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Scientist Wins Legal Skirmish After Fulfilling 'Moral Obligation' to Speak Out

Citing "a legal and moral obligation to speak" out about unverifiable experimental results and possible scientific misconduct, last week a U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of one of the rare cases in which a scientist has sued another for defamation. The decision, which offers different rational than the original 2009 dismissal, is the latest twist in a million-dollar lawsuit filed in 2005 by plant biologist Meena Chandok against her former supervisor Daniel Klessig over disputed, and ultimately retracted, research on a plant enzyme that reportedly could synthesize nitric oxide.

Chandok worked in the laboratory of Klessig while he was president of Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research in Ithaca, New York, and her studies formed the basis of two papers in 2003 that described the long-sought NO-making enzyme. After Chandok left for another job, others in the lab had trouble replicating her work and she declined Klessig's requests to help repeat the experiments. After Klessig became suspicious that scientific misconduct was involved, he noted his concerns about the experiments to BTI officials, funding agencies, colleagues working on the topic, and the editors of the journals that had published two key papers. A BTI investigation concluded there "was no conclusive evidence that Dr Chandok achieved the results reported" but also found "no conclusive evidence" that misconduct had occurred. Klessig then went ahead and retracted the two papers, without Chandok's agreement. She subsequently sued for defamation, claiming Klessig had ruined her career.

The 2009 summary judgment dismissing Chandok's suit offered an unusual justification, arguing that Chandok was a "limited issue public figure" because she had published in international journals and was well-known in the plant biology. That meant she had to meet a stronger burden of proof for defamation than would a private citizen, and the court held that she failed to show that Klessig's statements and communications had the "malice" necessary to meet that burden.

The new ruling, however, dismisses Chandok's lawsuit on what it calls "simpler ground." Citing New York state law, the court found that Klessig's statements had a certain level of legal protection, or privilege, because they were on "matters as to which the speaker has a legal or moral obligation to speak" or were made between "communicants who share a common interest." Such privileges again meant that Chandok had to show clear evidence of malice or that Klessig knew his statements were false. The court found there was no such proof, citing his many attempts to get Chandok to help replicate the work and that BTI's investigation left open the question of scientific misconduct.

The decision of the appeals court is consistent with the National Institutes of Health's grant policy that researchers should come forward with concerns about possible misconduct. And it will encourage anyone who might have had fears about being sued for defamation if they do come forward, says John Dahlberg, director of Office of Research Integrity's Division of Investigative Oversight. "It's a strong result that should give heart to people who are reluctant to come forward."

John Travis

John Travis is the News Managing Editor at Science and also plans and edits news coverage of biology and biomedical topics.