By GARY TAUBES
At the heart of the case of Professor Jeffrey Williams versus Michigan State University lies a messy heap of data--tissue samples from Sudanese villagers infected with a degenerative parasitic disease known as river blindness, and the results of tests run on them. The graduate student who ran the tests was argumentative and teetering on the brink of academic failure, and eventually Williams, the principal investigator on the project, fired her. But when he asked her to give the data back, she refused.
Over the past five years, this minor incident has grown into an international fiasco, culminating in the loss of a $4.5 million project to another university and scientific-misconduct charges against four scientists and the graduate student in question. On the surface, it is just another entry in the annals of adviser-advisee relationships gone horribly wrong. But to talk to the people involved, to pore over the box upon box of documents the case has generated, is to discover a cause for the confusion that is far more alarming, in part because it is so common to so many large universities. It is to descend into a profusion of codes so labyrinthine, complaint procedures so lacking in binding authority, and rights so indiscriminately distributed, there might as well be no rules at all.
To understand the story of Williams and his graduate student, you have to grasp the scope of Williams's project. The Collaborative Research on Infectious Diseases in Sudan Project came into being in 1979, when Williams--then a 37-year-old microbiologist from England with a sheep farm a few miles outside of East Lansing--began assembling a group of American and African scientists to develop treatments for a set of diseases not much studied at the time, the market for their cures not being especially lucrative. They were tropical parasitic diseases--among them malaria and oncocerchiasis or river blindness, which is carried by black flies and often leaves its victims blind by their late teens--and their impact was and is felt across wide swaths of Africa. Most of the sixteen million people in the world who suffer from river blindness, for instance, live on that continent. Williams wanted to study the transmission of these diseases and how they work in the body; having practiced as a veterinarian before getting his Ph.D. in pathobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, he'd developed his own approach to the epidemiology of tropical disease. "Vets think about disease on a huge scale, in terms of herds of cattle and flocks of chickens," he says. "Physicians tend to think about diseases as problems of individuals. With tropical diseases, you need to step backward and think about how to do the most cost-effective thing for the group."
By 1989 the Sudan project was getting up to $500,000 a year in grants from the National Institutes of Health. It had attracted researchers from several departments at Michigan State, Brigham Young University in Utah, and the University of Khartoum; as one of only six large tropical-disease projects underway in the United States, it had become a powerful draw for aspiring biomedical researchers. In the Sudan, the largest and one of the poorest nations in Africa, it had spawned several indigenous biomedical-research projects. "There are more than fifty Sudanese who were trained by the project, directly or indirectly," says Mohamed Y. Elkhalifa, a Sudanese physician who did his dissertation with Williams. "The research laboratory that was set up by the project is the focal point for most serious research in the Sudan--not only because of the equipment but also because of the intellectual input and the exchange of scientific ideas." All this despite droughts, famines, civil wars, attempted coups, and four changes of government.
In the early 1980s a new drug appeared on the scene: Ivermectin was a heartworm medication developed for livestock and dogs by Merck & Co., but it also turned out to be effective in humans--it stopped the damage caused by river blindness. Once Merck discovered its utility, the company began distributing the drug in all parts of the world where river blindness occurs. "They donated it free, which I think has never happened in the history of medicine," says Williams. But a lot remained to be learned about ivermectin--how exactly it worked, how its side effects might be mitigated--so in the summer of 1987, two of Williams's Sudanese colleagues proposed a clinical trial. Soon Williams and several other scientists began setting out in trucks for villages that lay 400 kilometers up the one road that runs from Khartoum to the Red Sea--and then another day's drive off the road through bush--seeking patients who fit a description they'd developed back in the States. They drove the test subjects back to Khartoum, set them up in the university hospital, fed them ivermectin tablets, and took blood and tissue samples daily.
Back at MSU in the fall of 1987, Williams hired a new student technician for his lab. Maie ElKassaby was an Egyptian woman in her thirties, and taking her on was a kind of rescue mission on Williams's part. She'd just lost her last job, which she'd obtained from a fellow Egyptian after being laid off from another post in a pharmacology lab. The Egyptian professor, Suzy Hassouna, had taken pity on ElKassaby and given her a three-month assistantship so she wouldn't lose her visa, then fired her because she never showed up for work. "You know why?" asks Hassouna. "Because the department took its time with [her assistantship]--she was processed fifteen days late--and she didn't like that." (ElKassaby says she left Hassouna's lab only when Hassouna's grant ran out.)
