Journal to Retract Psych Paper After Plagiarism Allegations, Editor Steps Down

Alicia Ault

February 24, 2021

A medical journal is retracting a paper after a psychiatrist alleged that the managing editor closely copied and published her withdrawn work and claimed it for his own.

In addition, the managing editor, Gary VandenBos, PhD, has resigned at the journal's request, according to an email sent to the paper's original author, psychiatrist Amy Barnhorst, MD, vice chair for community mental health at the University of California, Davis, and coauthor and UC Davis colleague Rocco Pallin, MPH.

Barnhorst shared emails — from the journal's publisher, Springer Publishing Company, and from the editor-in-chief, Morgan Sammons, PhD — with Medscape Medical News.

The retraction is the end of a saga that began when Barnhorst and Pallin submitted a paper, at VandenBos' request, to the Journal of Health Service Psychology, published by Springer.

As previously reported by Medscape Medical News, Barnhorst and Pallin eventually decided to withdraw the paper and were later notified by VandenBos that he'd published a similar article under his own authorship. Michael O. Miller, a retired judge who trained as a psychologist, was listed as a coauthor.

VandenBos did not acknowledge how heavily his paper borrowed from the withdrawn Barnhorst and Pallin article. The two women — acknowledged experts in the article's subject matter on how physicians can talk to patients about gun violence — immediately notified Sammons and Springer Publishing when they saw the published piece, saying they believed it plagiarized their original submission.

According to the e-mail Springer sent to Barnhorst, the publisher investigated and said that it would "be retracting the article shortly."

The retraction notice will state: "The Editor-in-Chief and the authors, VandenBos and Miller, have retracted this article as it significantly overlaps with an unpublished manuscript by Amy Barnhorst and Rocco Pallin." It also states that, "VandenBos accepts full responsibility for the overlap."

The original article will still be available, but it will be marked as "retracted" and feature a link to the retraction notice.

Barnhorst, who garnered at least 40,000 likes when she tweeted about the alleged theft of her work, told Medscape Medical News that she and Pallin are "glad to see that the investigation is complete and the retraction has been issued."

"At least we can now submit it to a new journal in a version that appropriately represents our work and expertise," said Barnhorst. "I still have no idea how or why this happened, nor how much of it was intentional and on whose part, but I guess I never will!" she said.

Editor Removed

When contacted by Medscape Medical News to comment on the retraction and removal of VandenBos as managing editor, Sammons said it was not possible because, "I treat such correspondence as confidential."

Sammons said he could "confirm that our investigation is reaching its conclusion and my colleagues at Springer Nature would be happy to contact you when we can provide a further update."

Springer spokesperson Anne Korn also would not comment beyond saying, "The conclusion of our investigation is still in progress and may take a little additional time."  

In the letter sent to Barnhorst and Pallin, Sammons said he had "asked for and accepted the resignation of Dr. VandenBos," and that the resignation will be announced "in the upcoming print issue of our journal."

Sammons said he also notified the dean of the University of Arizona College of Law that Miller, who held a position at the school, was not aware of the original submission by the two women. Even so, the school suspended Miller's academic appointment, according to Sammons' letter.

The editor-in-chief also said that while "VandenBos' errors were substantial and had substantial consequences, my investigation did not find any intent to plagiarize your work."

He apologized again to Barnhorst and Pallin, though, adding, "I and my associate editors have initiated a revision of our publications processes to ensure that errors such as the above do not occur in the future, and I apologize again that this lapse affected you and your scholarly work."

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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