The paper that cost the editor of Medical Hypotheses his job will have no further consequences for its main author, molecular virologist Peter Duesberg of the University of California (UC), Berkeley. The university has ended its misconduct investigation after concluding that Duesberg was within his rights when he wrote that there is no evidence of a deadly AIDS epidemic in South Africa.
Duesberg's paper, published online on 19 July 2009, triggered a storm of protests from AIDS scientists and activists. Elsevier, the publisher of Medical Hypotheses, has retracted the article and has terminated the contract of the journal's editor, Bruce Charlton of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, who declined to introduce a peer review system at the 35-year-old journal.
UC Berkeley started its investigation in August after receiving two letters of complaint, one from activist Nathan Geffen of the Treatment Action Coalition in South Africa. (University rules allow people making such allegations to remain anonymous.) The investigation, by UC Berkeley epidemiologist Arthur Reingold, focused on two allegations: That the article was retracted because of false claims in the paper and that Duesberg should have disclosed an alleged financial conflict of interest. One of his co-authors, David Rasnick, formerly worked for Matthias Rath, a vitamin entrepreneur who claims that HIV drugs are dangerous and that his dietary supplements can cure AIDS.
In a letter Duesberg forwarded to ScienceInsider, Berkeley Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Faculty Welfare Sheldon Zedeck writes that there is "insufficient evidence ... to support a recommendation for disciplinary action, pursuant to the Faculty Code of Conduct." (Zedeck's letter is dated 28 May, but Duesberg says he received it only recently.) Zedeck's letter did not explain the basis for the decision. However, the Faculty Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures for the Berkeley Campus does not mention reporting potential conflicts of interest in published papers.
The ruling does not mean Berkeley approves of the paper. "The university's investigation did not undertake to evaluate the merits of your research," Zedeck writes, "but concluded that your right to publish and disseminate your views is protected under the umbrella of academic freedom." A UC Berkeley spokesperson says the university does not comment on personnel issues.
Duesberg says he feels "exonerated" by the university's decision. He made his case to Reingold at a 7 May meeting at which he was accompanied by Berkeley's faculty ombudsperson. His lawyer also wrote Zedeck a letter in his defense.
Geffen disagrees. "This finding does not exonerate Duesberg," he says. "The language of the ruling makes that clear." Geffen, who was notified of the outcome, says he respects the university's decision but believes that "it was worth raising the issue, in any case, and putting it on the record."