February 1, 2011

Cornell Post-Doc’s Lawsuit Dismissed

Print More

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former Cornell researcher against her supervisor. The case, which was dismissed on Jan. 12, lasted approximately five years.

The court found Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research’s former president Prof. Daniel Klessig, plant pathology, had not defamed his postdoctoral researcher, Meena Chandok. Klessig had cast doubt on the veracity of Chandok’s research data in statements made to colleagues and at a scientific conference, according to court documents.  Chandok brought the original lawsuit in 2006 in U.S. District Court. Although a scientific misconduct committee created by BTI found that Chandok’s unverifiable data presented grounds for a “good faith suspicion of scientific misconduct,” her research was never found by an outside agency to be wholly inaccurate. “I’ve had three open heart surgeries and I would rather have another than go through this again,” Klessig said. “Her lawsuit was baseless and, in my opinion, frivolous.” The disagreement has its roots in research coauthored by Chandok, Klessig and two other Cornell professors, about the discovery of a protein that perform nitric oxide synthase in plants. At the time, Chandok’s discovery was hailed as a major breakthrough in the field of plant biology, according to Klessig.

After the research was published, three postdoctoral students at Cornell tried to verify her data in order to advance Chandok’s research, but the other students could not.

According to court dockets, Klessig asked Chandok multiple times to return to BTI to assist the postdoctoral researchers in verification of the data. Klessig also said he would retract articles published in the periodicals Cell and Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, as well as his letter of support for her permanent residency application if she refused.

Chandok refused, claiming that these requests amounted to a campaign of harassment, according to court dockets. In response, Klessig published the retractions. Chandok’s initial complaint to the district court — the ruling of which was upheld by an appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 12 — was dismissed because the court found she could not provide evidence that Klessig had acted maliciously by telling colleagues she falsified aspects of her research.

The district court concluded “under New York law … Klessig’s statements were within the scope of the conditional privileges for statements on matters as to which the speaker has a legal or moral obligation to speak.”

Klessig said the court’s conclusions were an excellent legal precedent for scientific researchers. “The moral obligation, privilege and other privileges that the Court held apply to my statements will assist and protect other researchers who may find themselves confronted with a situation like that in which I found myself, where researchers both inside and outside of my group, were unable to reproduce Dr. Chandok’s research,” Klessig said. “The cost for such disclosure can be immense, but at least I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning.”

President of BTI Prof. David Stern, plant biology, appointed an investigative committee in 2004 to determine whether the data were fabricated. This committee found “no conclusive evidence of data alteration or fabrication, but also no conclusive evidence that Chandok achieved the results reported,” according to court documents. “In my opinion, falsification of results is the most extreme manifestation of a range of ethical dilemmas in science,” Stern said in an e-mail. “Because of the nature of science research, it relies heavily on self-policing and reproducibility of key results. Fortunately, these mechanisms work the vast majority of the time. When they don’t, everyone suffers.” Prof. Jitae Kim, plant biology, joined BTI in 2003 as a postdoctoral researcher and focused his research primarily on verification of Chandok’s results. Kim said since the follow-up data “were not what we had expected” the postdoctoral researchers “wanted to check one of her key experiments.”

“Surprisingly, she did not leave the gene-expression vector construct in the lab.  And when we checked her lab notebook, we could not find any reliable data that she really made the construct,” Kim said in an e-mail. After Chandok did not return to Ithaca to replicate her results and the researchers could not find the construct to do the experiment, Kim constructed one but “could never see any [nitric oxide synthase] activity,” he said. The BTI investigative committee concluded that the “inability to recover the most important constructs” and the “inability to reproduce published results,” alongside a lack of detailed records from the experiments, were “grounds for good faith suspicion of scientific misconduct.” The investigative committee also found “several egregious breaches of commonly accepted scientific practice by Dr. Chandok,” including “failures to maintain records and to archive research results.” “Klessig, me and two other post-docs were the direct victim of her unreliable data,” Kim said. “Three post-docs including me wasted about one to three years of our valuable time.”   Klessig said further action on the case was “highly unlikely but possible,” because “[Chandok and her legal representation] still have the right to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for thirty days from the point of the decision.”

“There’s two more weeks where they can appeal … I don’t consider the case over until, frankly, Valentine’s Day,” Klessig said. Chandok resigned from BTI in 2004. She is currently the Faculty Interim Director of InnovaBio-MD at Hagerstown Community College in Maryland. BTI has discontinued their work on the enzyme that Chandok reported discovering, according to Klessig. However, there may be another enzyme, yet to be discovered, that performs nitric oxide synthase. An October 2003 article in Science magazine reported a potential protein candidate that performed a similar function.  Chandok could not be reached for comment.

Original Author: Emily Coon