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Springer is investigating allegations of “middle school” plagiarism against an editor of one of its journals. In a strange tale, the editor is accused of working with a pair of researchers who eventually pulled their paper from consideration -- and then publishing much of that paper later, naming himself and a retired judge from Arizona with no academic publication record as the sole co-author.
Amy Barnhorst, vice chair of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, shared how the story began in a Twitter thread this week. And then she discussed it in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. Barnhorst didn’t name the journal in question, saying she didn’t want to “dox” the involved parties. But Retraction Watch (with help from scientific integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik) reported that it is Springer’s Journal of Health Service Psychiatry. The editor in question is Gary R. VandenBos, an emeritus professor of clinical psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway who worked as a publisher at the American Psychological Association through 2015.
Springer did not dispute the allegation, and a spokesperson said via email, “We will take necessary action as appropriate once an investigation into these concerns is complete, and will be able to provide updated information at that time.” None of the journal’s editors, including its editor in chief, responded to a request for comment through the journal’s website.
Nearly a year ago, Barnhorst and a colleague she has not publicly named submitted a co-written paper on how clinicians should talk to patients about firearms and suicide to the journal. They began corresponding with VandenBos, Barnhorst said, but he began advocating for a more psychotherapeutic approach, whereas she and her co-author preferred a “very neutral, evidence-based” one, given that the topic is already so charged. Eventually, Barnhorst and her partner told VandenBos they were no longer interested in publishing their paper with his journal. Barnhorst said she never discussed any possible collaboration or co-authorship with VandenBos, and she and her colleague planned on publishing somewhere else.
Then a few weeks ago, Barnhorst said, VandenBos (whom she did not name directly) emailed her to share a published paper called "Collaborating with Patients on Firearms Safety in High-Risk Situations."
“Thought you two might be interested to see what we came up with,” VandenBos wrote in the email, Barnhorst said. Confused, she first looked at the paper’s bibliography, which looked uncannily similar to her own. Then she accessed the new article in full and was stunned to find the first half was more than substantially similar to her own, she said.
Barnhorst declined to share a copy of the original paper, citing her continued desire to publish it. But she shared a screenshot on Twitter, showing clear parallels between the pulled version and the published one. Barnhorst’s unofficial analysis, she wrote on Twitter, was that “About 40% of it was verbatim from our draft, and 30% was 7th grade level plagiarism: change 'big' to 'large,' 'almost half' to '48%,' rearrange some clauses. You would seriously be kicked out of middle school for this; it was not subtle. By the MANAGING EDITOR OF THE JOURNAL.”
She added, “The published version was OUR case vignette, OUR epi section, OUR clinical interventions, OUR tips on how to counsel patients, and OUR bibliography, then some weird, unscientific section at the end about psychotherapizing the violence right out of people (NOT ours).”
Barnhorst said she first brought the issue to the journal’s editor in chief, and that his reaction was “underwhelming.” After a week, she said, the editor in chief circled back and offered her co-authorship on the paper instead of an apology or a retraction. She declined.
Several weeks later, Barnhorst said, she’s still waiting for answers -- namely how this happened.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that this was all an accident,” she said. Was it intentional, then? Barnhorst said that scenario is “so malignant and nefarious it’s hard for me to imagine that people are that bad.”
While Barnhorst and her younger, female colleague -- who wrote a large portion of the paper -- don’t want to name and shame, Barnhorst said she wanted to share the story publicly after processing it because she’s worried this phenomenon is more common than it seems. (Stories she's heard from fellow academics since suggest that it is, she said.) Barnhorst said she even spent days trying to rationalize what happened before realizing how she'd been wronged.
It’s staggering to think about, Barnhorst said, but maybe someone was “just counting on the fact that we were just two women who wouldn’t say anything.”