Retraction Watch

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Director of U.S. HHS Office of Research Integrity temporarily removed from post

with 15 comments

Kathy Partin

After a tumultuous two years, Kathy Partin is temporarily stepping away from her position as the director of the U.S. Office of Research Integrity.

According to an internal personnel announcement forwarded to us, on December 4, Partin will begin a 90-day stint at the Office of the Vice President for Research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, which trains health professionals to support the U.S. military.

Partin declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), of which the Office of Research Integrity is a part, told us the agency cannot comment on personnel issues.

Linda Schutjer, a former colleague of Partin’s at Colorado State University, told us Partin was asked to leave:

They’ve basically told her she’s not going back. They’ve told her to take all her stuff out of her office, all of her personal things.

However, Schutjer told us Partin has hired a lawyer and plans to “fight:”

She’s fighting tooth and nail. Because it’s the right thing to do…to stay.

The announcement of Partin’s departure was sent to staff on Friday by Don Wright, acting assistant secretary for health at the HHS (also appointed acting secretary of the entire agency in September, 2017). Wright served as the acting director of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) twice, including filling in before Partin took over in December 2015.

The last two years haven’t been easy for Partin. In August 2016, Science reported Partin was facing a “staff revolt:

[Partin] has launched a top-to-bottom review of the office, which has been criticized for moving too slowly and meting out sanctions that lack teeth…But in one of several letters of protest to Partin’s superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), many of ORI’s investigative staff recently expressed “profound concern about the tone and direction” she has taken. They contend that Partin does not fully understand ORI’s regulatory constraints and is unjustifiably seeking to replace ORI’s two division directors, whose departure, they write, would be a “disaster.” John Dahlberg, who before retiring last year was ORI’s deputy director, says that his former office “seems to be falling apart.”

Earlier this month, the director of the Division of Investigative Oversight at the ORI, Susan Garfinkel, left the agency.

Earlier this year, Partin defended the agency’s relative lack of findings of misconduct in 2016 — only seven, compared to 14 in 2015 and 11 the year before. So far, the agency has issued five findings in 2017.

Before taking the helm at ORI, Partin was the director of the Research Integrity & Compliance Review Office at Colorado State University (CSU). The position had been vacant for more than a year and a half, after David Wright resigned; in his resignation letter, Wright lambasted the “remarkably dysfunctional” bureaucracy at the agency.

While Partin is at the USUHS, Wanda Jones — the former director of the Office on Women’s Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — will be ORI’s interim director. 

Schutjer said Partin has “amazing integrity” and has been working hard at the position:

She knew it would be difficult, but she’s had nothing but roadblocks…It’s hard to see a nice person be treated so poorly.

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Written by Alison McCook

November 20th, 2017 at 11:49 am

  • Volga Tronovic November 20, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    When the police department is in disarray, the criminals rejoice. A dream come true for the many who engage in research misconduct.

  • fernando pessoa November 20, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    ORI is so slow that it is better for post-publication review to take its place.
    Science integrity does not depend solely on U.S. governmental organisations.

    John Dahlberg whittled the complaints against Carlo Croce down to just 2.

    ““My sense was, Carlo Croce’s too big to make findings of misconduct on,” “

  • micheal November 20, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    I simply wish the Federal Gov. would earmark some of the HHS funds to setup a separate FBI unit and give ORI more teeth and add staff with criminal justice backgrounds. Only then, can the criminals with MD and PhD degrees amongst us can be decisively dealt with. $10 million on such an effort will save $100 million or more in research funds currently squandered by those unscrupulous PIs and their minions. As we know, asking the universities to police the investigations is a foolhardy endeavor. The ungodly almost always go Scot-free.Plus, think of the patients that will not be put in harm’s way as a result of clinical trials floated off cooked data, and the millions that big pharma will save not chasing after useless research.

    • Pointerout November 21, 2017 at 12:45 pm

      The $100 million number assumes a high rate of fraud. Also, encoding research integrity shouldn’t focus on paying for itself. It would be worthwhile, even if it ran at a loss.

  • Darrel Francis November 20, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    Well, which one of these various characters thought up the punishment of being “banned from sitting on a grant review panel”? They should be rewarded with an Oscar, for services to Comedy.