ElKassaby, an observant Muslim who wears a half-chador, has a bachelor's degree in pharmacology from Cairo University and has studied in the States off and on since 1976, arriving at MSU in 1983 on a ten-month joint U.S.-Egyptian fellowship and staying to get her master's in poultry science. "She'd done very poorly on her master's," says Hassouna. "Her adviser was not very pleased with her work, so her chances of getting accepted by someone for a Ph.D. were very remote." Nonetheless, soon after hiring her, Williams agreed to direct ElKassaby's research for a dissertation in pathology. He paid a visit to Hassouna's office. "'Suzy, you are wrong about Maie,'" Hassouna remembers him saying. "'Maie is an excellent worker.' I said, 'Jeff, she is not a researcher. She is just a technician. She does not think for herself.' And he said, 'Well, I think you're wrong.'"
He would soon find out that Hassouna had been right. ElKassaby's academic record did not improve after her master's. She never bothered to make up a deferred grade in physiological biochemistry; when given a chance to repeat a pathology course she'd all but failed the first time around, she handed in virtually the same paper she'd handed in before. Soon after ElKassaby began working in Williams' lab, she stopped taking any science courses. In 1988, ElKassaby failed her comprehensive exams. (Much later, Williams would learn from one of ElKassaby's master's advisers that ElKassaby had in fact copied much of her master's thesis out of a textbook. Alerted by Williams, MSU administrators looked into the charge and determined that whole passages had indeed been copied but they ruled that ElKassaby had not intentionally plagiarized them. Besides, the administrators wrote, "this should have been resolved by the academic advisor . . . and the research advisor . . . prior to accepting the thesis.")
But in 1987, Williams knew none of this, and he gave ElKassaby as much responsibility as the other people in his lab. She was a good technician, he said; "she had good hands." Besides, Williams loved playing mentor to his students. When he did consulting work for the Upjohn Company, a pharmaceutical company in nearby Kalamazoo, he had Upjohn donate his entire $250-an-hour fee to MSU's pathology department, earmarked for graduate-student travel and research--a practice that would have earned him the reputation of a saint had he let his colleagues know he was doing it. Williams seemed particularly eager to draw out students he considered underchallenged. "Jeff carried some people for a long time who weren't very good," says Tim Geary, an Upjohn researcher who accompanied Williams several times to the Sudan. "He tried to save them; he viewed them as reclamation projects. The good ones would complain they never saw him, that they couldn't spend time with him, and I asked him about that. He said, 'They don't need me. I need to spend time with the ones who need me.'"
Others in Williams's lab realized long before he did that the ElKassaby reclamation project was doomed. Elkhalifa was the first to supervise her and the first to ask that she be transferred elsewhere. "It took less than a week for me to realize that it was extremely difficult to work with her," he says. "I talked to Jeff immediately. I said, 'Jeff, listen, I know this person, we are essentially from the same community, we occasionally meet at religious gatherings, and if she continues working with me, we will lose cordial relations.'"
By the time Robert Garrison, a graduate student in microbiology, went to work in the lab in September 1988, it was "clear," he says, that the relationship between Williams and ElKassaby was "strained." When Williams met with ElKassaby to discuss research, Garrison says Williams, would emerge from the meetings "emotionally drained." Garrison calls ElKassaby "abrasive" and "cantankerous"; he says, "It was visible even to me, a beginning Ph.D. student, that she lacked a fairly important ability to interpret biological data in the framework of the larger picture. The questions she asked me were very, very fundamental questions, relating to human physiology, for example. I was taken aback that someone as advanced as she would bring those questions up."
Nonetheless, in 1988 Williams assigned ElKassaby the task of running a radioimmunoassay, a test that uses radioactive material to detect tiny amounts of chemicals, on the blood and tissue samples collected in the Sudan. The Upjohn scientists who'd invented this particular radioimmunoassay had used it to measure levels of ivermectin in soil, but Williams wanted ElKassaby to use it to analyze human blood and tissue. "Since the parasites that cause the blindness live in the skin and the superficial parts of the eye," Williams explains, "you can take pieces of skin and count how many worms there are, whether they're dead or alive after treatment, and how much of the drug there is."
