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Editorials

An Overdue Due Process for Research Misconduct

Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino filed a defamation lawsuit against Harvard, HBS Dean Srikant M. Datar, and a trio of data investigators following severe allegations that at least four of her papers contained fraudulent data.
Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino filed a defamation lawsuit against Harvard, HBS Dean Srikant M. Datar, and a trio of data investigators following severe allegations that at least four of her papers contained fraudulent data. By Christopher Hidalgo
By The Crimson Editorial Board
​​This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

A paper on preventing fraud facing allegations of fraudulent data? It seems like a twist of irony fit for an amateur author’s first novel. But as usual, reality — or, at least, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino’s reality — is stranger than fiction.

This summer, the data investigation blog Data Colada published allegations that at least four studies attributable to Gino contain fraudulent data.

We find ourselves unable to judge Gino’s guilt as of yet. The consequent actions taken against Gino seem damning: Following internal investigation, HBS Dean Srikant M. Datar imposed severe sanctions on Gino, even recommending that the University review her tenure. Yet Gino appears equally confident of her innocence: She has offered adamant rebuttals and filed a defamation lawsuit against Harvard, Datar, and Data Colada.

Our inability to evaluate these allegations reveals the harms of universities’ opaque, informal procedures for adjudicating such issues.

The content of the HBS internal investigation remains obscure — as it has in past similar cases. Although the research misconduct policy applied to Gino’s situation has been in effect for the past two years, some HBS professors say her case is the first they’ve ever heard of it.

Such ambiguous and inaccessible policy defers adjudication from the University to a series of ill-suited actors. Independent groups like Data Colada make valiant efforts, but lack the resources and repute to collect the full story. Meanwhile, courts of law are not courts of science: Judges may not be equipped to settle the complex technical inquiries that decide cases of academic misconduct.

Surely, our ultimate defense against research misconduct cannot rest on a GoFundMe campaign or a legal specialist’s hazy recollection of high school science. Considering both resources and competencies, universities are the best choice to arbitrate academic misconduct allegations.

The current delegation of such investigation to external, unfamiliar actors opens the process up to a sensationalized reception in the public sphere. The legitimate frustrations and fears that incited Gino’s LinkedIn post defending her lawsuit and HBS professors’ requests for anonymity in The Crimson can be contorted by the uninformed public into admissions of guilt or evidence of repressive work environments.

Faced with the insufficiency of these alternate investigators, Harvard has a responsibility to step up and lead, by establishing detailed procedures for a transparent, fair system of adjudication in response to claims of research misconduct.

Without endorsing Gino’s claims of sex discrimination, which may well be spurious, we acknowledge the disproportionately poor treatment of underrepresented groups — such as women and people of color — in trials of innocence. From recusal rules to faculty hiring, this Board recognizes the outsized detriment of informal systems on the least advantaged in society. This bias is a strong motivation for rigorous, strict procedures.

Our proposal for a clearer system of justice takes inspiration from the legal concept of due process. Like an arraignment, the University should formally notify professors as soon as serious allegations are raised. Then, it should put together a committee of peers — a jury of sorts — to decide whether to issue an indictment and trigger preliminary consequences such as suspension. Following a positive decision would be a formal trial, ending in the public declaration of findings as far as employer-employee confidentiality allows and recommending courses of action to the dean. Finally, the dean — acting as judge — would publicly issue a decision with rationale.

We maintain that Harvard must be ready to revoke tenure in response to well-substantiated findings of grave academic misconduct. To remove tenure’s protections in the narrowly defined context of serious research misconduct would aid the free pursuit of knowledge — a primary argument for the existence of tenure.

But the possibility of tenure revocation cannot occur in the vacuum of context that we currently inhabit. There is, both in Gino’s case and beyond, a critical need for clearly communicated procedure. Only then can we stand confidently behind any verdict or administrative action.

​​This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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