Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

A diabetes researcher sued his former employer for defamation. Here’s the story.

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Franck Mauvais-Jarvis

The last decade hasn’t exactly been drama-free for Franck Mauvais-Jarvis, head of the Diabetes Research Program at Tulane University.

After being accused of falsifying three figures in a submitted manuscript, Mauvais-Jarvis sued his accusers and officials at his former employer — Northwestern University — for defamation and conspiracy in 2011.

In 2014, a judge dismissed the suit. We wish we could tell you more details about it—such as what the university’s misconduct investigation found, or how the lawsuit was concluded—but they remain shrouded in mystery. What we know is based on court records from the lawsuit, which we recently obtained through an unrelated public records request. Even without all the details, it’s a long, sordid tale, involving a lot of finger-pointing and allegations of misconduct.

In 2008, a former research technician in the lab of Mauvais-Jarvis, then an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University, raised concerns of fabrication in two figures in a paper on the regulation of insulin synthesis that had been submitted the Journal of Biological Chemistry. An inquiry committee at the university unanimously concluded that research misconduct charges against Mauvais-Jarvis were not credible.

But then a third figure in the manuscript was found to be “inaccurate,” and the university initiated a second inquiry. That’s when Mauvais-Jarvis — whose papers have been cited more than 2,000 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters — initiated a lawsuit.

An Illinois circuit court initially sided with the defendants, citing that as university employees they had a duty to report allegations of misconduct. But then an appeals court sided with Mauvais-Jarvis, throwing the case back to the lower courts. Finally, in 2014, a judge granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss the claims with prejudice, meaning the case cannot ever be brought back to court.

It is possible some type of settlement or resolution was reached, as dismissing claims with prejudice often occurs when a settlement agreement is reached and the parties want to be sure the case is over. Additionally, none of the key players seem to be legally allowed to discuss the events. In an email to Retraction Watch, Mauvais-Jarvis said he was unable to discuss the matter, and referred us to his attorney, Chris Gekas at Gekas Law Ltd., who also said he was unable to discuss “the situation.” Likewise, one of the defendants, neurobiologist Jon Levine, former Northwestern University researcher and now director of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, declined to “comment in any way on the events that transpired, as it would put me in serious legal jeopardy.”

Northwestern never responded to our phone and email inquiries. And the two lab members who accused Mauvais-Jarvis of misconduct did not respond to our requests for comment: Winifred Wong, who worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Mauvais-Jarvis’s laboratory from 2006 until she was fired in 2010, and Michelle Oeser Prost, who worked in the lab as a research technician from 2006 to 2008.

The revised paper, “Extranuclear estrogen receptor-α stimulates NeuroD1 binding to the insulin promoter and favors insulin synthesis,” was eventually published in PNAS in July 2010, with Wong as the first author. That paper has been cited 56 times.

We can piece together what happened based on the court documents: In June 2008, Mauvias-Jarvis, Wong, and Oeser Prost submitted a manuscript to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, involving a research project on the role of estrogen in amplifying insulin synthesis. The work was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

At some point (the court documents do not elaborate), two figures in the manuscript were found (we don’t know by who) to contain fabricated data. That’s when the finger-pointing began. According to the appeals court document:

As a lab technician, Oeser was responsible for collecting and then mapping certain data that was included in two figures within the manuscript, figures 6C and 6H. Those two figures, however, contained fabricated data. The parties disagree as to who is responsible for the fabrication of the data, with Oeser alleging that it is Mauvais-Jarvis and Mauvais-Jarvis contending that it is Oeser.

After she left Mauvais-Jarvis’s lab for grad school, Oeser Prost contacted Levine, whose lab she worked in as an undergraduate, and he advised her the manuscript should be withdrawn. Again, according to the appeals document:

As a result, on June 23, 2008, Oeser informed Mauvais-Jarvis of the inaccuracy of the submitted data and asked that her name be removed from the manuscript. Mauvais-Jarvis directed Wong to run the actual experiments and collect the data. When the paper came back from the reviewers of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the corrected figures and data were inserted in the paper and on July 8, 2008, with approval from Andrea Dunaif, Mauvais-Jarvis’ division chief and direct supervisor, the manuscript was resubmitted for publication.

Soon thereafter, on July 22, 2008, upon recommendation from Larry Jameson, dean of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine (and also coauthor of the manuscript), Mauvais-Jarvis withdrew the paper from review by the Journal of Biological Chemistry until the matter could be resolved within the university. Since then, significant changes have been made to the paper and in June 2010, it was published in another prestigious journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But the investigation into research misconduct was just ramping up. In July 2008, the University’s Office of Research Integrity notified Mauvais-Jarvis that Oeser and Levine had accused him of falsifying figures 6C and 6H. An inquiry committee assessed those allegations, found them not credible, and did not investigate further.

After the investigation concluded, however, a PhD student in the lab identified a problem with another figure in the JBC manuscript, figure 4F. Wong informed Mauvais-Jarvis about this discovery. According to the appeals document:

The parties disagree as to who is responsible for this incorrect data, with Wong arguing that it is Mauvais-Jarvis and Mauvais-Jarvis pointing the finger at Wong.

Then, in April 2010, Mauvais-Jarvis fired Wong “due to serious inadequacies in her work,” according to the 2014 court record

At this point, Wong told Laura Qualkenbush, director of Northwestern’s Office for Research Integrity, that Mauvais-Jarvis falsified the figures. Qualkenbush issued a new charge letter of research misconduct against Mauvais-Jarvis, and a second inquiry committee was formed. In June 2011, the committee concluded that a full investigation into the charges against Mauvais-Jarvis was warranted. We don’t know the results of that investigation, as the university has not responded to our questions about it.

Shortly after the University ORI opened the full investigation, Mauvais-Jarvis filed a lawsuit against Wong, Oeser Prost, Levine, Qualkenbush, Joseph Walsh, vice president for Research of the University, and Northwestern University for defamation and civil conspiracy, citing alleged defamatory statements in letters and email exchanges among the defendants regarding the research misconduct charges.

The original trial court dismissed all the defamation claims, declaring that the statements were privileged because the defendants were investigating “suspected research misconduct.” (For more on the confidentiality of research misconduct proceedings, check out this guest blog post from a seasoned lawyer who represents researchers in misconduct cases.)

In 2013, an appeals court reversed that ruling, saying the statements were not protected by absolute privilege, yet may have been protected by qualified privilege, and sent the case back to the lower courts. That ruling noted:

Much of the factual background of this case is in dispute.

That’s an understatement. So the case was thrown back to a circuit court in Illinois, and on November 18, 2014, Judge William Gomolinski granted all the defendants’ motions to dismiss the claims against them, with prejudice.

If we do hear back from Wong, Oeser Prost or the university, we’ll be sure to add an update.

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Written by Megan Scudellari

April 12th, 2017 at 9:30 am

Comments
  • Neuroskeptic April 12, 2017 at 9:47 am

    Hmm, so Mauvais-Jarvis feels that not one but two members of his lab were seriously at fault? Perhaps he has a problem with his hiring practices.

  • Anonymous April 14, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    The dismissals were the result of motions to dismiss by the defendants, rather than a notice of dismissal by the plaintiff or stipulated dismissal like one would expect from a settlement. Highly doubtful there was any agreement.

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