Whistleblower gets court backing in defamation case — but at a cost

It’s been a long and winding road for a whistleblower at Indiana University, South Bend.

After Mark Fox, a professor of management and entrepreneurship accused two business professors of plagiarism in 2012, a university investigation found one of the two men — Douglas Agbetsiafa, the former chair of the economics department — guilty of plagiarism, and terminated him in January 2014. The other professor was cleared of any wrongdoing — then sued Fox for defamation in June, 2014.

Fox won the case, but it dragged on. More than two years later, in December 2016, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Fox told us:

Raising the allegations to Indiana University and, then, defending myself from [the] meritless lawsuit came at great personal and financial cost.

Fox, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars on his legal defense, calls the whistleblowing experience “disillusioning and demoralizing,” and said the university’s lack of support “does not send a healthy message to potential whistleblowers.”

Fox has also raised suspicions about 15 papers written by Agbetsiafa. Four of those 15 papers have since been retracted or removed from publication. Agbetsiafa’s co-author on one of those papers (published in an apparently now-defunct journal) was IU accounting professor Peter Aghimien, who was cleared of plagiarism charges — then sued Fox in civil court for defamation and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” among other charges, for things Fox had written in a public blog and university emails. (That’s the case that was ultimately closed in December, 2016.)

Fox first came across the suspected plagiarism in 2012, he told us:

I was chairing a Research Quality Taskforce within the business school at IU South Bend. Both Aghimien and Agbetsiafa were on the committee. While serving as Chair of that committee, an administrator at IU South Bend kept telling me what an impressive researcher Agbetsiafa was. I was skeptical, but one evening when I was particularly bored I decided to look at some of Agbetsiafa’s research. There seemed to be changes in style within the articles I looked at. I cut and pasted some wording into google and quickly found that wording in multiple articles by Agbetsiafa (including a co-authored piece with Aghimien) was the same as wording used by earlier published authors.

According to details in the court record from Aghimien’s lawsuit against Fox, Fox alerted the Research Integrity Office at IU about his concerns and submitted over 600 pages of documentation, including copies of several suspected papers (including Agbetsiafa’s 1980 doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Notre Dame) and copies of the original works that Fox alleged were plagiarized.

The court documents from the lawsuit include some of the details of IU’s investigation: The Research Integrity Office, led by Shelley Bizila, formed an Inquiry Committee to look into the allegations in August 2012. In December, that committee concluded there were grounds for further investigation, and forwarded the allegations to an Investigation Committee.

The Investigation Committee first met in May 2013. They concluded their investigation on December 19, 2013, according to IU spokesperson Margie Smith-Simmons. In the end, according to the court documents, the Committee found that a 2011 article co-authored by Agbetsiafa and Aghimien, “Assessing Teaching Effectiveness in College Level and Accounting Courses Using Student Rating of Teaching,” published in the Journal of Current Research in Global Business, contained plagiarism, and attributed the plagiarized text to Agbetsiafa. As the South-Bend Tribune reported in January, Agbetsiafa was fired from the university in January, 2014 (which Smith-Simmons confirmed).

We were unable to locate contact information for Agbetsiafa, but found a website that cites him as president of a consulting business in South Bend, Indiana. We left a message at the company’s number but have not heard back.

The Committee absolved Aghimien of all plagiarism complaints filed against him.

During the investigation, Fox had begun an anonymous public blog, “Douglas Agbetsiafa’s Wording,” presenting evidence for plagiarism in 15 of Agbetsiafa’s publications. Smith-Simmons told us IU reached out to the Journal of Current Research in Global Business and other journals that published suspected work by Agbetsiafa, to inform them of the plagiarism.

On June 22, 2014, Aghimien and his wife, Mabel Aghimien, filed a lawsuit claiming that Fox defamed him in the blog posts and two emails to colleagues, alleging

defamation, tortuous interference with business relationship, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium

In December 2015, Judge Michael G. Gotsch of St. Joseph Circuit Court ruled in a summary judgment in Fox’s favor, that the emails and blog posts were not defamatory because there was evidence plagiarism had occurred and the Aghimiens failed to show that Fox made the allegations with malice, a requirement of defamation.

The Aghimiens appealed the case, and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Gotsch’s ruling. The Indiana Supreme Court declined to hear the case in December 2016.

At the conclusion of the case, Fox issued a press release, stating:

The rulings by both the trial court and the appellate courts should serve as a wake-up call to universities, including Indiana University, that whistleblowers should not be muzzled from making allegations of plagiarism more public.

We asked Fox to elaborate on his experience, and here’s what he had to say:

Some months the legal costs were greater than my salary. I would have thought that the very least Indiana University could have done after I won the lawsuit was to offer to pay my legal costs (particularly as the termination of Agbetsiafa probably saved the university upwards of half a million dollars). Indiana University’s lack of support in this regard does not send a healthy message to potential whistleblowers.

