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Harvard Business School Prof. Sued Researchers for Alleging Data Manipulation. Experts Worry It Silences Critics.

Harvard Business School is the graduate business school of Harvard University. An HBS prof sued a data investigation blog after they accused her of research misconduct.
Harvard Business School is the graduate business school of Harvard University. An HBS prof sued a data investigation blog after they accused her of research misconduct. By Michael Gritzbach
By Kyle Baek and Benjamin Isaac, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated March 29, 2024, at 11:02 a.m.

Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino sued Data Colada following their public allegations of research misconduct against her — a move data manipulation researchers said has had a chilling effect on the field.

Data Colada — run by business school professors Uri Simonsohn, Leif D. Nelson, and Joseph P. Simmons — penned a series of data manipulation accusations against Gino in 2023, two years after privately notifying the University of their concerns. In August, Gino sued Harvard and Data Colada for $25 million, accusing the University of gender discrimination and claiming that the two conspired to damage her reputation with false accusations.

But regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, several academic misconduct researchers said the case has already had a dampening effect on research integrity efforts.

Data sleuth Sholto David, who accused researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of data fraud in January, said that while he personally wouldn’t be deterred by the lawsuit, others may or may not feel the same.

“People might be reluctant to share and discuss and criticize research if they are aware that they might get sued for huge amounts of money,” he said. “On the flip side, I think there are people who probably won’t change their behavior at all.”

Simine Vazire — a University of Melbourne professor whose research focuses on how science self-corrects — said the lawsuit has had “a very negative impact on our field.”

Vazire said Gino’s lawsuit has threatened “the sense of security with which we can engage in debate and discussion and critique of published work, which was already hard to do before.”

Now, she said, researchers might be afraid to speak up when they spot errors.

“Anybody who was considering sharing criticism of published paper, especially through informal channels, like a blog or social media, would think much harder about doing that now,” Vazire said. “They would weigh the pros and cons quite differently after this lawsuit.”

Gino defended her decision to sue Data Colada and Harvard, writing on her website that “rather than approach me with the ‘evidence’ it had collected, Data Colada went straight to my employer without giving me an opportunity to address the errata they found.”

In an emailed statement to The Crimson, Andrew T. Miltenberg, Gino’s lawyer, wrote that “this lawsuit is not an indictment on Data Colada’s mission, nor efforts to replicate and validate data with the intent of upholding a standard of research excellence.”

“What the lawsuit demonstrates is how both Harvard and Data Colada deviated from their stated processes and treated Prof. Gino’s investigation differently from other misconduct investigations, and the burden of proof required to decimate a career and revoke tenure must be based on evidence, not theory,” he added. “Anything less is a dangerous precedent for all academic researchers.”

Still, Elisabeth M. Bik, a data manipulation expert who brought research fraud allegations against Brigham and Women’s Hospital scientists last month, said the lawsuit was intended to stop those looking into Gino’s work.

“The intended effect is to silence her critics — not to win money,” Bik said in a March 18 interview with The Crimson. “It’s just to make everybody very afraid.”

David Sanders, an associate professor at Purdue University, said “there’s no question that these sorts of lawsuits are designated to kill free speech, to prevent communication between the various parties.”

Sanders, who investigates data integrity, was sued in 2017 by a professor whom he had accused of data falsification, though the case was ultimately decided in his favor.

According to Vazire, if Data Colada is “vulnerable to lawsuits and threats and intimidation, which this lawsuit shows that they are, then all of us are — because you can’t really but be much more careful than they were.”

Last year, a group of academics — including Bik — helped organize a fundraiser to fund Data Colada’s legal fees, raising nearly $400,000.

“I think almost every scientist I’ve spoken to said, ‘This is outrageous and we support Data Colada,’ and several supported financially,” Bik said.

Gino’s multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the University comes during a period of intense scrutiny on research integrity and misconduct within higher education. Since former Harvard President Claudine Gay came under fire for allegations of plagiarism in her academic work, four more Black Harvard faculty and staff have faced anonymous accusations of academic misconduct.

Scientists at several Harvard-affiliated Boston institutions — including Dana-Farber and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital — have also come under fire for data manipulation in published papers. Following the allegations, the Broad Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital announced new institutional data integrity tools.

Some experts have also pointed to the pressure lawsuits like Gino’s can place on universities like Harvard.

“Everybody is concerned about legal ramifications, and universities don’t necessarily do adequate investigations because they’re afraid of being sued,” Sanders said. “People won’t necessarily speak out because they’re afraid of being sued.”

According to Vazire, “every field is struggling with this balance of how do you make sure that there’s not ad hominem personal attacks,” while still holding adequate room for debate and discussion.

“It’s already a very, very delicate part of the scientific ecosystem and one that, in my opinion, we haven’t found a good solution,” she said. “We haven’t really created an environment that balances those different needs for professionalism, but also critique.”

Gino’s lawsuit awaits its first major ruling, with a judge expected to hold a hearing on Harvard’s motions to dismiss on April 26.

—Staff writer Kyle Baek can be reached at kyle.baek@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @KBaek53453.

—Staff writer Benjamin Isaac can be reached at benjamin.isaac@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @benjaminisaac_1.

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ResearchHarvard Business SchoolResearch MisconductLawsuits