The results of the radioimmunoassay were to constitute the first section of ElKassaby's Ph.D. thesis, but Williams seemed so delighted at the success of the new application that when one of the Upjohn scientists made a remark about its commercial possibilities, ElKassaby began to suspect that Williams was thinking about patenting it. And that, she thought, could mean only one thing: He meant to steal her work and cut her out of the picture.
Williams was thinking of trying to market the assay; Upjohn wasn't interested, and he thought he had something unique on his hands. "No one else in the world had an assay one could use on tiny amounts of tissue," is how he figured it. But then he discovered other researchers working on similar tests and dropped the idea.
In January 1989 ElKassaby got what she thought was more evidence that Williams was planning to get rid of her. First he vetoed her plans to attend a conference where their work was to be presented, and then, after she went behind his back to ask the department head for travel funds, he got mad. He took to criticizing anything she did, ElKassaby says, and to communicating with her by way of memos left on her desk. ElKassaby's suspicions were confirmed on May 11, when, after Williams asked her to do a task over again because he felt she'd done it badly the first time, and she called the assignment "stupid," he fired her. He told her he couldn't be her adviser, but he would help her publish articles on her research.
"My failure to generate in her any ability to analyze or criticize, along with her insolence--to tell me my request was stupid!--was a tough thing to take," Williams says. "That's when I decided I wasn't going to make anything of this woman."
A few days after he fired her, Williams sent ElKassaby a note reminding her that "all worksheets, laboratory data notebooks, and other results from your work belong to this institution." ElKassaby took this as proof that he was out to steal her work; she even went to Hassouna and told her so. Hassouna told ElKassaby she hardly deserved a patent for carrying out her adviser's ideas using somebody else's test, but ElKassaby paid no attention. When she finally returned her research materials, she withheld some of the tissue samples and the readouts of the radioimmunoassay.
Now, five years into the nightmarish saga precipitated by ElKassaby's hold on the data, Williams's life has been transformed. He's no longer principal investigator on the Sudan grant; he shut down his lab four years ago and transferred the project to Brigham Young. He periodically goes blind from agonizing migraines. He's wont to rail against MSU, and has offered to return to the school a distinguished-professor award it gave him in 1982. He filed lawsuits against MSU-- naming nineteen university officials and trustees--first in federal and now in state court, and brings all the passion once reserved for his research and teaching to the case. MSU's reactions to his lawsuits have only exacerbated Williams's obsession; in a tactic Williams considers retaliatory harassment, its lawyers have been taking advantage of the discovery process to request every document they can think of, day after day, down to the syllabus for a course he now teaches on scientific misconduct. Things got even worse last November, when, Williams claims, someone at the university leaked to the press a deposition Williams had given on the difficulties of running, as he puts it, "a program in a Third World country during a civil war." An East Lansing newspaper then published an article in which much was made of the fact that he had smuggled money into Sudan and exchanged it on the black market.
"I probably plumbed the lowest depths of my spirits," Williams says. "I hit rock bottom several times when what appeared to me to be an obvious and just course got derailed and overturned or suspended or postponed, yet again and yet again."
How did this happen? In the summer of 1989, ElKassaby had decided that Williams not only was out to filch her research but had embarked on a campaign to get her thrown out of the country. It was common knowledge that if she were not enrolled in school, ElKassaby would lose her student visa, and the day she came back to the lab to return the data and materials--minus the key assay results--she was handed a note stating that her guidance committee had recommended her termination from the graduate program.
ElKassaby assumed that Williams had arranged her termination. He hadn't. But several days later, a secretary in the pathology department phoned the MSU Office of International Students and Scholars to ask about ElKassaby's visa status--the department was "having some problems" with her, the secretary said--and ElKassaby found out about the call and attributed it to Williams too. Now she was sure he was trying to have her deported.
On August 1, 1989, having appealed her termination and having had the appeal rejected, ElKassaby was, she says, "out on the street." But she was ready for a fight. She'd spent her summer going from associate deans to assistant vice presidents, voicing her suspicion that she'd been fired and flunked out and threatened with deportation because of a plot against her. ElKassaby found her first ally in Carolyn Stieber, MSU's ombudsman. Stieber believed ElKassaby had been wrongfully terminated by advisers who had failed to inform her by letter that her status was in danger. ElKassaby, she says, was a victim--an academically "under-prepared foreign student . . . encouraged to keep enrolling for years so research could be published before the issues of course work and comprehensives were addressed." On what she admitted under questioning was no evidence whatsoever, Stieber decided that Williams must have been trying to "punish" ElKassaby and run her out of the country.
