A Harvard whistleblower was subjected to a forced mental exam. Here’s why.

Last March, a PhD student at Harvard filed a misconduct allegation against his mentor, a prominent stem cell researcher. Three months later, he was taken from his home by police in the middle of the night for a forced psychiatric evaluation.

How did this happen?

As with any story, there are at least two sides. For our latest article in Science, we dug into court documents and talked to the student, the PI’s lawyer, and others, to figure out why a judge issued an order requiring the PI to allow the student to return to work – but remain 100 feet away from him. That has created an extraordinary – and unpleasant – situation at one of the world’s leading institutions.

Read the whole story here.

Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.

10 thoughts on “A Harvard whistleblower was subjected to a forced mental exam. Here’s why.”

  1. Surely, additional aspects of this story are yet to be revealed. For example, what actions might be taken by the institution against the PI who may have retaliated against a suspected whistleblower?

  2. There may be a lot more to this story. If someone in the lab was looking unwell, acting erratically, making unreasonable demands, and not showing up, yes I would be worried about that person’s mental health! Sadly early 20s seems to be when mental illness blooms in young adults.
    In reading this one gets there impression there is a lot more to this story on all sides, and that while it sounds terrible for all parties at this point, the truth might be none of our business unless there was research fraud, but didn’t the investigation turn up nothing? Fraud is terrible but so are false accusations by people who refuse to believe the results of any investigation that doesn’t agree with their own conclusions, and they are out there too.

    1. “Fraud is terrible but so are false accusations by people who refuse to believe the results of any investigation that doesn’t agree with their own conclusions, and they are out there too.”

      especially “people who refuse to believe the results of any investigation that doesn’t agree with their own conclusions, and they are out there too.”

      Could you give some examples? What ratio would you say that the latter are to the former?
      You sound like you do have some evidence so should be able to give ball-park figures.

  3. I reported alleged fraud by my supervisor at a University in Queensland, Australia. After four years of alleged reprisals, I received a letter from the Head of the Graduate School, someone I had never met, directing me to undergo a psychiatric assessment:

    “…it appears to me that there may be health related matters that are affecting your capacity to perform your role. In the current circumstances, the requirements of your role include an ability to participate in the University’s performance management and potentially misconduct processes in a way which is not reasonably likely to be injurious to your health.”

    Following this directive I underwent an assessment by the psychiatrist nominated by my employer. To this day I still don’t know what behavior, aside from blowing the whistle, caused my employer concern. The psychiatrist’s report (with his emphases) gives a hint:

    “The extensive documentation provided by the subject did NOT indicate evidence of formal thought disorder or delusions. In particular, although she was in a position to discuss her supervisor at length, she did NOT exhibit gross motor agitation or homicidal ideation.”


    “The subject repeatedly denied thoughts of violence concerning her workplace supervisor. She indicated that she had low weapons or plans to carry out any retribution against her supervisor.”

    After I received a clean bill of mental health, the anticipated performance management and misconduct proceedings never eventuated, either.

    1. Graduate (and post doc) students like other scientists are obliged to report suspected scientific misconduct.

      Institutions are likewise obliged to investigated allegations of scientific misconduct in a timely manner. ORI states 120 days, which is quick in the academy.

      My recommendation to a grad or post doc student that reports their mentor for misconduct is to make plans to leave the lab. Why get a degree or professional linkage to a dishonest scientist?

      This applies regardless of the outcome of the institutions investigation, which can be self-serving.

      Frankly, sticking in the lab looks unethical to me as well.

      The exception – and it looks like the case in German-Rubin – is if the student is only a short time from the degree or in a post docs case a pristine publication.

      Harvard should have been allowed to manage G-R without the interference of the judge.

      Put the completion of the dissertation in the hands of another senior faculty member.

      I am astonished at the letters in Science the majority of which “side” with German. Apparently, the ombudsman intervention was not acceptable to German even after Rubin was cleared of the misconduct charge. No one has mentioned that a a mentor Rubin is obligated to report possible mental health issues of his students. My view is that the judge misread this a retribution. There’s a university grievance process that was apparently short circuited as well – that’s concerning.

      1. I was an academic staff member, not a student or postdoc. My PhD was not from the university in which I stumbled across alleged fraud and I was in no way connected to the allegedly fraudulent activities which I came across in the course of doing my job. I had the choice of ignoring what I found and letting it continue (thereby becoming part of the allegedly fraudulent activity), or following policies and procedures by reporting it to the relevant university officer. I did the latter. I was also supposedly protected in making a public interest disclosure (whistleblower protection). None of this was any help to me.

        I could have applied for another job and said nothing, but I trusted the system and the system let me down. You said it yourself: the outcome of the institution’s investigation can be self-serving.

  4. The judge in this case sees to have set a terrible precedence.

    I would look to the Director of the graduate program to try and determine how this got this far and why there was [apparently] not a Harvard intervention.

    I’m also very concerned that this got to the civil courts apparently without a University grievance process. Universities have a special status under the law to be able to adjudicate cases like this through internal processes.

  5. And in late August 2016, after extensive filings and multiple hearings, Judge Fahey issued her startling order.

    Rubin had falsely accused German of being a danger to himself and others, in order to discredit him and force him to back down from his accusations, Fahey concluded in her findings of fact.

    That the Section 12(a) (PDF) is, facially, on very weak footing seems clear. The real question is why German isn’t pursuing the doctor who signed it. (Acting as his own attorney isn’t the brightest idea, either.)

    One quibble:

    They explained that a doctor with Harvard’s health service had issued an order to take German to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation to see whether he should be committed, even against his will.

    This basically doesn’t happen* with the style of mental health law that Massachusetts appears to have: hospitals simply don’t want to litigate. One has to be in bad enough shape to be transferred to a state facility for that to happen, and the state isn’t too keen on the process either. First-time visitor? Extraordinarly unlikely.

    * Neither does “conditional voluntary admission,” but that’s a separate story.

    1. Sorry, I screwed up the footnote. What Massachusetts terms “conditional voluntary admission” appears to be what Illinois (the law of which I’m most familiar with) refers to as just “voluntary,” i.e., one has to submit a three-day notice to request release or have the hospital pursue legal commitment (viz., ship you somewhere).

      Their “voluntary” is what Illinois terms “informal” admission, which ceased to exist as a practical matter a long time ago in the regular system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.