Lawsuit opens research misconduct report that may get a Harvard prof fired

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Enlarge / Harvard’s got a lawsuit on its hands.

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Accusations of research misconduct often trigger extensive investigations, typically performed by the institution where the misconduct allegedly took place. These investigations are internal employment matters, and false accusations have the potential to wreck someone’s career needlessly. As a result, most of these investigations are kept completely confidential, even after their completion.

But all the details of a misconduct investigation performed by Harvard University became public this week through an unusual route. The professor accused of misconduct, Francesca Gino, had filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit, targeting both Harvard and a team of external researchers who had accused her of misconduct. Harvard submitted its investigator’s report as part of its attempt to have part of the suit dismissed, and the judge overseeing the case made it public.

We covered one of the studies at issue at the time of its publication. It has since been retracted, and we’ll be updating our original coverage accordingly.

Misconduct allegations lead to lawsuit

Gino, currently on administrative leave, had been faculty at Harvard Business School, where she researched human behavior. One of her more prominent studies (the one we covered) suggested that signing a form before completing it caused people to fill in its contents more accurately than if they filled out the form first and then signed it.

Oddly, for a paper about honesty, it had a number of issues. Some of its original authors had attempted to go back and expand on the paper but found they were unable to replicate the results. That seems to have prompted a group of behavioral researchers who write for the blog Data Colada to look more carefully at the results that didn’t replicate, at which point they found indications that the data was fabricated. That got the paper retracted.

Gino was not implicated in the fabrication of the data. But the attention of the Data Colada team (Uri Simonsohn, Leif Nelson, and Joe Simmons) had been drawn to the paper. They found additional indications of completely independent problems in other data from the paper that did come from her work, which caused them to examine additional papers from Gino, coming up with evidence for potential research fraud in four of them.

Before posting it on their blog, however, the Data Colada team had provided their evidence to Harvard, which launched its own investigation. Their posts came out after Harvard’s investigation concluded that Gino’s research had serious issues, and she was placed on administrative leave as the university looked into revoking her tenure. It also alerted the journals that had published the three yet-to-be-retracted papers about the issues.

Things might have ended there, except that Gino filed a defamation lawsuit against Harvard and the Data Colada team, claiming they “worked together to destroy my career and reputation despite admitting they have no evidence proving their allegations.” As part of the $25 million suit, she also accused Harvard of mishandling its investigation and not following proper procedures.

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