  • imohacsi November 20, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    +1 for involving the FEDs and criminal justice investigators. I’m all up for real sanctions.
    Two year voluntary funding ban? Mandatory courses on research ethics? Don’t make me laugh!

  • Morty November 21, 2017 at 3:20 am

    Weather ORI publish eleven or five reports from their research misconduct investigations is irrelevant. It is far too low compared to the widespread problem with research misconduct. Their work is just cosmetical and they are just justifying their existence by exemplifing with a few cases. I will guess due to lack of resources. Sad and very costly for the society. Next time you are asked to participate in a clinical trial, ask for the raw data and consult with a handful of independent biomedical researchers just to be sure you will not suffer.

  • rfg November 21, 2017 at 9:33 am

    ORI’s major impediment is that they have no ability to investigate misconduct independently of the research institution ethics office.

    If the institution chooses to stonewall ORI is stuck – no power to demand original documents or data.

    In principle ORI could find the institution in noncompliance and cut off funding, but this threat is just that. To big to fail institutions have little to fear from ORI if they choose to stonewall a misconduct investigation.

    A ban from government funding is serious, but ORI should also have the power to initiate a process that could lead to big fines for the institution, cut off funding at the institutional level if necessary and lead to jail time and fines for scientists that commit fraud. The institutional and personal fines should multiply if they stonewall or retaliate against the whistleblower.

    • Looking Closer November 21, 2017 at 2:52 pm

      My experience with institutional investigations into alleged research misconduct of their employees convinced me they are not fit for purpose.

  • rfg November 21, 2017 at 10:04 am

    The other group of players involved are the journals that publish the fraudulent research in the first place.

    While an occasional editor will take it upon themselves to publish an expression of concern or retract a paper in an obvious case of misconduct, usually editors defer to the institutional ethics office.

    If the institution choses to stonewall this is usually the end of it – no correction, EoC or retraction.

    There’s really no effective check on the journals either. Ignore the whistleblower complaints, stonewall, or allow the authors to cover-up with bogus corrections. All this and more with zero consequences. COPE guidance is just that. Journals have infinite latitude to interpret COPE guidance and suffer no consequences for not following the guidance.

  • AnotherRIO November 22, 2017 at 9:22 am

    I hope that this is a call to make a huge renovation in how we perceive the issue of research misconduct. It’s sad that because of the issues in ORI and how they were led caused the resignation of valuable staff. I hope that they really consider how they want to run the office. I think the landscape of RM is fraught with disagreement as to how to change the culture. I heard there was apathy at the ORI as to when to ouster Dr. Partin, but what now? With the Trump administration and their priorities, who knows how long this will take.

  • Alan R. Price November 22, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    RFG — In my 17 years at ORI, it was NOT the case, as you suggested, that: “If the institution chooses to stonewall ORI is stuck – no power to demand original documents or data.”
    No institution then (in over 700 cases) refused to investigate allegations transmitted to it from ORI, nor did any institution refuse to reopen cases in which ORI questioned the thoroughness of the institution’s inquiry or investigation report, as submitted to ORI for oversight review. ORI does have authority under its regulation, or with NIH under NIH grants authority, to demand original documents related to the questioned NIH-supported research. ORI can also request, as I once did, that HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) subpeona such records from an institution conducting such questioned NIH-supported research. In my term as scientist-investigator, branch chief, division director, and associate director at ORI, no institution stonewalled ORI’s request for documents or data, nor for answers to questions.

    • Looking Closer November 22, 2017 at 6:25 pm

      @Alan R Price

      Is there a similar UK body?

    • rfg November 22, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      Dear Dr. Price.

      The source for my statement that ORI has no power to demand original documents or data was this article:

      This article clearly states that ORI has “no subpeona authority.”

      It is good to know that ORI can request that OIG subpeona records, but IMO ORI should have this authority in itself.

      It also seems from my own experience that things have changed to a more passive approach at ORI than what you describe since you were there.

      This was part of a recent response I received from ORI:

      “Should [the institution] decide, based on their review, that an investigation is warranted, ORI would provide oversight as specified by federal law (42 CFR Part 93).“

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