Here’s a story that shows the lengths a public university — The University of Illinois at Chicago — went to block the release of information about a child psychiatry trial gone wrong, and how a reporter — Jodi S. Cohen of ProPublica — fought them effectively at every turn to reveal the truth.
Earlier this year, ProPublica “revealed that the National Institute of Mental Health ordered the university to repay $3.1 million in grant money it had received to fund [Mani] Pavuluri’s study.” This kind of clawback is very, very rare.
We tipped our hats to Cohen then, because we had been trying for years to obtain documents that would tell the full story of the Pavuluri case, which we had been covering since 2015 when a retraction appeared. In particular, we’ve been trying to get the university to release their report of the investigation into Pavuluri’s work. We have been making a push for such reports, as we noted earlier this week in a roundup of more than 16 of them.
The university refused to release the report, citing, in part, an Illinois law that exempts the reports of disciplinary proceedings against medical professionals from disclosure. We hired an attorney in Chicago who has had big success in fighting such exemptions to look into this for us; he and an associate did some research and said it would be a very difficult case to win. Given our limited resources, we did not file a lawsuit. Without resorting to litigation, we were eventually successful in obtaining other documents, about which we’ve written.
But Cohen figured out which documents to ask for, and pursued an appeal for some that the university tried to withhold. Please read her story today for all of the details, which are eye-popping even to us, having covered scientific misconduct for years.
Kudos, once again, to Cohen. We’ll focus on two details here. First, back in 2015, Pavuluri admitted to us that she had committed “a bit of an [Institutional Review Board] infraction.” Today, Cohen revealed, among other things, that Pavuluri had “enrolled her young sons as healthy control subjects in [the] troubled study.”
A dictionary definition of “complaint”
But what is perhaps most revealing about the university’s approach here is how they responded to Cohen’s question about how many complaints they had received from Pavuluri’s patients or research subjects. One letter, they said.
It turns out they received complaints from at least eight families. How did they justify saying it was only one? “The University interpreted your use of the word complaint consistent with the definition of the word found in Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online version): ‘a formal allegation against a party.’”
Let that sink in for a second. Rather than responding fully to a question from a reporter about a trial of vulnerable children that had obvious and deep problems, a public university parsed the definition of “complaint” and sent the reporter a dictionary definition.
We’re not big fans of that approach when students use it to write essays, nor when a university uses it to keep information from the public. But if it helps The University of Illinois at Chicago understand why their behavior is so problematic, here’s a definition of “trustworthy:” “able to be relied on as honest or truthful.”
Something to aspire to.
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