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Research Misconduct Whistleblower Files Lawsuit

Sarah C.P. Williams

A former UC Irvine assistant professor has filed suit against UC Irvine, claiming administrators ignored her complaints of research misconduct, allowed discrimination to continue, and wrongfully terminated her employment.

A former associate professor of the University of California, Irvine, is suing the university, claiming that they ignored complaints of manipulated and falsified research data. Christina Schwindt, a former associate professor in the UC Irvine College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, said in the lawsuit that she first discovered fraudulent research in 2010 when comparing datasets for a project she was involved in. The research was based in the lab of Dan Cooper, a professor of pediatrics, with whom Schwindt had published papers in the past. His research focuses on the effects of exercise in children with asthma.

Christina Schwindt (left) has filed a lawsuit against UC Irvine for claims of ignored research misconduct in the lab of researcher Dan Cooper (right). Source: UC Irvine website

According to Schwindt’s official complaint, filed July 13 with the Orange County Central Justice Center, she reported the misconduct to superiors at UC Irvine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Division of Oversight. After the reports, which Schwindt said were not followed up on, she said she began to be ostracized from Cooper’s lab, blocked from accessing data she had collected, and excluded from work-related events.

Schwindt and others, the lawsuit states, heard Cooper tell “stories about someone he knew who falsified data. Dr. Cooper would joke about this and often brought the matter up. Dr. Cooper would also tell people that it was now much easier to falsify data because of computers and one would not see data that was crossed out, erased or whited out in the current age of technology.”

Schwindt filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint after the harassment began and followed through with at least three members of the university administration, but was shortly coerced to sign an amended contract and then terminated in July 2011, the suit stated. Schwindt, who is now on the medical staff of the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, is suing the university for loss of earnings and benefits, distress damages, and attorney and legal fees. The charges against UC Irvine include sex discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, whistle-blowing violation, retaliation, harassment, and unlawful termination.

Dr. Daniel Vasgird, the director of West Virginia University’s Office of Research Integrity and a long-time speaker and writer on integrity in science research, said that all U.S. universities receiving funding from the NIH are required to have a document outlining the procedures to report research misconduct. “It says something to the effect of all individuals must report observed, suspected, or apparent misconduct to the research integrity officer,” Vasgird said of standard policies. “You’re placing the onus on people to report.”

Speaking generally on the causes of manipulated data, Vasgird said that increased competition for money often drives fraud “There’s a lot more pressure on people and they have a lot more at stake. So, there’s a lot more potential for misconduct,” he said.

In cases of reported fraud, said Vasgird, school administrators and leadership need to have a zero-tolerance policy. “The leadership needs to understand that if they start saying ‘we’ll make allowances here or there,’ that tends to have a domino effect on the rest of the institution.” His comments were not directed specifically at UC Irvine or the case at hand.

When a researcher notices suspicious data or behavior, the system should be set up to allow them to report it for further investigation without the concern of retaliation, he said. “Is it realistic to think in a small lab that you’re going to be able to stay there after something like this? Probably not, but there are places that people have put provisions in place where somebody can switch to a different laboratory or switch to a different area when something like this happens,” said Vasgird.

According to the Orange County Court’s website, a date has not yet been set for further action on the lawsuit.

Update, 10:30 EDT, 8/9/2012: A UC Irvine Healthcare spokesperson has provided us with the following statement:

"University of California, Irvine is committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity in its research. We take seriously our responsibility under state and federal whistleblower laws to fully investigate all claims. The university has not been served with this lawsuit. However, Dr. Schwindt's assertions are baseless."

Keywords:  research misconduct