On the couch: So who is the real Dr Raj Persaud?
He is Britain's most famous psychiatrist, as at home before a TV or radio audience as he is treating a patient. But now he has been caught up in a row over plagiarism, and is standing down from the Radio 4 programme, 'All In The Mind'. Paul Vallely turns the tables on this medical and media phenomenon
Tuesday 04 April 2006
Professor Persaud is a consultant at one of the country's leading teaching hospitals, the Maudsley in London, though he is better known as Britain's number one pyscho pundit - at home everywhere from the sofa of Richard and Judy and the pages of women's magazines like Cosmopolitan to the greyer columns of the serious newspapers and the studio of Radio 4's leading programme on mental health, All in the Mind.
At least he was until yesterday when the BBC announced he would be standing down from the programme following allegations that he plagiarised the work of an American professor of psychology on three occasions last year. Dr Persaud might have hoped the affair had gone away, but it shows no sign of doing so. Yesterday his personal website was in meltdown.
The problem first arose in February last year when Dr Persaud's column in the Times Educational Supplement was found to have a substantial percentage of its words on the social psychologist Stanley Milgram copied directly from the website of Professor Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland. The American academic - whom Dr Persaud had interviewed on Radio 4 in November 2004 - complained to the good doctor direct and was told that he had intended to acknowledge the article from which he quoted but the attribution had been omitted in error. The TES website then added suitable alterations to the text.
The trouble was he did the same thing again in two other articles on the same subject; Milgram's notorious experiments in which students administered electric shocks to other students, and carried on doing so even when their victims (who were really actors) seemed to pass out or even die.
The first article, a book review of Blass's book on Milgram, was written for the February edition of the journal Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry. Professor Blass saw it and contacted the editor, who in September - wheels turn exceeding slowly in academic publishing - issued a formal retraction of the article.
Then a third piece on the same subject appeared in the British Medical Journal in its August edition. This too had large chunks of Thomas Blass's text reproduced without attribution. "He had taken paragraphs from my work, word for word," he told The Guardian last year. "Over 50 per cent of his piece was my work, which I have spent more than 10 years researching. I felt outrage, disbelief and incredulity this could happen, that a person who is himself a writer could do this. It's very disconcerting." The BMJ also issued a formal retraction, which appeared in its December edition. The Institute of Psychiatry and Maudsley NHS Trust have set up a panel to review the matter. It has yet to report.
All of which was, to say the least, rather embarrassing for the man described by The Spectator as "the most eminent psychiatrist of the age". Raj Persaud is certainly one of the best-known psychiatrists of the age, in this country at any rate. As well as appearing as the sofa shrink on daytime television, he frequently pops up in the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times, Independent and Guardian. As well as Radio 4 he does a programme for the BBC World Service.
There have always been psychiatric professionals who sought to popularise their trade. Dr Persaud's predecessor, Dr Anthony Clare, was celebrated for his In the Psychiatrist's Chair interviews. "The trouble is that Anthony Clare was very scrupulous about the kind of things he did," said a fellow psychiatrist yesterday, "but Raj has never been terribly discriminating. He's gone for maximum exposure, with articles on a huge range of subjects, and with very short deadlines." But even his critics - and Dr Persaud has colleagues who think all the media hoo-ha diverts him too much from his post as a senior NHS consultant - concede he is a man worthy of respect.
The Reading-born psychiatrist has eight degrees and diplomas to his name, including, in addition to his medical qualifications, an MPhil, a master's in statistics and - unusually for a psychiatrist - a degree (first class) in psychology. A former pupil of Haberdashers' Aske's private school, in Elstree, Rajendra Persaud went to University College London where, thinking a medical degree too limiting, he also attended sociology and art classes. As a result, he failed his first-year anatomy exams, but was so traumatised by the failure that "I more or less moved into the library for the remaining years of the clinical course", becoming such a fixture that at one point the Dean begged him to take a holiday.