ElKassaby also met with Henry Bredeck and John Cantlon, respectively the assistant vice president and vice president for research and graduate studies, to discuss her allegations. She showed Bredeck correspondence addressed to Williams that she said supported her argument that Williams intended to profit from her work on the radioimmunoassay; she also told them she had an "informant" at Upjohn. It was a seductive story--all over the country, tales about whistleblowers in laboratories were starting to make news--so Bredeck began looking into her claims, found nothing untoward in Williams's ties to Upjohn, and dropped his inquiry. Williams, however, was not informed for several months that he was under investigation.
ElKassaby also told the officials that shortly after going to work in Williams's lab she'd been warned that he destroyed students' lives. A few years earlier, she explained, Williams had fired another female researcher, who then claimed Williams was using grant money from the Sudan project to benefit his private interests. Indeed, in 1985, Williams had fired a researcher who had made that accusation. Williams, however, had been the second of at least four faculty members on campus to fire this particular student, who was described by one MSU scientist as "nothing but trouble," "given to falsifying time and effort reports," "devious," and having "a mean streak." Yet another had changed all the locks in his laboratory to keep her out.
ElKassaby found another ally of sorts in Edward Robinson, at the time associate dean at the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine. Robinson didn't believe ElKassaby belonged in graduate school, but he thought "the cleanest way" to amend the situation--as he later testified--was to reinstate her, let her retake her comprehensive exams and flunk them, which he was sure she'd do, and then throw her out.
After meeting with ElKassaby several times, however, Robinson came to believe that she was "very disturbed" and made him feel "unsafe"; he even phoned Williams to tell him that. Williams later telephoned the campus police, who advised him to get a trespass order barring ElKassaby from the lab. Williams posted a sign requesting that building occupants call the campus police if they spotted her. (A number of people on campus later cited this as still further proof of Williams's malice toward ElKassaby.)
In September 1989, ElKassaby was reinstated to her Ph.D. program. Williams, meanwhile, had still not gotten his data back. He'd written to ElKassaby; he'd spoken to her other advisers; he'd gone on his own round robin of associate deans and assistant vice presidents. One thing complicating his quest was MSU's bizarre organizational structure, in which colleges and departments are split up in order that faculty members in each department may be funded by different colleges or even by more than one college at a time. Faculty may work for two or three colleges; deans of the colleges have little involvement with their own faculty or students, while the department chairs have almost no administrative power at all.
ElKassaby ignored Williams's repeated assurances that if the data were returned, she could copy it and he'd help her with publication. She bristled, she later explained, because everyone seemed to think the data were more important than she. "How can I be a graduate student earning a degree on some work that doesn't belong to me?" she now asks. "It's either my work or it's not my work.
But ElKassaby's troubles were almost at an end, for that month she met the most effective ally she would ever find.
Justin McCormick, an associate dean in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and a member of the departments of microbiology and biochemistry, was a cancer researcher; although he technically had administrative responsibility for Williams, he knew almost nothing about him. Besides being well-respected as a cancer researcher--he brought in $1 million a year in research grants to the university--McCormick was also a priest, although that was a fact he preferred members of the scientific community not find out. Of all the people who eventually took ElKassaby's side, McCormick seems to have felt the keenest sense of outrage at her plight. In both testimony before a scientific-misconduct committee and in interviews, McCormick makes it abundantly clear that he views the affair as a matter of the simplest morality: Williams, the irresponsible scientist, is in the wrong; ElKassaby, the disenfranchised graduate student, is in the right.
McCormick got involved at the behest of Henry Bredeck. Bredeck asked McCormick and a female colleague to discuss with Williams ElKassaby's assertion that she was a whistleblower. McCormick found nothing to support that claim, as he reported afterward to Bredeck, but the tale he heard Williams tell persuaded McCormick that Williams had violated an "implicit obligation, [a] contract between the student and the professor," as he later told the scientific-misconduct investigators. In the world of scientific research, he explained, graduate students must perforce work on their advisers' projects. Therefore, professors are duty-bound not to let situations develop that prevent a student from continuing his or her work. "By custom, publications in the area [of science] are jointly done with the professor," McCormick told the panel of investigators. "That's very different than in an area like history or something like that."
