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