From that point, hard work characterised the career of one of Britain's youngest consultant psychiatrists. He won numerous awards, including the prestigious Royal College of Psychiatrists' Research Medal. In 2002 he was voted one of the top ten UK psychiatrists by his peers at the Institute of Psychiatry and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He was the youngest on the list. In 2004 he was appointed Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry. "He is very highly rated within the Institute of Psychiatry," said another psychiatrist. "He has done a lot to reduce the stigma of mental illness and help the public take a more favourable view of psychiatry."
Given all that why did he resort to copying someone else's work? Dr Persaud said it was all down to an error "whereby when I cut and pasted the original copy, the references at the end were inadvertently omitted". Three times? The doctor's fellow psychiatrists are, perhaps surprisingly, sanguine about the whole business. "All three pieces were clearly written around the same time," said one, "and it looks like he has been sloppy rather than wilfully deceptive."
The Institute of Psychiatry review panel is not a disciplinary process, noted another. "In academic circles plagiarism - passing someone else's data off as your own - is the worst sin you can commit," said a third. "But this is not that kind of plagiarism. It's journalistic rather than scientific, which is much less serious. It's a 'failure to attribute' rather than 'intention to deceive'. Raj doesn't need to do that. His ability is not in question." And it all occurred within reviews of Blass's book on Milgram "which," said another shrink, " is an implicit context of attribution - it's not as though Blass wasn't mentioned in the pieces - they were all plugs for his bloody book."
What it does suggest, said another psychiatrist who also writes regularly in the media, but under a pseudonym, is that "Persaud, despite all his denials, does spread himself too thin. You can't really do a high volume of stuff at a very high level. The danger when you write a lot is that you can't remember whether this is something you've done before."
It also reveals the perils of computer technology which allows writers to cannibalise their own work through cut-and-paste techniques, making the odd change here and there to avoid total repetition, he says. "If something has been saved on the computer without care it would easily be possible for a prolific writer to come across a few paragraphs and think, 'That's quite good - I'll use it again' without realising they hadn't written it in the first place. It's the pressure of short cuts."
"Raj is an incredibly hard worker," said another psychiatrist and friend of Dr Persaud. "But that means he's inevitably taking tremendous risks. Even so, most of his articles reveal he's done some research or reading when he's on a subject outside his own expertise. And he uses his general training to put forward an article that's usually more than adequate for public consumption."
But what drives him to push himself forward in a way which requires such risk-taking?
Raj Persaud, who lists poker as his first recreation in Who's Who, has in the past said he turns down 90 per cent of the requests he gets from "editors unsympathetic to the fact that the evidence or research clashes with their opinion".
Not all his colleagues are convinced. Why, queries one, did he feel obliged to write a third review for Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry? "It's a crap freebie journal that most people put straight in the bin," said one psychiatrist friend. "So why did he do it? Because he was paid? He can't need the money. Because it keeps his profile up? He certainly has a huge ego. Or because his success is based on saying yes to everything?"
Yet another colleague remarks: "The wonder is that he hasn't come a cropper earlier." Dr Persaud knows he has come one now. "Another friend got an email from him saying that the day all this broke was the worst day of his life," said a psychiatrist friend. "He's been very foolish and he knows it. He's mortified."
Perhaps the writings of one Raj Persaud offer an answer. One of humanity's greatest incentives, the prolific psycho has written, is "social rewards such as flattery, esteem, attraction, and praise". Writing of the fatal flaws in the characters of politicians like David Blunkett and Bill Clinton which lead them into extraordinary acts of hubris, Dr Persaud also comments: "There is another ingredient to add in to this toxic and psychologically explosive cocktail.
"Psychologically embedded in the relationships of the powerful are the seeds of their eventual destruction and [many] politicians remain in deep denial about that. People with elevated power become disposed to elevated levels of risk-taking. They are more mentally oriented to potential rewards and oblivious to pitfalls."
A psychiatrist writes. And he should know.
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