Physician Alleges Plagiarism, Fights for Retraction

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At the beginning of 2020, psychiatrist Amy Barnhorst, MD, was approached by Gary VandenBos, PhD, managing editor of the Journal of Health Service Psychology, who asked her if she would write an article about one of her areas of expertise — firearm suicide — for a special edition of the journal. She had previously co-authored an article on the topic that appeared in an American Psychological Association (APA) publication for which VandenBos had served as publisher.

Barnhorst, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California Davis, agreed and reached out to colleague Rocco Pallin, MPH, also of UC Davis, who had worked in the field of firearm violence prevention for years. Pallin would be the lead author, while Barnhorst acted as a second author and contributor.

The pair submitted the first draft of their article to VandenBos in the spring, and VandenBos sent back his edits. They incorporated the edits into the next draft, and sent it back to VandenBos — who sent it back again. The process repeated a number of times.

“I started to feel like some of his edits really belied a lack of knowledge about the content and the topic,” Barnhorst said of VandenBos’s critiques. Both Pallin and Barnhorst felt like the editor’s vague comments were asking for a perspective that they just didn’t have.

Eventually, Barnhorst and Pallin decided to pull the submission from the journal altogether. “I said, ‘You know what, Rocco? We’ve put a ton of work into this, and our work is worth more than this,'” Barnhorst told Pallin. “We can’t keep messing around with this.”

Pallin told MedPage Today that VandenBos thanked her and Barnhorst for their work, and wished them both the best. In December, another colleague of theirs was editing an issue of a different journal, with a focus on firearms in psychiatry; the authors felt that their piece they had written six months earlier about firearm suicide would finally find the right home. But just as they were about to resubmit their work, they got an email from VandenBos that derailed its publication yet again.

VandenBos wrote to Barnhorst and Pallin that they might be interested in seeing what his journal had come up with for their firearms piece, providing a link to a newly published article called “Collaborating with Patients on Firearms Safety in High-Risk Situations,” with retired Arizona judge Michael O. Miller and VandenBos listed as the authors.

Barnhorst and Pallin both recognized their own work — their tone of voice, sourcing, and literature that they had cited — in the journal’s piece. Some sections were lifted verbatim from their previous submissions, and the language of other parts of the study were tweaked only slightly here and there.

“It was the kind of thing you do when you’re writing your sixth-grade report from the Encyclopedia Britannica and you have to make it look like you didn’t copy it right out of there,” Barnhorst said. She also noted that VandenBos and Miller’s version of the piece did, in fact, include a new section at the end for which neither Barnhorst nor Pallin take any credit.

“I was preparing to submit something very similar to a different psychiatry journal,” Pallin told MedPage Today. Had she gone ahead with the submission without seeing the Miller-VandenBos article, she and Barnhorst might have been accused of plagiarism, Pallin said.

Barnhorst said that she immediately contacted Morgan Sammons, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Health Service Psychology, providing him examples of the plagiarism that had occurred. He told the authors that he would need time to conduct an independent investigation, and the pair didn’t hear back from Sammons for several days.

Barnhorst explained that, when Sammons did write back, he included possible reasons for VandenBos’s action that she didn’t find persuasive.

“He made a lot of excuses,” she said. “Like, ‘Gary really thought that he immersed himself in the literature and this is what he thought he came up with on his own.'”

Sammons offered Barnhorst and Pallin authorship on the article, which they declined. They wanted a complete and swift retraction, so they could move forward with the process of submitting the article elsewhere.

When Barnhorst mentioned that she was considering contacting Springer, the journal’s publisher, to push for any updates on the investigation, she felt an uneasiness about Sammons’s response. She recalled an email he sent, advising her not to involve third parties because it would hurt Barnhorst’s future options.

“It sounded to me like a man who knew he was in a bad place and didn’t want the publicity,” Barnhorst recalled. “Like it would be damaging to me somehow if word of this got out, it would hurt my options.”

She said she emailed Springer right away, including the very first draft the pair had ever sent to VandenBos. Springer Nature’s communications team told MedPage Today via email that they are still pursuing an investigation and have added an editor’s note to the paper in order to alert readers to the concerns that have been raised. A retraction has yet to be issued. Sammons and VandenBos did not respond to requests for comment.

Barnhorst shared this experience on Twitter, documenting the alleged plagiarism and her contact with the journal’s editors in a 12-part thread that picked up a lot of attention.

Many other female physicians and academics responded to Barnhorst’s Twitter thread with their own stories of when their work was stolen — by professional colleagues or academic advisors.

Among these women was pediatrician Hina Talib, MD, who wrote that a study she had published with a group of female physicians about PCOS had also been plagiarized by a group of majority-male authors in a different journal.

“It wasn’t softball plagiarism, there were entire sections taken word-for-word from our study,” Talib told MedPage Today. “They changed the figures ever so slightly, but even the graphics were exactly the same.”

Talib only found out her work had been copied when a senior author on the paper was reviewing recent work about this specific aspect of PCOS, in preparation for an upcoming presentation she was giving. Talib’s first reaction, however, was one of self-doubt.

“I didn’t want to make a fuss or make any accusations,” Talib said. “I thought to myself, ‘Is this study even important enough to be plagiarized?’ when really it was an offensive act of plagiarism.”

Had it not been for the guidance she received from a senior woman in medicine who was a seasoned researcher, Talib said, she would not have known the right course of action. The copied study has since been retracted, the journal citing issues of plagiarism.

Despite the eventual action taken by Barnhorst and Pallin, they both recalled a similar knee-jerk reaction of self-skepticism when faced with the potential plagiarism of their work.

“It’s hilariously obvious plagiarism, but really — we were questioning it,” Barnhorst said. She also speculated that, if she herself had been the sole author, she might have spent even more time questioning the potential of plagiarism.

“Because it was Rocco’s work and she’s my friend and supervisor, I was more angry on her behalf,” she said. “Whereas I think Rocco was questioning herself, like, ‘Am I in the wrong here?'”

Barnhorst’s takeaway from her and Pallin’s experience — and the realization that so many others have faced similar challenges in their academic careers — is that there are ways to combat the theft of your work.

Pallin said plans to resubmit the piece on firearm suicide are on hold until Springer and the Journal of Health Service Psychology retract the disputed paper.

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    Kara Grant joined the Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team at MedPage Today in February 2021. She covers psychiatry, mental health, and medical education. Follow

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