Retraction Watch

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Kansas ecology prof loses whistleblower protection after alleging misconduct

with 8 comments

ecologyThe U.S. government has denied whistleblower protection for a researcher who was fired from Kansas State University after alleging his colleagues misrepresented data in an ecology paper.

Researcher Joseph Craine was asked to leave K-State after being the “subject of a dismissal campaign” by colleagues when he told the Ecology journal that he believed some had been “fraudulently characterizing field studies,” according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

In response, Craine sought whistleblower protection status from the National Science Foundation — a sponsor of the research — which was recently denied, says the Topeka Capital-Journal:

The 13-page report prepared by the inspector general’s office at the National Science Foundation and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request concluded researcher Joseph Craine didn’t qualify for that legal status due in response to alleged retaliation by superiors at K-State.

We believe the paper in question, which appeared in Ecology, is “Abrupt transition of mesic grassland to shrubland: evidence for thresholds, alternative attractors, and regime shifts.” The researchers studied nearly three decades of data from regions that showed a dramatic increase in shrubs. During Craine’s appeal hearing over his dismissal, a faculty panel reviewed issues about the research raised by Gene Towne, whose contract had recently not been renewed after he and Craine published a controversial study suggesting grasslands could be burned outside its usually narrow time frame:

Towne said in testimony the Ecology paper may have improperly characterized rapid spread of woody plants on burn plots south of Manhattan. Instead of a scientific breakthrough regarding plant growth, he said, the reported jump in brush could be better explained by the fact field researchers counted plant populations differently from year to year.

Towne, who was relieved of duties last year by the same Kansas State biology professor who initiated dismissal action against Craine, said he was told by superiors to “mind my own business” when he raised statistical issues about field research.

Craine had been having issues with faculty for some time, according to the Topeka Capitol-Journal:

Craine, who clashed over the years with some biology faculty, became subject of a dismissal campaign after word got back to K-State that he informed an editor of the journal Ecology that three university researchers were fraudulently characterizing field studies. They held to their published findings and K-State administrators concluded they engaged in no wrongdoing.

K-State Provost April Mason called Craine’s allegations “malicious, or at very least, frivolous,” according to the paper, which in May reported that Mason decided Craine had gone against university policy in reporting his allegations:

Mason told the faculty committee hearing the appeal that Craine violated Kansas State policy by first lodging criticism of fellow researchers outside the university rather than trying to resolve conflict internally. She also said he failed to provide compelling evidence two K-State faculty and a graduate student intentionally distorted raw data.

During the NSF investigation, the federal government uncovered evidence that the university withheld derogatory emails from Craine between John Blair, who headed the Prairie research, and co-author Jesse Nippert:

Blair engaged in an email conversation March 1, 2014, with Jesse Nippert, an associate professor of biology, about Craine’s maneuver. Nippert was among co-authors of the Ecology article in question. The complete email chain involving Nippert and Blair wasn’t disclosed to Craine as he prepared to appeal the provost’s dismissal action before the faculty committee.

“What a mother——,” Nippert wrote to Blair. “I think we need to go on the offensive and just get him out. Whatever benefits he still has with biology have to go.”

Blair responded that same day he didn’t understand Craine’s perspective on the journal article.

“We have a lot more to worry about than dealing with this sh–!” he wrote to Nippert. “Frankly, if this is not resolved in two weeks … I may just request a private meeting with Joe, to tell him what I know and ask him what the f— is going on. I want to let him know that we know what a d— he is being.”

Craine argued that withholding these emails was unethical. He also alleged that the university should have no say over what he reports to a journal.

We’ve contacted Craine, Nippert, and the journal Ecology, and will update if we hear anything.

Hat tip: The Topeka Capitol-Journal

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Comments
  • Unfair September 15, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    I feel for Craine. And that e-mail between Blair and Nippert is itself worthy of academic disciplinary measures, surely? I am curious, what evidence did Craine have for his claims? Surely, now that he has lost everything, he can come out openly with whatever evidence he has? He has heard of PubPeer, I assume?

  • Paul Brookes September 15, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    K-state was given a yellow rating by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)… https://www.thefire.org/schools/kansas-state-university/
    I look forward to seeing what FIRE has to say on this particular episode.

    Stepping back from this case however, it’s worth emphasizing that ORI and other investigative bodies, including your University’s RIO, legally obliged to maintain your anonymity, but can only do the best they can (and remember – you have to ASK them to). Walls around information tend to be porous. Once you decide to report to the higher-ups using your real name, there’s really not much to prevent accused researchers from finding out who’s reporting them.

    File under “reasons people may choose to stay anonymous”

  • don kornfeld September 15, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    This is a complicated story and it is unclear as to where the truth lies.However, it is an example of the need for a well defined procedure for the protection of whistleblowers.
    For example, institutions should have a mechanism which permits individuals to report their suspicions of misconduct to a senior authority designated to investigate such allegations. The name of the w’blower need not be revealed to the individual to be investigated.

    Of course, that individual may know, by whatever means, who that is. Therefore, the institution should make it clear that should any retaliatory measures subsequently be taken against the whistleblower, it would take appropriate action to protect that individual and penalize those involved. Whistleblowers should be required to report allegations only to their institution. To do otherwise, as in this case, would deprive the individual of the institution’s protection.

    Such a policy is a demonstration of an institution’s commitment to research integrity.
    It should not require a Federal mandate.

    Don

    • Cases September 15, 2015 at 5:12 pm

      Don, well stated. Can you indicate any site that lists US universities that have such whistle-blower regulations in place that you are suggesting. And would one find such a document publicly available, for example in PDF format, to allow for accountability to the public?

    • Brad Casali September 15, 2015 at 8:03 pm

      The respondent should always know who the complainant is, whenever possible. It would be unfair to the respondent if they didn’t know (of course, sometimes that’s impossible). Let’s also not forget that sometimes complainants make mistakes, or even can act in bad faith. In those cases, it makes even less sense to protect them.

      Whistleblower protection was not afforded here for a very good reason, I’m sure. I don’t think the NSF takes that lightly, based on their issuance of an 8 page legal rationale for their decision.

  • Withheld September 15, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    why should that email engender disciplinary measures? i dare say every academic would eventually be suspended if profanity-laced tirades about another colleague were disallowed.

  • oldnuke September 15, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    don kornfeld
    This is a complicated story and it is unclear as to where the truth lies.However, it is an example of the need for a well defined procedure for the protection of whistleblowers.
    For example, institutions should have a mechanism which permits individuals to report their suspicions of misconduct to a senior authority designated to investigate such allegations. The name of the w’blower need not be revealed to the individual to be investigated.
    Of course, that individual may know, by whatever means, who that is. Therefore, the institution should make it clear that should any retaliatory measures subsequently be taken against the whistleblower, it would take appropriate action to protect that individual and penalize those involved. Whistleblowers should be required to report allegations only to their institution. To do otherwise, as in this case, would deprive the individual of the institution’s protection.
    Such a policy is a demonstration of an institution’s commitment to research integrity.
    It should not require a Federal mandate.
    Don

    Waste of time. Uncle Sam has had laws to this end for years. It doesn’t work. Whistleblowers go through hell more often than not. Sounds nice though… The only people who come out ahead are the lawyers.

  • Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) September 16, 2015 at 6:08 am

    The email is a red herring – it doesn’t change anything. If Craine is right about the data being dodgy, then the email is the least of the problems. And if he’s wrong, then the email was probably justified because he was making false accusations.

    So the only real question is, are the data dodgy or not?

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