To the Editor:
In a recent essay, Retraction Watch founders Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky documented a number of cases in which putatively wronged faculty filed lawsuits against their accusers, including other faculty members, universities, journals, and publishers (“When Scholars Sue Their Accusers,” The Chronicle Review, August 18). Whereas some attorney claims of “due process” violations are clearly exaggerations, a number of cases have multiple instances of research administrative misconduct fully documented. I offer no opinion on the merit of pending cases, and emphasize along with Marcus and Oransky the importance of protecting science by maintaining and where necessary correcting the scientific record. But part of doing so requires keeping better tabs on research administrators.
Marcus and Oransky offered a realistic, if depressing, assessment for faculty (including faculty whose due-process rights were violated during the review of a misconduct allegation) contemplating a lawsuit, the odds are not in your favor; moreover, any legal proceedings will typically be prohibitively expensive for you. If you can afford it, hey, a lawsuit may be helpful, but there are no specific mechanisms for enabling such suits. The best you can hope for is that a defamation or discrimination allegation finds a place in federal court; even then, these suits are very difficult to win.
So, if the cost of filing a lawsuit is so high and its impact is so low, then what other options are there for faculty facing unfair or unwarranted misconduct allegations, inquiries, and investigations. None, apparently. And Marcus and Oransky don’t offer one.
Clearly, we have an unacceptable situation resulting from a dreadfully uneven playing field. An urgently needed solution is to regulate the behavior of research administrators just as we regulate the behavior of researchers. (1) Let us institute a system (akin to that governing research misconduct) of rules to guide the behavior of those who oversee research and researchers. (2) Additionally, within this system let us impose strict individual and institutional penalties for instances of misconduct in research administration. And (3) let us insist that this system encompass all research funding across the federal government (recalling that as much as one third to one half of the total federal research dollars coming to an institution are set aside to fund the overall administration of research).
In regard to (1), Marcus and Oransky have provided enough instances of misconduct in research administration to warrant the attention of Congress, just as there were enough instances of scientific misconduct to catch Congress’s eye in the 1980s. Moreover, incentives to engage in administrative misconduct are high, negative consequences are minimal to nil, and the scientific record and the public purse are both at risk. As for (2), it is not enough to identify the individual wrongdoers in research administration where it can be shown (and it almost always can be shown) that the institutional culture is relevantly toxic. Let’s hold everyone and everything equally accountable. Finally, as for (3), siloing the oversight of the responsible conduct of federally funded research is already a mistake; we oughtn’t amplify it when it comes to research administration.
Rather than merely discouraging wronged faculty from pursuing expensive and often unsuccessful litigation, let’s create a system that can help prevent the need for lawsuits in the first place, along with appropriate mechanisms for recourse. Welcome side-effects will likely include better stewardship of public monies, enhanced integrity of the scientific record, and genuine accountability throughout the enterprise.
Jason Scott Robert
Dean’s Distinguished (Associate) Professor in the Life Sciences
Arizona State University