Thursday, September 15, 2011

Defending Academic Whistleblowers: Call Out the Marines?

At "Academic Medicine Deploys a Logical Fallacy to Avoid Disclosing Inconvenient Truths" Roy Poses wrote about the illogic employed by academia to weaken draft rules for researchers to disclose conflicts of interest.

Another major component of research in academia might be termed "gangster tactics against whistleblowers on wrongdoing."

In the following July 8, 2011 letter to Dr. Amy Guttmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania (courtesy the Project on Government Oversight or POGO), a Penn psychiatry researcher, Dr. Jay Amsterdam, has retained a law firm to represent him in alleged research misconduct by others at Penn, specifically Dwight Evans, the Chair of the Department, and an Associate Professor Dr. Laszlo Gyulai (note: I have never met and do not know any of the people involved):

"Dear Dr. Guttmann,

On behalf of my client, Dr. Jay Amsterdam, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, I would like to inform you that we have filed a charge of research misconduct with the Office of Research Integrity (OR!) against Dr. Dwight L. Evans, Professor of Psychiatry and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Laszlo Gyulai, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. I have enclosed a copy of the complaint and referenced documents for your reference. As chairwoman of President Barack Obama's Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, I feel certain you will deal with this matter in a just and sincere fashion.

Letter, page 1 (click to enlarge)

Letter, page 2 (click to enlarge)

The allegations are not in themselves surprising (at least to me). The complaint is that the defendants misappropriated data from a study conducted by the plaintiff, manipulated the data, and used it in a ghostwritten article by a major journal, the American Journal of Psychiatry, in a concealed marketing effort to increase sales of Paxil by GSK. We have documented many examples of this type of behavior in medical research at this blog.

(By way of my not being surprised by such allegations, I personally have been involved as junior Yale faulty in that research university's professors' attempts to misappropriate my IP, a computer program I wrote for a Yale collaboration on birth defects in the Arab world, for their own use. My internal complaints were followed by severe retaliation, up to the level of blacklisting and extortion. Those attempts were aided by, of all things, an Associate General Counsel who was not authorized to practice law in the state, apparently not having taken the Law Boards. I put an end to that effort through legal means. This was followed a number of years later by attempted misappropriation of the same property by a Johns Hopkins-affiliated professor with his own software company in a DoD proposal. I also put an end to the latter effort, which involved informing the DoD.)

However, my purpose here is not to comment on the allegations of research misconduct. It is to comment on a subject that occupies three of the four paragraphs in the above letter - protection from retaliation:

... By filing this complaint, I expect my client to receive full and complete protection from retaliation and/ or defamation by either the University of Pennsylvania and/ or any other parties involved in publishing the referenced study. [E.g., GSK - ed.] It is my client's belief that the data from his study was effectively stolen from him, manipulated and used in a ghostwritten article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in order to advance a marketing scheme by GlaxoSmithKline to increase sales of Paxil.

If any acts of retaliation and/or defamation are taken against my client, I will immediately inform ORI and the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General. Furthermore, it is my understanding that several congressional committees have expressed an interest in investigating the problem of research misconduct and ghostwriting in academia and, thus, I intend to allow my client to fully cooperate with any investigation and will inform Congress of any retaliation against him for such cooperation.

To ensure this complaint is taken seriously, and to alert interested parties, I am providing copies of this correspondence to Senator Charles Grassley, Senator Herb Kohl, and the Chairman and Ranking members of the House Energy and Commerce, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

About the only resources left out of the list of protectors of the plaintiff from abuse are the Marines ... and perhaps a threat of "Frontier Justice."

That a law firm must include explicit threats to expose retaliation against whistleblowers to high-ranking members of Congress suggests Research universities and their corporate allies have become more like the Mafia than centers of novel scientific discovery.

This all reminds me of my Jan. 13, 1999 letter to the editor in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) entitled "Academic and Legal Aspects of Authorship Disputes."

As a result of my Yale experience (which, incidentally, also probably damaged nascent cross-cultural progress due to the unusual aspect of my work in facilitating improved care of children with birth defects in a Middle Eastern oil-producing Kingdom), I wrote a response to a July 1998 JAMA article on growing authorship disputes and abuses at Harvard Medical School ("Authorship: The Coin of the Realm, The Source of Complaints" by then-Ombud Linda J. Wilcox).

I wrote:

Jan. 13, 1999

To the editor:

I was alarmed by the statement in the article on authorship by Ms Wilcox [1]
saying, "It is unreasonable for institutions to promise that they can protect individuals from retaliation for coming forward to complain through formal grievance procedures." Most organizations have policies on retaliation, especially with regard to grievances. If enforced, these policies can discourage such behavior and ensure the victim of redress. In addition, retaliation such as that mentioned in the public and federal sectors is downright illegal, and university employees fall under Department of Labor workplace standards and laws for their respective states.