McCormick also came away from the meeting believing he had heard Williams say something even more distressing--that he did not require his students and researchers to keep laboratory notebooks. Had this been true, it would have severely undermined Williams's position, invalidating all of the arguments he'd been making concerning the rights of principal investigators and the need to preserve the integrity of data. McCormick, however, appears to have misunderstood Williams; as Williams later explained--and as his students confirm--he does indeed require them to keep notebooks. He just doesn't require them to keep bound notebooks, which is what McCormick demands of his students.
McCormick made a concerted effort to get Williams to help ElKassaby publish papers on the research, and Williams finally agreed to cooperate on two papers, on the condition that as ElKassaby wrote the papers, she would share the data with Williams. He set a December 31, 1989, deadline for seeing a draft of the first of the two papers. In the meantime, however, ElKassaby was scheduled to take her comprehensive exams; she did, failed them yet again, missed Williams's deadline, and did not return the data.
On January 3, 1990, ElKassaby was told that she was terminated from her Ph.D. program once again.
On January 6, Williams finally gave up on MSU and called Washington. According to Williams, Alan Price, an administrator with the Office of Scientific Integrity, the investigative arm of the NIH, informed him that there was nothing Price could do to help Williams get the data back, and that it was worthless anyway. It had been out of Williams's laboratory for so long, OSI said, that Williams could no longer be sure it hadn't been somehow tampered with. He'd have to repeat the entire procedure. Williams agreed that "we [would] do the whole damn thing over." Price added that while withholding data was probably not technically scientific misconduct, if ElKassaby should choose to publish it without him, that would, in Williams's words, "crank it up a big step."
On January 8, Williams wrote to McCormick, explaining that neither he nor his Sudanese collaborators wished to participate in ElKassaby's publication. A month later, Williams and his collaborators wrote to their program directors at NIH, explaining that they were aborting the Sudan project at MSU and handing it over to a scientist at Brigham Young. The scientists cited MSU's failure to force ElKassaby to give the data back as proof that their university could not live up to "the binding assurances provided to the federal granting agency in accepting these research funds" (MSU must vouch for all research conducted under its auspices in order to qualify for grants). Says Williams, "My lab basically shut down."
McCormick, however, was still fighting on ElKassaby's behalf, and while Williams was phasing out one of MSU's most prominent research programs, McCormick managed to persuade the pathology department to take ElKassaby back a second time. Rather than get her Ph.D., she'd
pursue a second master's degree.
A new academic committee was established to oversee ElKassaby's work and help her publish. It was led by McCormick and included two veterinary pathologists who knew nothing of the entire affair. They later testified they didn't know that the data ElKassaby would be publishing were the data that Williams had been trying to get back for ten months--McCormick never saw fit to tell them. Nor did anyone at MSU's office of research and graduate studies worry about the fact that of ElKassaby's three new advisers, none had any experience in tropical or parasitic diseases or, for the most part, with drug studies.
ElKassaby's new guidance committee met for the first and only time in early May 1990. ElKassaby showed them a research report from her guidance-committee meeting of a year earlier, in which Williams had apparently agreed that the data was enough for a research paper. (Williams later testified that all they could have been shown were a research proposal and "some tables of data," adding, "This [material] in no way represents a publication.") The committee then wrote to Williams's Upjohn collaborators, asking if they would like to be co-authors on the paper. The Upjohn scientists refused. In mid-June, the committee members wrote to Williams, explaining that ElKassaby would produce two manuscripts and that "in their preparation all data will become available to you." Williams replied to the offer in a memo that one of the pathologists on the committee, Adalbert Koestner, described as "very threatening." It warned them that if they persisted in taking part in "this appropriation of data," Williams would hold them responsible. Koestner was, he said, "astonished that I would receive such an answer to a very amicable letter."
Koestner sought advice from John Cantlon, the vice president for research, and Cantlon replied that he fully supported the efforts of ElKassaby's guidance committee and sent him a memo for the record. "Publication of research results that have been reviewed by the Guidance Committee," Cantlon wrote, "is the normal expectation from graduate student research. Joint authorship with collaborating faculty is common but certainly not mandatory."
