Row over British Journal of Psychiatry abortion paper saw panel quit
BBC News can reveal that a panel of independent researchers resigned over controversial research regarding abortion and women’s mental health.
In 2011, the British Journal of Psychiatry published a study that is still cited in US legal cases about limiting abortion access.
A panel set up to investigate complaints about the paper recommended that it be withdrawn last year.
Royal College of Psychiatrists, owner of the journal, overruled it.
According to the Royal College, the work has already been thoroughly investigated.
All three panel members, as well as two other editorial board members, resigned in protest, BBC Newsnight understands. As a result, they have questioned the journal’s independence as an editorial publication.
‘Very serious lapse’
US psychologist Priscilla Coleman conducted a systematic review in 2011. An abortion increases a woman’s risk of developing mental health problems by 81%.
Coleman worked at Bowling Green State University in Ohio for 20 years as a professor of human development and family studies. A brief containing her research was submitted to the US Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn the historic Roe v Wade judgment, which guaranteed a constitutional right to abortions.
In April, a judge in Texas cited the paper when deciding that Mifepristone should have its approval suspended. It is still in progress.
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Prof Coleman’s paper was first published in 2011, and ten letters were sent to the British Journal of Psychiatry criticizing the quality of the study. It was called for retraction by two people.
Professor Julia Littell from Bryn Mawr College, one of the signatories, said the results were not reliable or credible. It was not in line with best practice standards at the time, according to her.
She has since told the BBC that she has never called for the publication of a paper to be retracted. The scientific integrity of this study has been seriously compromised.”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists published a review three months later in December 2011, which also found methodological problems with the study.
In 2022, some of the same scientists wrote again to request retraction of the research because it had influenced women’s healthcare in the US.
In response, the British Journal of Psychiatry formed an independent panel, which spent four months reviewing the complaints and ultimately recommended that the paper be retracted. It never happened, however.
The BBC reported that panel member and Harvard psychiatrist Dr Alex Tsai said, “Our recommendation basically disappears into the ether.”
We eventually receive a letter from the communications director of the Royal College of Psychiatrists stating that the case has been closed.
In her opinion, the Royal College’s intervention was “concerning”. She explained that such a decision would normally be made by an editorial committee.
Panel members have expressed concern that legal threats may have influenced College decisions.
Professor Coleman’s lawyers responded when the British Journal of Psychiatry said they wanted to put a notice on her article to raise awareness of a possible problem.
Newsnight and the BMJ reported on the letter as part of an investigation into Prof Coleman.
Second legal letter
After a month, the journal was again threatened with legal action if it retracted the paper. The work ultimately did not receive a notice of concern.
One of Prof Coleman’s earlier papers was retracted by Frontiers in Psychology, for which she is suing. Those actions have been rejected by Swiss courts so far.
As a result of the row, Dr Tsai said the journal might lose confidence in its ability to “police the content it publishes”, adding, “[A] journal that is unable to uphold editorial independence may not survive.”
Professor Coleman was approached by Newsnight for comment. Her response included information about her career qualifications and support materials for her research.
According to Prof Coleman, she has published 63 peer-reviewed journal articles, the majority of which deal with the psychology of abortion. In civil cases involving abortion, she often serves as an expert witness.
The critics of her work were motivated by the political nature of the topic, and she said that her career had spanned three decades with publications in highly regarded academic journals.
Psychiatrists did not address whether the threat of legal action had influenced their decision.
They said: “After careful consideration, given the distance in time since the original article was published, the widely available public debate on the paper – including the letters of complaint already available alongside the article online, and the fact that the article has already been subjected to a full investigation – it has been decided to reject the request for the article to be retracted.”