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Why would a university pay a scientist found guilty of misconduct to leave?

In June 2016, investigators at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens concluded that Azza El-Remessy, a faculty member who studied the impact of diabetes on the eye, had committed misconduct and recommended she be terminated. El-Remessy hired a lawyer to dispute the findings, but the following October she gave up her challenge after the university paid her $100,000—essentially to leave.

Such settlements are a common part of the legal landscape, where parties often decide it’s cheaper to reach a financial arrangement than keep racking up legal fees—and risk getting an adverse decision or unwanted public attention in court.

But in the world of academic misconduct investigations, it is rare to get a glimpse of such settlements. Such investigations are often kept secret, and the circumstances surrounding a researcher’s departure from a campus can be murky. In this case, however, Retraction Watch filed a public records request for more information. In response, El-Remessy contacted us and told her story.

“Maybe I messed up”

In 2013, El-Remessy finally felt she had made it. Since moving to the United States from Egypt to pursue her doctorate in 1996, the biologist had built her own lab, achieved tenure, and published more than 50 papers, many in highly ranked journals.

“I was on top of the world,” she says. “All of my hard work had paid off.”

Then, in October 2013, she received an email from an editor at PLOS ONE informing her that an anonymous reader had noticed two duplicate images in a 2013 paper—one published in a 2012 Molecular Vision paper and the other in a 2013 Diabetologia paper.

“My initial reaction was shock,” El-Remessy says.

The journals investigated and chalked up the duplications to an unintentional mistake. In April 2014, PLOS ONE and Diabetologia issued errata, in which El-Remessy replaced the figures.

But the probe didn’t end there. In mid-August of 2014, El-Remessy received an email from the editorial board at Molecular Vision, where she was also an editor. The board informed her and her former Ph.D. adviser and current research collaborator Gregory Liou, based at Georgia Regents University in Augusta (now Augusta University), of their plans to retract three papers. All of the papers listed Liou as corresponding author and El-Remessy as first author. Again, an anonymous reader had drawn the editors’ attention to several figures that contained identical, mirror, or transposed images. The journal retracted all three articles.

The same month, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Cell Science also raised concerns about potential manipulation of Western blot data in a 2005 paper, on which El-Remessy was first and corresponding author.

This, El-Remessy says, is when the allegations “escalated to a different level.”

By mid-September, the journal’s executive editor had contacted officials at Georgia Regents University and UGA with concerns about the Journal of Cell Science paper and El-Remessy’s explanations. El-Remessy told the editor that she had “naïvely wanted to present clean and pretty representatives,” but did not intentionally attempt to falsify or misrepresent data, according to a report produced later by a UGA investigative committee.

In October, editors at Molecular Vision also contacted UGA’s research integrity officer, Regina Smith, with concerns about El-Remessy’s work in six papers.

A few days later, Smith notified El-Remessy that the allegations into her research warranted a formal inquiry. At this point, seven of her papers were being questioned.

“It looked like I was the common denominator,” she says. “I was scared I was going to lose what I had been building.” 

Throughout the investigation, which began in early 2015, El-Remessy continued to publish, run her lab, and teach students and residents. She even received two raises.

Honest error?

El-Remessy insists that any problems with her images were the result of honest mistakes. In the 1990s, “we didn’t have formal training on Photoshop,” she says, maintaining there were different standards for image construction. “I would adjust images to make them perfect. I did not do it in bad faith, it was lack of experience and good judgment. If I could go back and fix my mistakes, I would,” she says. “Maybe I messed up in the figures, but I never tried to deceive the scientific community.”

Academic researchers facing misconduct allegations often present an "honest error" defense, says Paul Thaler, a partner at the firm Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC in Washington, D.C., who has represented researchers involved in misconduct proceedings for more than 25 years. “Honest error is one of the better defenses for researchers, if it’s true,” Thaler says. To make a misconduct finding, courts often demand evidence of knowing, intentional misconduct, he notes. And without intentional deception, “there can be no [finding of] federal research misconduct,” he adds.

But the honest error defense has produced mixed results. And in El-Remessy’s case, UGA didn’t buy her explanation. In June 2016, the investigation committee released a report that concluded El-Remessy “committed falsification and/or fabrication, that the actions were intentional to support the claims of the manuscripts/grant applications, and that the actions involved unsound practices that depart significantly from the standard practice in the field.” The panel recommended that El-Remessy be terminated from her posts at UGA and Augusta University, and that all relevant parties—journals, co-authors, funding agencies, and her third employer, the Veterans Administration (VA)—be notified of the decision.

The committee’s findings prompted the Journal of Cell Science to retract the 2005 paper it had questioned in 2014, and The FASEB Journal to retract a 2007 paper. Of the 12 papers flagged in the 13 allegations, five have been retracted and one accepted Diabetes paper was withdrawn before publication. Four other papers have received corrections.

Fighting back

El-Remessy fought back, hiring an attorney to dispute the misconduct findings. She flagged what she says are inaccuracies in the report and argued that the university targeted her unfairly. Liou and Ruth Caldwell, who oversaw El-Remessy as a postdoc at Augusta University and later became a frequent collaborator, wrote letters taking responsibility for the figure errors in several papers. VA didn’t agree with UGA’s findings, and in August, decided to reopen an independent investigation into six of the 10 allegations. The university continued to stand by its investigation.

Then, in October, the university gave El-Remessy the financial settlement after she agreed to leave. The parties agreed on $100,000—the highest amount the university can approve without taking the case to the board of regents.

According to Gregory Trevor, executive director of media communications at UGA: “The University entered into the settlement to efficiently and amicably resolve disputes with Dr. El-Remessy. The settlement allowed both parties to move on without the uncertainty and distraction of further proceedings.”

But given El-Remessy’s “honest error” defense, UGA may not have been confident it would win in court—or perhaps concerned about the costs even if it won. “A settlement is ultimately a business decision for a university,” says Thaler, who was not involved in the case. “Although $100,000 may sound like a lot, if you consider how much a university pays a tenured professor and the expense of a hearing, it isn’t very much … and there is always a risk that the university will lose [a case], in which case the professor gets to stay.”

Aside from the expense of litigation, Thaler says universities might be concerned about the perception of continuing to employ a researcher it found guilty of misconduct, if the outcome becomes public. And the researcher may share that reputational concern. “If word gets out, it may be hard to find new employment, and in that context, the settlement amount might sound even low,” he says.

El-Remessy says she gave up her job at UGA with the hope she could move on to another institution and continue her career. But more than half a year later, she continues to struggle to land a new job and rebuild her reputation.

"I have deep wounds and I live in agony about the whole thing every single minute. I still do not accept to end my career in this way,” El-Remessy says. “I am still hopeful that someone will listen and I will clear my name and continue my life peacefully."