Barnes, Deborah M. "Scientific Misconduct: The End of an Era?" The Journal of NIH Research

 

Barnes, Deborah M. "Scientific Misconduct: The End of an Era?" The Journal of NIH Research
5 (May 1993), p. 10

"Some people will say ‘Why now?' Others will say ‘Why not earlier.'"

Earl Laurence, acting deputy director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and
Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), states the two most obvious questions about his recent decision to
reassign Walter Stewart and Ned Feder with NIDDK to a physical chemistry lab and an
extra-mural-grants-review position, respectively. As of May 7, Stewart and Feder, best known for
the investigations of scientific misconduct, will no longer be funded by NIDDK to use their
"plagiarism machine" to search the literature for instances of plagiarism or otherwise investigate
alleged misconduct.

Stewart and Feder are not happy about the reassignment. They view it as an "adverse personnel
action" - NIH bureaucratese meaning that the action is punitive and therefore subject to appeal.
Laurence says the reassignment are clearly not adverse actions; both Stewart and Feder are being
maintained at their previous grade, status, and salary.

In his April 9 letter to Stewart, Laurence wrote, "...the work that you and Dr. Ned Feder have
been doing...has progressively moved outside the mission, responsibility, and authority of the
NIDDK." Laurence did not cite the reason now widely regarded as the trigger for his action, that
Stewart and Feder had investigated the writings of Stephen Oates, a University of Massachusetts
historian, who was not receiving any federal funds.

Stewart and Feder did not seek out the Oates case. Five historians had previously accused Oates
of plagiarism, and in 1991 the American Historical Association (AHA) investigated their claims.
AHA found that Oates failed to give a key Lincoln biographer "sufficient attribution," but AHA
did not accuse Oates of plagiarism. Oates threatened to sue one of his accused, who then asked
Stewart for help. So Stewart and Feder used their computer to search four of Oates' books - on
Abraham Lincoln, William Faulkner, and Martin Luther King - for instances of plagiarism. In
February, they reported more than 400 such instances to AHA, and also explained the limitations
of their analysis. Oates repeatedly and vigorously denied all allegations of plagiarism.

Stewart and Feder say that they had had several discussions with Laurence about the Oates
investigation and that Laurence, their NIDDK supervisor, offered no objection or specific
caution. Laurence says he cannot remember when he first learned about the case.

It is reasonable to argue that Stewart and Feder should not have used NIDDK resources for
investigating a non-federally funded historian. The most important question, however, is whether
Stewart and Feder, in their 10-year-long drive to ferret out scientific misconduct, have
contributed to science. It is clear that they have. They listened to whistleblowers when no one
else would. They raised the consciousness of all scientists about the problem of misconduct. And
they repeatedly urged scientists to do a better job of policing themselves.

A larger issue now is whether an efficient and fair system currently exists for investigating
allegations of misconduct in biomedical research. Last year, the Office of Research Integrity
(ORI) replaced NIH's Office of Scientific Integrity. Stewart and Feder operated outside that
system, a maverick position that Stewart justifies as essential because of the freedom and lack of
bias it afforded.

It no longer seems appropriate for an individual NIH institute to support researchers to
investigate allegations of misconduct anywhere in the sphere of federally funded biomedical
research. But if such investigations contribute to science in ways that ORI cannot, then funds
should be found elsewhere in the Public Health Service to support the effort.