it hard to study how a potential drug can change the disease. We’re not about to start experimenting on dolphins in a laboratory setting the way we do with mice. But if altered insulin signaling can make an animal more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, we might be able to produce mice that are a true model of the disease and test them to find new treatments.” Other passages repeat text that appears in strikingly similar form in scientific journal articles.
In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Pain, the authors wrote: “Pain acceptance involves accepting what cannot be changed, reducing unsuccessful attempts at eliminating pain, and engaging in valued activities despite pain. Studies have shown that individuals with high levels of pain acceptance report significantly lower levels of pain, psychological distress, and pain-related disability.”
Agus’ own chapter on pain management includes the following passage on Page 272: “This entails accepting what cannot be changed, reducing unsuccessful attempts at eliminating pain, and engaging in valued activities despite pain. Multiple studies have proven that over time, individuals with higher levels of pain acceptance — more optimism — tend to report significantly lower levels of pain and pain-related disability.” There is no reference to the journal article in the text or its endnotes.
Exploring the animal kingdom is something of a departure from Agus’ normal research interests, which have received millions of dollars of funding from the National Institutes of Health. He has published scores of academic papers, mostly on cancer. In “Animal Secrets,” he describes himself as reporting on the work of other scientists researching nonhuman species.
“I’m not pitching a tent to watch chimpanzees in Tanzania or digging through ant colonies to find the longlived queen, for example,” he writes. “I went out and spoke to the amazing scientists around the world who do these kinds of experiments, and what I uncovered was astonishing.”
In the acknowledgments, he lists 14 scientists “who spent time with me” for the project, many of whom are quoted in the book. But the book is not always clear on the source of quotes attributed to these figures.
Of the Claremont Graduate School professor Paul Zak, who is cited as one of his interviewees, Agus writes on Page 286: “[O]xytocin is, Zak says, the social glue that adheres families, communities, and societies while simultaneously acting as an ‘economic lubricant’ that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions.”
That language about oxytocin appeared in a 2010 profile of Zak in the magazine Fast Company, which wrote: “It is, Zak says, the ‘social glue’ that adheres families, communities, and societies, and as such, acts as an ‘economic lubricant’ that enables us to engage in all sorts of transactions.”
Agus worked on “Animal Secrets” with writer Kristin Loberg, who is credited in the acknowledgments section as his “collaborator.” She has not responded to requests to discuss the book.
USC’s Keck School of Medicine said in a statement that “the university takes allegations of plagiarism very seriously and has processes in place to review such matters. We are unable to comment further at this time given the confidential nature of personnel matters.”
A CBS News spokesman said the network is looking into the matter and that Agus has no appearances planned. “As a news organization, we take accusations of plagiarism seriously,” he said.
Representatives of the Ellison Institute have not commented on the book.
Barbara Glatt, a forensic plagiarism investigator based in Chicago, reviewed a section in Agus’ book about blood circulation in giraffes and compared it to the safari company’s blog post. As Glatt requested, The Times provided only the relevant passage from the book, without information on its title or author.
The word-for-word copying, the similarities in sentence structure and the organization of entire paragraphs — all without attribution — led her to conclude that “plagiarism has occurred.”
“It’s egregious,” Glatt said in an interview.
At a time when artificial intelligence programs can churn out refined text, she was also struck by how lowtech the job appeared to be. “This is not at all sophisticated,” she said.
Elisabeth Bik is a microbiologist and scientific integrity consultant who specializes in identifying manipulated data and images in scientific research. The book passages she reviewed at The Times’ request required far less forensic work, she said.
“It’s very bad. The examples I’m looking at look like literally copy-paste jobs,” said Bik, who described them as “patchwork plagiarism.”
“If a person tries to make money by selling a book, you at least would hope it would be original,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re a scientist or a doctor or not. It doesn’t matter. You have to credit your sources, and you cannot literally lift text from another person’s work without giving credit. That is plagiarism.”
Agus did not immediately respond to requests to comment directly on the plagiarism allegations.
“Animal Secrets” also echoes sections of books written by celebrity doctors. A paragraph about Harvard paleoanthropologist Daniel E. Lieberman appears nearly verbatim in CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s 2021 book “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age.”
A description of insulin resistance that runs for nearly a page in Agus’ book closely parallels the structure and word choice in a passage of the 2018 bestselling book “Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar — Your Brain’s Silent Killers” by Dr. David Perlmutter, a frequent TV talk show guest in the 2010s.
“Animal Secrets” is the fourth book Agus has written with Loberg. According to her website, Loberg also collaborated on the Gupta and Perlmutter books echoed in Agus’ most recent tome.
Simon & Schuster published Agus’ “The End of Illness” in 2011, “A Short Guide to a Long Life” in 2014 and “The Lucky Years” in 2016. His first two books were New York Times bestsellers, according to the publisher. “Animal Secrets” is his first publication to discuss the biology of nonhuman species at length.
After medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, a residency at Johns Hopkins and a research fellowship at Memorial SloanKettering Cancer Center, Agus came to Los Angeles in 2000 to join Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as a prostate cancer specialist.
His patients there included the late Viacom executive Sumner Redstone, who donated $35 million to the hospital’s prostate cancer center in thanks. He also treated a nephew of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who met Agus while accompanying his relative to an appointment.
Ellison introduced Agus to his close friend Steve Jobs when he was battling pancreatic cancer. Agus wrote in “The Lucky Years” that he served as a consultant on the Apple founder’s medical team until his death in 2011. (In interviews, Agus has credited Jobs and his black turtlenecks for inspiring his own signature uniform of a black crewneck sweater atop a white dress shirt.)
Agus joined USC in 2009. His friendship with Ellison led to the tech mogul pledging $200 million to create the Ellison Institute, which opened its doors in 2021.
Agus, 58, is something of a celebrity in his own right, and undeniably celebrity-adjacent. He is a frequent speaker at the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and is co-chair of the Global Health Security Consortium, a joint project of Oxford University, the Ellison Institute and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Last year he hosted the docuseries “The Check Up With Dr. David Agus” on Paramount Plus, where he discussed health issues with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Amy Schumer, Ashton Kutcher and Nick Cannon.
In the version of the book that was to have been published Tuesday, the acknowledgment section of “Animal Secrets” thanks a long list of famous friends including former Vice President Al Gore, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Paramount Global Chairman Shari Redstone, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and CBS News host Gayle King.
In his statement, Agus committed to producing a new version of the book that is free of plagiarism.
“This book contains important lessons, messages, and guidance about health that I wanted to convey to the readers. I do not want these mistakes to interfere with that effort,” he said. “Once again, I apologize.”
No new publication date is yet scheduled, Simon & Schuster said.