Researcher Accuses Journal Editor of Plagiarism

On January 25, psychiatrist and gun violence expert Dr. Amy Barnhorst posted a Twitter thread that lobbed a very severe and shocking allegation. According to her, she had been plagiarized by an editor of a publication that, previously, she had been working with.

According to Barnhorst, the story began after the editor in question, Dr. Gary VandenBos, solicited a piece from her and her co-author. The two co-authors worked on it and produced a draft but, after a found rounds of revisions, they decided to pull the paper.

Barnhorst says that the editor had limited knowledge of the topic, firearm suicide, and that he was trying to alter the paper in ways they weren’t comfortable with.

Sometime after that, the editor in question sent them a copy of the paper that he along with a new co-author, Michael O. Miller, had published. However, after a review of the new paper, Barnhorst concluded that it was about 40% verbatim and 30% near-verbatim plagiarism.

The new paper included their case vignette, bibliography, clinical interventions and much more.

To make matters worse, when Barnhorst brought this to the attention of the journal’s editor in chief, the editor waited a week to respond and, instead of retracting the paper, offered the original authors co-authorship.

They further tried to dissuade her from taking the matter to Springer, the journal’s publisher, saying that it would “complicate things” for them. They did so anyway and, according to Barnhorst, a retraction is in process and she is working with an attorney to prevent them from doing this to anyone else.

But, while this seems to be a happy ending to this story, Barnhorst isn’t alone. As this case has highlighted, the unusual part of her story isn’t that it happened, but that something was done about it.

A Bigger Problem Than Many Thought

To outsiders, the story seems outrageous. However, to the researchers Barnhorst told the story too, it was eerily familiar.

In a reply to the original thread, Twitter user @ScienceIntegrity highlighted similar cases reported to them in IEEE and Elsevier. However, in those cases, no action has been taken over the course of several months.

Barnhorst, for her part, has also seen an outpouring of support with many telling her that similar things have happened to them.

“I got so many messages and emails and comments from people saying, ‘This [also] happened to me,’ ” Barnhorst said in an interview with MedScape.

Sadly, there seems to be no firm numbers on how common this is. Not only are these types of cases chronically underreported, but there’s no centralized location for tracking such incidents.

However, the anecdotal evidence is clear, what should be an almost unheard of problem happens more often than most would like to admit and the response to it often far too weak.

Sadly, without better data and better handling of such cases, this seems like a problem that’s only going to get worse.

Bottom Line

Editors are in a position of trust. That’s regardless of the field. Whether you’re a researcher, author, musician or any other type of creator, gatekeepers and editors are in a trusted position with your work.

When they abuse that trust to further their own careers through plagiarism, the consequences should be swift and severe. The problem is that people in positions of authority rarely face even the same consequences as those that are underneath them.

As many have pointed out, a high schooler that committed this kind of plagiarism would face significant disciplinary consequences. However, editors seem to be committing this kind of plagiarism without any notable repercussions.

This isn’t a case of a student being ignorant about citation standards or a new student being unclear about paraphrasing, this is a clear abuse of power from someone who, as part of their job, is supposed to detect and prevent plagiarism.

As we discussed in the previous article, there’s no point in one’s career that plagiarism is acceptable. However, I would argue that, once you reach a position of trust and authority, plagiarism, especially of those in your care, becomes a much more serious offense.

Here’s hoping that those at Springer see it the same way.