Universities have serious ethical and credibility problems if they have such poor control over their employees that they cannot promise to protect individuals from actions contrary to their own grievance policies and that are probably illegal.

I continued on with the argument that lawlessness in universities was counterproductive and needed to be halted, but Ms. Wilcox' reply was more platitudinous than substantive about the 'helplessness' of universities in protecting their own from retaliation.

It seems little has changed.

To expect the best research from such an environment is like expecting silk purses to be manufactured by pork producers.

-- SS


Anonymous said...

The fact that a letter had to be written to the President of Penn is despicable. There must be much corruption there. Pres Amy G was the Chair of Obama's Ethics Committee investigating U Pitt's Cutler for infecting innocents with venereal disease. I merely wonder if she had disclosed the ethics issues at her place, U Penn before assuming that role.

I for one will totally cut off my contributions to U Penn untill there is public acknowledgement how the problems identified in that letter are resolved and what protectyions Amy G has for academic freedom of speech.

Michael Pyshnov said...

You should see this case:
This cost me 25 years of my life, because the fraud and stealing of my PhD research, although initially perpetrated in Canada, was supported by the journal editor in US and a committee on publication ethics in UK.
Canada now left its universities free to "investigate" their own fraud:

Steve Lucas said...

University Diaries shares this link:

which has students complaining and teachers not using a system wide computer system that the administrators are touting as a positive driver in their school system.

A FOIA request was answered with incomplete material and an outsized bill. It appears that executive privilege applies to school boards and principles.

A student started the investigation and raised serious questions; all the while the administrators were receiving awards for being so far sighted in their use of technology.

We do not have to look far to see how this mentality has permeated all of the education system, including that of medicine.

Steve Lucas

InformaticsMD said...

Michael Pyshnov said...

You should see this case:

Horrific story. Welcome to the "shafted by academic tyranny" club.

See this blog:

Also see these:

Academic Tyranny: The Tale and the Lessons”, Robert Weissberg, Review of Policy Research 15(4), 99-110 (1998)

Dr David Kern's Dilemma

Criminals in Academia: The Horrific Story Behind The Historic Ruling for Email Privacy

There are probably many other examples of academic abuses online. Still, there is far too much of an "anechoic effect" regarding these issues.

The Web may change that, when bad actors in university administrations find themselves looking for new employment, but are found to be "too hot to handle" by increasingly cautious HR and legal departments after a bit of web credentials searching.

-- SS

Afraid said...

I wish that were true, that things may change. Just yesterday I had to explain to someone that I had been threatened with being sued by the academic medical center. I was told that they would sue me for all the income they ever paid me if I did or said certain things which they claim are restricted under whatever boiler plate legalese I signed. Even now, years since I have been in their employ they still make the threat and I believe them wholeheartedly.

Fifteen years of salary, whatever exaggerated benefits they can calculate and they told me they would also sue me for interest.

They know they'd probably not win, and certainly they don't need the money.

So I had been waiting to see the sorts of stories you relate in this post. It is chilling to anyone who has ever been thus restrained.

I guess some of the peons were getting a little out of line so its time for an example.

Do you really think the lawyers of the different institutions don't talk? This is true racketeering.

InformaticsMD said...

Afraid said...

I wish that were true, that things may change. Just yesterday I had to explain to someone that I had been threatened with being sued by the academic medical center. I was told that they would sue me for all the income they ever paid me if I did or said certain things which they claim are restricted under whatever boiler plate legalese I signed

My early medical mentor, heart surgeon Victor P. Satinsky, MD, had a remedy for such threats:

"Public embarrassment" (his exact words).

Specifically, he said that when being treated unfairly, picketing was of great value.

-- SS

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Some US states do have anti-SLAPP (anti- strategic litigation against public participation) laws that allow a legal response if one is sued or threatened with a suit based on spoken or written opinions about public issues.

Sometimes such anti-SLAPP laws can be used to fend off retaliation against whistleblowers. However, many states do not have such laws, including Pennsylvania, related to this case, and North Carolina, related to the case above:

On a policy level, all these cases are arguments for better federal and state whistleblower protection and anti-SLAPP laws.

Afraid said...

Judges would be very capable of protecting whistleblowers, simply by throwing out the cases with predjuice against thise who speak the truth.

Of course they don't, but in the scheme of things, the judge is the point in the system that should have stopped this intimidation tactic.

Remember one very important thing, the law is not the law as written. The law is as a judge interprets it, the law is what a judge says no matter what a legislator wrote.