This was the third time during my career at Indiana University that I have been a whistleblower.  Each time the outcome has been somewhat disillusioning and demoralizing.  I try and separate my views about IU itself–which I do not believe has a culture that is supportive of whistleblowers– from my day-to-day job.  On the whole, I don’t find that difficult as I am fortunate to teach amazing students, and that makes it all worthwhile!

In response to Fox’s statement that the university doesn’t support whistleblowers and that the university could have offered to pay his legal costs, Smith-Simmons replied:

Mark Fox’s litigation did not involve Indiana University so we cannot comment on that litigation. Additionally, Indiana University has a whistleblower policy and takes appropriate action to protect whistleblowers as required by our policy and applicable law: http://policies.iu.edu/policies/categories/administration-operations/whistleblower/whistleblower.shtml

It appears the Journal of Current Research in Global Business is defunct; we were unable to locate it online. An email to the former editor-in-chief, Faramarz Damanpour of James Madison University, bounced back, and the head of his former department at JMU, Hui He Sono, told us that Damanpour retired more than nine years ago, and the department does not have his contact information.

As for Agbetsiafa’s other papers, four have been retracted. Three were removed by publisher The Clute Institute (included in Jeffrey Beall’s now defunct list of possible predatory publishers) in late 2014:

Each retraction notice is just two sentences. Here’s the one from the 2011 paper:

The manuscript entitled The Recent Global Financial Crisis: Impacts On Selected Developing Regions was retracted on September 11, 2014. Please contact our office at Journals@CluteInstitute.com for more information.

The fourth paper — Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (2012) Fiscal Deficit-Interest Rate Link: Evidence from G5 Countries. Research in Business and Economics Journal, 5: 1-12 — has been removed and replaced with this one sentence:

This manuscript has been removed from publication.

Russell Baker, executive director of the Academic and Business Research Institute, which publishes RBEJ, told us the journal removed the paper independently of the university investigation, and was not contacted by IU:

The manuscript has been removed from publication for violation of the AABRI Authorship and Originality Policy.

Indiana University did not contact us. Subsequent to publication of the paper we instituted a 100% originality evaluation policy utilizing an online originality-evaluation system. All papers published since 2012 have been evaluated. This paper was identified as 26% non-original.

(IU spokesperson Smith-Simmons re-confirmed that the university did, in fact, contact the Research in Business and Economics Journal).

Two of Agbetsiafa’s papers flagged by Fox are online in the Journal of African Development (formerly the Journal of African Finance & Economic Development). We reached out to editor-in-chief Elizabeth Asiedu to find out if the journal had been notified about Agbetsiafa’s plagiarism and termination, but have not received a response. The two papers are:

Finally, we were unable to locate the last eight papers online. When possible, we have attempted to reach out to the publisher, and will update or add links if we receive any responses:

  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (2009) Assessing Teaching Effectiveness in College Level Economics Using Student Rating of Teaching. AGB & IALBSS Proceedings Vol. 21.
  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (2009) A New Financial Foundation: Rebuilding Financial Supervision and Regulation. Dialogue/The Voice of the SWIFT Community, Issue 22: 54-58.
  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (2006) Financial Intermediation and Efficacy of Monetary Integration of the Community States of West Africa. Southwestern Journal of Economics, VIII(11): 25-51.
  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (2004) Long-Run Relationship Between Domestic Saving and Investment in Ten African Countries: Further Evidence from Cointegration Models. Southwestern Journal of Economics, VI(1): 1-19.
  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (1996) Distributed Lag Effects of Fiscal Deficits On Short-Term and Long-Term Interest Rates, Proceedings, Global Business, November: 318-324.
  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (1995) Growth Implications of Financial Intermediation Under Information Asymmetry, Trends In Modem Business. Academy of Business Administration,February: 459-467.
  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas K. (1992) Fiscal Policies in Open Economies: Implications for the Balance of Payments.  International Trade and Finance: Proceedings, Vol II, April: 435-446.
  • Agbetsiafa, Douglas (1980) “External Resource Utilization and Debt-Management Problems in Ghana” (Doctoral Thesis submitted to University of Notre Dame).

We also contacted Aghimien, but did not receive a reply. We will update this post if we learn any new information.

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4 thoughts on “Whistleblower gets court backing in defamation case — but at a cost”

  1. Plagiarism and research/publication misconduct is just not thought of as the serious crime against humanity that it is, in misleading others in life choices—its a human flaw.

  2. Mark Fox has done here the right thing (as far as one can judge). The question here is, whether Indiana University should have supported Mark Fox by supplying legal support. The statement “Mark Fox’s litigation did not involve Indiana University …” and uses rules not to support him, is insufficient. The law suit was a result of his faculty position and it contributed to the culture of an open university. So there are good reasons to support.

    1. I totally agree that it is very disingenuous for Indiana University to suggest that the case did not involve the University. I find this very troublesome.

  3. This is an interesting context for the article: Mark Fox and Jeffrey Beall, “Advice for Plagiarism Whistleblowers,” Ethics & Behavior 24(5), 341–349.

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