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Xiaoqi Xie says she was fired from the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey because she asked to share first authorship on a paper submitted to Nature.

Was cancer scientist fired for challenging lab chief over authorship?

Rutgers University last month terminated a veteran cancer scientist in retaliation, the researcher says, for challenging a powerful principal investigator on the authorship of a paper apparently accepted for publication in Nature. The researcher is now deciding whether to appeal her dismissal in arbitration through her union or to sue Rutgers.

Xiaoqi Xie, 54, was fired on 28 September from a research job in the lab of Eileen White, deputy director and chief scientific officer at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick. Xie, who had conducted research at the institute since 2007 and has worked in White’s lab since 2011, was cited in her termination letter for failing to do her job “effectively,” for “conduct unbecoming” a faculty member, and for “serious violation” of university policies, namely her alleged failure on five occasions between May and early July to promptly euthanize more than 20 sick mice being used to study melanoma—charges she disputes. In the letter, Rutgers also accuses her of missing three meetings with her bosses.

The firing comes 6 months after Xie first challenged White’s decision to give another lab scientist sole first authorship on a paper, submitted in April to Nature and not yet published. That manuscript reveals a novel mechanism by which tumor growth is stunted when host animals are incapable of autophagy—the cell’s degrading and recycling of unneeded or damaged components. White is a leading authority on autophagy and has earned many scientific honors, including selection as an AAAS fellow. (AAAS is the publisher of ScienceInsider.)

Several of Xie’s colleagues, who did not want to be identified, describe her as a quiet, conscientious scientist who regularly worked late and was helpful to colleagues. “I don’t see her as someone who would speak up to dispute authorship unless it’s something pretty egregious,” said one. Colleagues and the union that represents cancer institute faculty in employment disputes also say the animal care lapses Xie is charged with normally would not be firing offenses.

Rutgers, through a university spokesperson, declined to answer questions about Xie’s termination or related matters and refused to make White available for an interview. But the school issued this statement: “We do not comment on specific personnel matters. Rutgers University has comprehensive policies and procedures to ensure that fair employment processes are followed.” 

Xie’s dismissal comes against a backdrop of increased scrutiny of the power structure in science. It also shines a light on the perennially fraught issue of how credit for authorship is designated in a hugely competitive environment in which prominent placement as an author propels young careers and sustains established ones. “The firing aside, the reason that these issues are so fraught is that careers, particularly early ones, can be made or broken by these sorts of authorship decisions,” says Steven Goodman, a clinical epidemiologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who studies how the publication process incentivizes and rewards scientists. “Authorship is a very crude instrument, a poor surrogate for the value of contributions,” he adds. “But it’s widely relied on. And that’s what raises the stakes.”

A long-term relationship unravels

The Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey is considered the crown jewel of the medical school and bioscience entities that are part of The State University of New Jersey. White was recruited in 2005 as the institute’s associate director for basic science and has risen to become its second in command.

Before coming to the United States, Xie earned an M.D. at Zunyi Medical University in China, and a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at Umeå University in Sweden. She began as a postdoc in the cancer institute lab of Joseph Bertino, working there from 2007 until she joined White’s lab in 2011. She was promoted in 2016 to instructor—a short-term faculty position below assistant professor that doesn’t necessarily involve teaching. Rutgers guidelines stipulate that instructors who are not promoted to assistant professor within 3 years ultimately lose their jobs.

Beginning in 2013, Xie says, she set up hundreds of cages of mice engineered to lack autophagy. She inoculated the mice with melanoma cells and by late 2015, she says, she had powerful evidence that tumors grew more slowly in the autophagy-deficient mice. Xie combed the literature to try to find the biochemical explanation and, in a 31 May 2016 lab meeting, she proposed a research direction that, she says, no one else in the lab had offered. She also suggested new experiments to test it. (Xie provided Science with a Powerpoint version of her lab presentation.)

At that meeting, says Xie, White insisted that she surrender the project to a postdoc who had arrived in the lab a few months earlier. That person conducted mouse experiments seemingly identical to those Xie had already conducted, although the grant supporting the postdoc specified that the person study lung cancer in a different mouse model, according to an abstract of the grant obtained by Science. The postdoc and colleagues then executed experiments including those that Xie had proposed in her presentation, she says, leading to the biochemical findings that are the centerpiece of the paper at Nature. The postdoc is now first author on the paper, which White has said is accepted, according to Xie. (In a statement, a Nature Research spokesperson said, “We are unable to comment on papers that may or may not be under consideration for publication in Nature.”)

Xie first challenged White on authorship of the paper in an email on 26 March. Xie had been sent a draft of the paper in which the contributions section stated simply that she “assisted with tumor growth experiments.” She was listed as second author, after the postdoc. (That postdoc did not respond to repeated emails requesting an interview.) Xie argued in the email that she should share first authorship with the postdoc. Her email to White described “3 years of [my] very hard work,” her results, and her May 2016 Powerpoint proposing the research direction. Xie’s email stated: “I strongly protest this kind of unfair treatment, and I strongly believe that my discovery and contribution deserves more than the second authorship.”

At a 8 May authorship meeting with White, Xie’s union representative, and Janice Mehnert, a cancer institute physician who was Xie’s direct supervisor, Xie repeated the arguments. On 15 August, 1 week after receiving notice that the university was instituting proceedings to terminate her, Xie notified Nature that she had not been given a chance to review and consent to the paper as it was submitted and that she had a complaint about the crediting of authors in the manuscript. In the statement to Science, a Nature Research spokesperson said: “Nature Research journal editors are not in a position to investigate or adjudicate authorship disputes before or after publication.”

