Yesterday, Cornell University told a group of researchers who had petitioned them to release a report of their investigation into alleged misconduct by Brian Wansink, a food marketing researcher who recently resigned his post there, that they would not release that report. As BuzzFeed reports, the university is now conducting a “Phase II” investigation into Wansink’s work. (It’s unclear what a “Phase II” investigation refers to; we’ve asked the university to clarify.)
Unfortunately, Cornell’s lack of transparency about the case puts them in the majority. Here’s a piece by our two co-founders, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, about why this veil of secrecy needs to be lifted.
For more than a decade, Cornell University’s Brian Wansink was a king in the world of nutrition. He published his findings — on everything from why small plates make us eat less to the behavior of obese people at all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets — in top-tier journals and garnered media coverage in prestigious newspapers. His work even formed the basis of U.S. dietary guidelines.
But Wansink’s fortune cookie has crumbled. In September, he resigned in disgrace from Cornell. He has now lost 15 papers to retraction — one, twice — and the university found him guilty of committing research misconduct.
Cornell has acknowledged that its one-time superstar was producing unreliable results, but the institution hasn’t said how, exactly, Wansink cheated. The lack of clarity is far from unusual. Universities are woefully opaque when it comes to the misdeeds of their faculty members. They guard their investigations with a ferocity worth of Cerberus, hiding critical information from the public under the pretense of legal constraints.
Sometimes the stakes are low, such as in the recent case of H. Gilbert Welch, an expert in health policy who recently resigned his faculty job at Dartmouth College after the school concluded that he’d plagiarized data from a junior colleague. No one has questioned the veracity of that work, and Welch insists it was an authorship dispute, anyway.
Other times, however, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A few years ago, a child participating in a clinical trial run by Mani Pavuluri, a psychiatrist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was hospitalized after displaying a worrisome increase in aggression. Out of concern, UIC shut down three of Pavuluri’s studies and launched an investigation into her work. One year later, the school sent a letter to hundreds of children and families that had participated in her research, explaining that the studies might have put participants at greater risk than they had realized. Her research has now been shut down indefinitely, and as ProPublica reported, UIC had to return more than $3 million in grant funding — an extremely rare event
Although Pavuluri can no longer conduct research at UIC, her medical license is still active in the state of Illinois. That means she’s free to treat children. And yet we have no idea what, exactly, the investigation into her work showed, nor whether UIC has submitted any information about its investigation of her work to the Illinois medical board. That’s because the university has refused to make public its investigation into Pavuluri’s work.
UIC has said in recent years that it can’t release a report on the inquiry because the case is ongoing. It gets worse, though: Even if the investigation were complete, the university says it wouldn’t release the report because of a law that exempts reports on a “health care practitioner’s professional competence” from public disclosure.
That’s right: A doctor whose studies put children at more risk than they were led to believe is more deserving of protection than vulnerable children she might treat.
Although two Federal agencies — the U.S. Office of Research Integrity and the National Science Foundation’s Office of the Inspector General — do have oversight of university investigations into scientific misconduct, the public has no way of knowing whether such investigations were carried out properly. As we and a colleague wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year, when universities investigate their own — which by Federal statute, they are obligated to do — they have serious conflicts of interest, and the resulting investigations are often deeply flawed.
Sometimes, we do obtain the details of what went wrong because universities release reports of their investigations — such as the 75-page document recently released by The Ohio State University which described a wide-ranging case of misconduct by a cancer researcher that also prompted the university to temporarily shutter a clinical trial. That’s unusual. Most often, we obtain these reports by filing a public records request. In the Pavuluri case, however, our requests have been denied by UIC, a decision upheld by the Illinois Office of the Attorney General.
And even if all of our public records requests were granted, private universities — where yes, misconduct happens, too — would be immune from such entreaties. Ways around that barrier exist, but it’s a war of attrition, with wealthy, powerful institutions well aware that a release delayed is a release denied, to paraphrase a legal maxim. Attention to a report about a ten-year-old case is likely to be scant, the players scattered to the winds and university donors shrugging their shoulders.
As Mark Peplow recently wrote in Chemical & Engineering News, “Many argue that a lack of transparency risks undermining public trust in research and may also hamper science itself.” Failing to release such reports allows bad actors to slip through the cracks, and even earn positions elsewhere.
It’s time for a new rule: If research involves human subjects, or is Federally funded, universities should release the reports of their investigations. Redact the names of whistleblowers, of patients, and of anyone else who might be vulnerable. Redact the names of investigative committee members, if need be — although those accused know who they are, anyway. But release the report.
Tax dollars, and the public health, are at stake.
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