In June 1990, McCormick helped ElKassaby submit the paper to a publication based in Germany, Tropical Medicine and Parasitology, with ElKassaby as sole author. McCormick added a cover letter, explaining that ElKassaby had "carried out the research described in the enclosed paper as part of her graduate degree requirements" but had had a falling out with her adviser. "This did not involve the integrity of the data which has never been in question," he wrote; he suggested "that reviewers be chosen who are not associated with Michigan State University to provide an objective critique." The journal editor accepted the article and ran it without review. Later, after Williams wrote him to complain, he replied that he had not wanted to accept the paper, "because of the poor quality of the manuscript"--a review two years later turned up scores of factual errors, including one in the title--but that the manuscript had been "accepted as a favor to a young research worker." McCormick's letter was "considered to be sufficient to publish the results." The editor went on to explain that, actually, he hadn't meant to publish it without review at all; a secretary had inadvertently sent out a letter of acceptance rather than a letter acknowledging receipt.
McCormick himself later admitted in testimony that he knew the paper was scientifically dubious but that that was beside the point. The point was to have the university discharge its moral duty to ElKassaby. The paper, he said, was "a very short, undistinguished paper." He added, "That's the shame of it in some ways. If this was important data referring to important scientific problems, it would be worth fighting over."
In August, with the paper safely accepted for publication, John Cantlon, asked McCormick to ask ElKassaby one more time for the data, gone now fifteen months from Williams's lab. McCormick did so, and she promptly brought him the data. "It arrived in my office, this pile of loose sheets of paper," said McCormick. "I had no idea whether that was the whole data set, half the data, or what it was." McCormick put the data on his shelf, called Cantlon's office for instruction on what to do next, and figured he'd get a call back any day. Cantlon never called back. McCormick saw no need to tell Williams he had the data, later defending that decision with what Williams came to call, with an increasing penchant for hyperbole, the Nuremberg defense: "I had acted on behalf of central administration," McCormick told investigators, "and I was quite sure they were competent to proceed with what they were doing."
Later that month, Cantlon retired. He was replaced by Percy Pierre, a former president of Prairie View A&M in Texas and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Army. Cantlon apparently never mentioned to Pierre that McCormick had the data, because Pierre testified that he wasn't told until early October, by which time eleven MSU administrators and professors knew it, including the university's president, its provost, and various vice presidents and deans. None of them, however, chose to tell Williams.
p> Three months later, Williams finally heard through the academic grapevine that ElKassaby's paper had been submitted, with ElKassaby as sole author. He filed charges of scientific misconduct against ElKassaby for withholding data, and against both ElKassaby and the three members of her guidance committee for plagiarism.
One month after that, a campus security officer happened to mention to Williams that McCormick had the data. The next week Williams filed a grievance against McCormick, and the week after that, Pierre suggested that McCormick give the data back, which he did four days before Christmas, almost nineteen months after ElKassaby had made off with it.
Once Williams filed scientific- misconduct charges, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) asked Pierre to conduct an internal inquiry. He did, thus setting in motion a series of bureaucratic events so odd they nearly eclipse the weirdness of events that preceded them. The pharmacology professor chosen to hear testimony, Clifford Welsch, was one of McCormick's best friends. He nonetheless concluded "without doubt and without hesitation" that scientific misconduct had been committed. In fact, Welsch was so astounded by the behavior of ElKassaby's second guidance committee that he went to McCormick and asked him to go to the journal's editor and try to pull the piece before the journal went to press. That wasn't possible, McCormick replied. Besides, McCormick assured his friend, he was acting on advice from his superiors.
Pierre deemed Welsch's report unsatisfactory, and asked the committee to rewrite it. Though in charge of the testimony, Welsch was not in charge of the investigation; another dean higher up in the hierarchy was, and one week later, that other dean submitted an amended report. It stated that while ElKassaby may have committed misconduct--an act that should be punished by MSU, not by the PHS--the faculty members who advised her had not. Pierre found this report satisfactory.
When Suzanne Hadley, acting director of the Office of Scientific Integrity at the PHS, received Pierre's report, she decided that OSI should not only launch its own investigation into the misconduct charges, it should look into MSU's handling of the inquiry as well. Pierre, however, argued with OSI for six months, at which point Hadley left and a new investigator, Clyde Watkins, took over the case. Watkins agreed to let MSU handle the second round of investigations--including the inquiry into itself.