After Xie contacted Nature, White apparently crafted a written review of the authorship designation on the paper, which Science has obtained. It notes that in December 2015, Xie signed a letter promoting her to “instructor” and committing to 100% effort and salary on a grant not involving the autophagy work, under Mehnert. “Due to 100% effort on that grant,” the review states, “Xie was not involved in numerous meetings and discussions related to this project outside of lab meetings.” 

The authorship review adds that Xie “seems unaware that [the autophagy hypothesis] is the main topic of the [postdoc’s] fellowship” and “does not merit first authorship as the bulk of the work is being done by [the postdoc.]” It says Xie “was the only author that did not provide comments on the manuscript other than complaining about the description of her contribution to the work.”

The review further argues that Xie was not involved at all with a paper published in August 2014 by others in White’s lab, pointing to autophagy in normal host cells as playing a role in tumor growth. White’s review also states that in early 2015, well before Xie’s November findings in the mice inoculated with melanoma, another lab colleague, working at White’s direction, had shown that lung tumors grow poorly in mice engineered to lack autophagy. Xie counters that those earlier results scarcely reached statistical significance, and says that is why, 1 year later, White asked the new postdoc to recreate Xie’s much more dramatic results in autophagy-incapable mice inoculated with melanoma.

Mistreated mice?

Xie challenges many of Rutgers’s stated reasons for firing her, both the alleged animal care violations and the missed meetings. The American Association of University Professors Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey in Newark, the cancer institute faculty union, also disputes the stated grounds. In a 21 September letter to senior Rutgers officials, the union wrote that the firing is retaliation for the authorship dispute and is “an orchestrated effort to force Dr. Xie out.” The letter added: “Dr. Xie’s past evaluations will show that following [animal care] protocols has never before been an issue. … It is simply not credible that a researcher who has served the institution admirably for eleven years would suddenly deviate from animal protocols without explanation.”

The union communication noted that mice with melanoma are expected to get sick, and that many researchers besides Xie regularly receive the animal health concern “cards” that Rutgers has used of evidence of Xie’s purported negligence. Roger Johansen, the union’s president, added in an interview that, even if Xie failed to promptly put down mice as Rutgers alleges, “Usually for [animal care] violations, you retrain the person. You don’t fire them. Here they go from zero to 60 just like that.”

A Rutgers official wrote in Xie’s 28 September termination letter that her lack of prior animal violations was “irrelevant” to the matter at hand. “You failed to euthanize the animals in a timely manner despite receiving directives to do so, and you failed to correct your practice … even after being told that you must adhere to the approved protocol.” The official, Lisa Bonick, executive director of Rutgers’s Office of Academic Labor Relations, added that the mice at issue had tumors larger than allowed under the experimental protocol, ulcerated tumors, or both. Bonick also wrote: “You were repeatedly told that you were not adhering to approval protocol via the issued animal health concern notices; emails from … veterinary staff, Dr. Mehnert and Dr. White; conversations with Dr. Mehnert, Dr. White and … veterinary staff; and meetings.”

Xie says she was never interviewed or notified by veterinary staff or the university’s Animal Care and Use Committee that she had violated rules—receiving an animal health concern card is not listed as a violation but as a statement of needed action on Rutgers’s website—until after she received a letter on 7 August notifying her of the university’s intention to terminate her.

Xie adds that emails between her and veterinary staff, to which she no longer has access, could make clear that she responded promptly to five animal health concern cards dated 8 May, 9 May, 4 June, 29 June, and 5 July; often, after receiving such a card, she emailed veterinary staff to note that she had euthanized an animal on their request, although such emails are not required. Rutgers refused requests from the union to make Xie’s emails available.

The final days

In Rutgers’s final termination letter to Xie on 28 September, Bonick dismissed the claim of retaliation, writing, “Dr. Mehnert and Dr. White made it very clear [during an 18 September hearing on the proposed termination] that it was important to them that you feel [sic] as though you were a valued member of the lab, and they therefore took your concerns seriously and looked into them very carefully. ” The letter says White enlisted two senior faculty members not involved with the upcoming paper to blindly review it. “Both individuals agreed with the authorship,” Bonick states.

Rutgers also wrote that Xie had become “insubordinate” this spring and summer, failing to attend three meetings with White or Mehnert. Xie acknowledges missing one meeting, on 15 June—a meeting that Xie herself had requested, to amend an animal care protocol to allow open wounds on sick mice to be treated with antibiotics—forgetting about it while she was on the phone with her elderly mother, who was recently widowed in China. (At the time, she did not tell White or Mehnert why she forgot the meeting.)

Xie says she sought out White with pictures and videos of sick mice for a second meeting, on 9 July, to discuss the care of the animals, but there was no specified time for the meeting. When she failed to find White in her lab, she decided to present the photos and videos at the next day’s lab meeting. Xie says she doesn’t recall being notified of a 19 July meeting with White and Mehnert to discuss her poor performance review, which was issued on 17 July. Bonick wrote in the termination letter that Xie “ignored” the 9 July meeting and “refused” to attend the 19 July meeting. Xie lost access to her Rutgers email, computer, and other documents on 7 August, and she was escorted out of the building.

One of Xie’s colleagues is skeptical that the animal care violations were the real reason for her dismissal. “Having a sick card is really a minor thing. Even if you were to not follow up in a timely manner I don’t think it’s grounds for termination.”