The founder and CEO of an accreditation firm for autism therapy providers has stepped down after an article she published in an education journal was retracted.
Sara Litvak’s resignation from the Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE) comes about a month after Spectrum and Retraction Watch reported that Litvak’s retracted article cited nonexistent sources.
BHCOE announced on 23 November that Anya Perea, the organization’s former president, would succeed Sara Litvak as CEO. Litvak will remain an adviser, according to the company’s statement.
In response to an email request for comment, Litvak shared a link to a message, also dated 23 November, addressed to the “BHCOE Community” in which she referenced the retracted article.
“It pains me that this situation could create a negative perception of BHCOE or cast doubt about the critical work BHCOE has done over the past eight years,” Litvak wrote in the message. “To preserve this work, and in the spirit of my commitment to the values of the organization, I am stepping down as CEO.” Litvak declined to speak on the record with The Transmitter and Retraction Watch.
The retracted article, “Private equity investment: Friend or foe to applied behavior analysis?” lists Litvak as the sole author and was originally published in the International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education as part of a January 2023 special issue devoted to applied behavior analysis (ABA) for autism.
ABA is the most widely used therapy for autism. Companies that provide it have faced a flood of interest from private equity firms in the past decade.
Litvak’s article proposed potential benefits from private equity investment in ABA providers and offered defenses against critiques. In addition to her work with BHCOE, which assesses ABA providers, Litvak co-founded the Autism Investor Summit, an annual meeting focused on the business side of autism services. She has also served as an advisory board member for Calex Partners, a firm that provides advice on mergers and acquisitions for autism-related businesses. Her article disclosed her ties to BHCOE and the summit, but it did not disclose her role with Calex Partners. Shortly after publication of the Spectrum and Retraction Watch story on her article, Calex Partners’ webpage listing her as an advisory board member was removed.
The article was retracted via an undated notice that did not mention any specific issues. But a correction notice to the issue’s introduction, published 4 October, says that the editors retracted Litvak’s article “due to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that led to numerous inaccuracies within the reference and the body of the paper.” Close examination of a PDF copy of the article obtained by The Transmitter and Retraction Watch revealed that nearly two-thirds of the article’s references appear to not exist.
According to Litvak’s 23 November message, she learned shortly after her article was published that it “contained multiple invalid AI-generated citations added during the post-editorial review process.” She said she immediately contacted the journal editors, and the article was retracted less than a month after its publication.
“Although I did not add the erroneous citations, I hold myself fully accountable for not catching them. It was my responsibility to verify these additions, and I deeply regret failing to do so,” Litvak wrote.
Following the publication of this story, the editors of the special issue (Joseph Cihon, Justin Leaf and Ellie Kazemi) asked The Transmitter to clarify that neither they nor the reviewers of Litvak’s article had added the AI-generated references, an update to which Litvak agreed.
A BHCOE spokesperson also shared Litvak’s resignation message, as well as the company’s announcement of Perea stepping into the CEO role, in response to an email request for comment from The Transmitter and Retraction Watch.
This article is a collaboration between The Transmitter and Retraction Watch, a nonprofit news outlet that covers research misconduct and related issues. Ivan Oransky, editor-in-chief of The Transmitter, is the volunteer co-founder of Retraction Watch.