Pierre hired attorney Barbara Mishkin, a nationally known scientific-misconduct expert, to organize the investigations. She convened a panel of experts, and more than one year, ninety hours of testimony, 750 documents, and $300,000 later, the panel found ElKassaby guilty of scientific misconduct--for holding on to the data and refusing to allow other scientists on the project to review them, as well as for publishing--and recommended she be expelled. As far as the charge of plagiarism went, however, ElKassaby's guilt was mitigated by the involvement of McCormick and the two other professors, who had advised her. The report recommended a formal investigation to weigh the potential misconduct of ElKassaby's guidance committee.
The report issued by the Mishkin committee went on to trounce just about every administrator who had ever gotten involved with ElKassaby's case. It condemned MSU for everything from lacking any "demonstrable understanding of the standards and traditions of biomedical science," to "neglect of evidence, unfounded assumptions, and attribution of malice [to Williams]," to "failure to comply with federal regulations" and "failure to honor MSU rules." Mishkin's investigators concurred with one of Williams's central points: It is essential, they said, that a laboratory director "assume absolute responsibility for the validity of all communicated information from his or her laboratory." The investigators seemed most dismayed about the administration's cavalier attitude toward publishing a scientific paper, especially one that might affect the medical treatment of millions of people. "The record shows," the report said, "that those who made decisions about publication of this paper failed to appreciate the fact that more was at stake than the rights of a graduate student."
The report placed much of the blame on Cantlon and Pierre. Perhaps the most intriguing thing the Mishkin report turned up was the bit of pseudolegal reasoning Cantlon put forward to explain why the university believed ElKassaby had the right to publish. In the sciences, unlike in the humanities, the close collaboration underlying research requires a scientist to obtain permission from collaborators before publishing--and many intellectual property experts consider getting the go-ahead from a project's principal investigator the most important step of all. Cantlon, however, completely discounted Williams's role. According to the report, he twisted a rule about scientific publication meant to ensure that private companies couldn't quash research, even if releasing it would result in proprietary information becoming available to the public, into a rule guaranteeing that a student had the absolute right to publish, her adviser's objections notwithstanding. Cantlon's contorted interpretation was untenable, the investigators concluded; otherwise, "students would have an unfettered right to publish (and by extension, possibly an equally unfettered right to a Ph.D.) which would defeat any claim by the university that a Ph.D. signifies attainment of certain standards of intellectual achievement and critical output."
The Mishkin panel recommended that the report "be made public in its entirety, as a first step toward the resolution and healing which cannot occur if secrecy is maintained." But MSU refused to release it, explaining to curious journalists that it could not do so because ElKassaby was still able to appeal the Mishkin report's conclusions. (A brief story did appear in the January 29, 1993, issue of Science--but only because a copy of the report was leaked.) MSU's president appealed to Watkins at what was now called the Office of Research Integrity, requesting leniency for MSU and all involved. In a puzzling twist of logic, ORI decided that the guilty verdict against ElKassaby should stand, even though she had acted on the advice of her second guidance committee, but that the members of her guidance committee should not be investigated because they had acted on the advice of university officials. ElKassaby appealed the ruling; Williams deemed it par for the course. "When I called Clyde [Watkins], he said 'Of course there's no need for an investigation, because these people showed no evidence of malice.' I said, 'That's interesting. I had no idea that I was required to show they acted with malice. Where does it say that?' That's when I got what I call the Clyde Shuffle: 'They were misdirected, it wasn't their fault.' I said, 'So whose fault was it?' and he said 'It's nobody's fault. It's just an unfortunate circumstance. These things happen.'" Watkins, who left his post a year later, after being accused by a co-worker of sexual harassment, has declined to comment. (The sexual harassment charge is still being investigated.)
Meanwhile, the MSU administration commissioned a review of its policies on intellectual integrity and intellectual property. After extensive study, the review panel concluded that university policies as they were written were not bad--they essentially backed up Williams's stand in defense of the rights of principal investigators--but that nobody seemed to follow them. The panel echoed virtually every other position taken by Williams and the Mishkin report, and Pierre, as research vice president, was then appointed to implement the findings of the report. "Like having the fox guard the chickens," Williams remarks.
In January of this year, a judge in Lansing threw Williams's lawsuit out of federal court on the grounds that since MSU administrators were state employees, their actions were protected under federal law. Williams promptly refiled the case in state court.
This past February, ORI dropped the remaining charges of scientific misconduct against ElKassaby. According to an MSU press release, in considering her case, the appeals board redefined the concept of scientific misconduct and decided that "her actions, while improper, could not be classified" as such. The missing link in the logical chain was once again malice: In the absence of any proof of it, what ElKassaby had done was deemed "self-protective" and an "honest error in judgment." In the end, ElKassaby was never expelled. She remains a student at MSU, working in McCormick's lab and drawing a salary from the university.
Was the administration truly unable to retrieve the data all those years? Was it, during what Cantlon euphemistically described to Mishkin's committee as the "negotiating process," really so hapless that it never found a way to force her to give them back? The simple answer is that no one ever really tried. As Robinson put it, "the operation of this university is based almost entirely on good will and on the assumption of collegial behavior. When that breaks down . . . the university has so many procedures to protect the aggrieved parties that it becomes mired in bureaucracy." It was a system, said one of the Mishkin investigators, in which "everything is somebody else's responsibility."
The breakdown of due process opened the door to other forces--not all in themselves abhorrent. As the Mishkin report stated, "Ms. ElKassaby, of all those caught up in the situation, was the party with the least institutional power." This fact alone appears to have stimulated a kind of automatic pity reflex. Steiber and McCormick, to give two examples, both seem to have operated on the unchallenged assumption that this distraught, slightly pathetic woman, was a victim.
Some people may have been motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by petty office politics. Tim Geary, the Upjohn scientist, believes the entire story played out as it did because Williams had put together the Sudan project entirely independently of the university, and administrators begrudged him his autonomy. "He did not play social, political games at MSU," Geary says. "He is a serious scholar in a place where there aren't that many."
There is one other possible explanation for MSU's behavior, and it may be the crucial one. "I thought there would always be a fear of a lawsuit," McCormick says. Indeed, ElKassaby had a history of being litigious. She'd filed a civil-rights suit in 1988 against the management of a building from which she'd been evicted. The apartment was designed to be shared by four people, and though an agency had placed eight female roommates with her in a period of three years, all of them complained they couldn't live with her and moved out. ElKassaby claimed the management company had discriminated against her because she was a Muslim. (The judge ruled against her.) In 1990, ElKassaby proved that apprehensiveness about the possibility of a lawsuit against MSU was well founded when, in a meeting with her, the three professors on her second guidance committee discovered--as the minutes of the meeting record it--that she was "taping the conversation without the knowledge of the faculty members present."
And yet, in a way, the entire episode may still boil down to what such incidents so often boil down to--what sixteen MSU faculty sympathetic to Williams called, in advertisements they took out in the local paper, "the arrogance of power." As both the faculty and the Mishkin panel pointed out, administrators formulated their own slightly demonized view of Williams and then never bothered to check it against the facts. No university official ever tried to interview Williams's colleagues and collaborators. No one replied when Williams's collaborators wrote to protest his treatment--sometimes from as far away as Khartoum. Indeed, the Mishkin report observed, "the arguments of those who supported Professor Williams were largely dismissed either on the grounds that their support stemmed from friendship . . . or from misinformation provided by Professor Williams." No one bothered to look at his record--except, as when Bredeck did so, in an underhanded fashion.
Williams, for his part, has begun to take a perverse pride in being the object of so much administrative ill will. "I don't think anybody else involved in misconduct has [been] systematically ground down though judiciary channels relating to academic integrity" the way he was, he says. "I filed complaints, and by the end of '91, [MSU] had choked off every one of them, every damn one of them. . . . I kept lighting fires, kept going back around to the rules, and then when [MSU] broke the rules I'd file another charge for breaking the rules. That would piss them off more. By the end of '91, I had filed grievances against eight administrators, four faculty members, and a student, all charged with multiple violations of university rules and federal violations. Each one of those was stomped on. I managed to get one through a hearing, the faculty voted unanimously in my favor, and the dean overturned it. An arbitrary reversal of a faculty panel. I appealed it. The appeal is supposed to be heard within fourteen days. It wasn't heard for six months."
In one of the faculty advertisements published this February--it was titled the arrogance of power ii--the following passage appears. It is taken directly from the transcript of the Mishkin inquiry:
Q (C. K. Gunsalus, one of Mishkin's investigators): Your administration will
undertake reviews or investigations of members of your faculty without their
being informed of that fact?
Gary Taubes is the author of Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion (Random House, 1993). His most recent article for Lingua Franca,"Fraudbusters: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, Scientific-Misconduct Investigators," appeared in the September issue.