FOIA Facts 4 - George Mason Takes The Money And Breaks The Rules

New Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) replies (1, 2, and 3) expose worse misbehavior at George Mason University. GMU badly mishandled simple plagiarism complaints, including one on a Federally-funded paper, retracted in May 2011, finally ruled as misconduct in 2012. Federal rules required notifications to several agencies earlier, but FOIA requests found no trace of any: Army 1, Army 2, GMU 1, GMU 2. [05/31/15 As a result of this $2M lawsuit, the full report  is now online, but in May 2013, was sent as a formal complaint to Aurali Dade, GMU's AVP for Research Integrity and Assurance.]

GMU gets $129M+/year in Federal grant funds, generally takes 30% for itself, but breaks rules.

A Nature editorial criticized GMU's handling, the Chronicle of Higher Education covered the retraction, Science discussed the process. USA Today's Dan Vergano later wrote in February 2012:

''”We took these charges very seriously,” (GMU Provost Peter) Stearns said, in a telephone interview, adding that the university will forward the investigation reports to federal authorities. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of the Army supported the 2008 study.'

Stearns had already written falsehoods to his own faculty, as detailed in See No Evil, Speak Little Truth, Break Rules, Blame Others, §6. GMU has many respectable faculty members, but the GMU administration ran a bizarre process far outside academic norms, GMU's own rules and Federal rules.

Was this just total incompetence by the administration of a 32,000-student university? Or was some part played by the powerful influence at GMU of Charles Koch and his associates, as discussed in See No Evil §A.5, §A.6?

In any case, Edward Wegman was appointed in Fall 2012 to a 3-year term on the GMU College of Science Promotion and Tenure Committee.

Then, in February 2013 GMU modified its already-opaque and complaint-discouraging process to be even more so.

No Lack of Contradictory Rulings

In December 2009, Canadian blogger “Deep Climate” started documenting problems in the Wegman Report.  Based on those findings, in March and May 2010, Raymond Bradley lodged formal plagiarism complaints to GMU for:

  1. 2.5 pages of the Wegman Report's text, taken from Bradley’s own book, ruled by GMU as not plagiarism, despite comments from experts.
  2. 5.5p Social Networks Analysis (SNA) in the Wegman Report, also ruled not plagiarism.
  3. 1.5p subset of that same SNA text re-used in a paper (P179 here) funded by 3 Federal grants.  Elsevier forced retraction in May 2011, GMU admitted to plagiarism in February 2012.   It seems hard to have done otherwise.

Result 2 obviously contradicted 3. Stearns' February 2012 letter claimed existence of separate committees to handle 1+2, and 3 and claimed separate reports.  Earlier FOIAs proved both false.  GMU refused to release any reports, so we only have Stearns' word for their contents.

No Notifications

Dan Vergano talked to an expert and wrote:

'Yes, plagiarism does matter,” says scientific misconduct expert Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan, a former Office of Research Integrity official, by e-mail. Plagiarism is one of the “Big Three” of science misconduct offenses, alongside falsifying and fabricating data that trigger punishment from federal research agencies. “If the project is federally funded, the results of the investigation must be forwarded to the appropriate agency,” Steneck says.'

From  “See No Evil … §1.2” GMU should have notified both Army Research Office (ARO)  and Office of Research Integrity (ORI, for National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)) at steps 3-5:

  1. ~05/13/10 Bradley lodges complaint on Federally-funded paper
  2. ~09/30/10 Inquiry committee report recommended investigation
  3. ~03/07/11 GMU finally decided an investigation was warranted,
  4. ~10/11/11 GMU investigation was completed
  5. ~02/22/12 GMU completed adjudication

FOIAs found nothing from ARO or GMU. While it is possible that both missed notifications,the ARO FOIA staff were especially diligent in tracking down other nontrivial requests. ORI was not asked, because they never comment on open cases.

It is hard to prove non-existence, but the evidence is consistent - GMU failed to notify both agencies, despite Stearns' claim and the media spotlight. 

Should GMU show that they did send notifications, I will be glad to retract these comments … and send new FOIA requests for them.

No Due Diligence

GMU clearly failed to to perform the due diligence demanded by its own policies. It takes but a few minutes' perusal of the grant reports, especially of 0447, to notice at least some of the serious funds misuses detailed in FOIA Facts 2, starting with the Wegman Report. Vergano wrote:

'Although a number of reports by Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman and others have noted more instances of possible plagiarism in work by Wegman and his team, Stearns says the university is not investigating any other complaints.'

In hopes that the new GMU President Angel Cabrera might take action, he was sent email citing See No Evil… in August 2012 and a similar certified letter in September. These attempts got no acknowledgement, but that omission inspired the latest FOIAs. Although intended to unearth GMU notifications, as a byproduct they happened to expose the pervasive funds misuse and other problems highlighted in this series.

In 2011, GMU got $129M in Federal funds.

Policies Change, But Not For The Better

The old policy applied through February 21, 2013. Many schools specify that legitimate complainants be given reports, even informed of committee members, given appeal rights, etc.

The new policy was signed by Associate VP Elizabeth Brock and Provost Stearns:

“‘Confidentiality …

The University reserves the right to communicate general information regarding the results of any proceedings, where necessary in the judgment of the administration to preserve or restore the reputation of the University, the respondent, or the complainant.  At no time, however, shall the University reveal detailed personal information regarding the complainant, the respondent or witnesses, nor shall the University reveal the nature or substance of the evidence or reasoning employed throughout the proceedings.”

This is even more explicit than the old one - GMU will tell nobody anything meaningful. The new procedure mostly resembles the old one, but with some different roles. 

Perhaps encouraging, GMU now has an AVP - Assistant VP, Office of Research Integrity and Assurance, a job filled by an experienced person new to GMU. Peter Stearns is still Provost, although Roger Stough appears no longer to be VP Research and Economic Development.  However, the full report  in May 2013, was sent as a formal complaint to Aurali Dade, GMU's AVP for Research Integrity and Assurance.

Having studied dozens of university policies and procedures, GMU's new one remains one of the most opaque and hostile to external complaints, that I have seen. It is unclear if anything important will really change, and of course:

Wegman was appointed in Fall 2012 to a 3-year term on the GMU College of Science Promotion and Tenure Committee. 

Thus, he will continue to have influence over younger faculty.

UPDATE 06/05/13: bonus: FOIA Facts 5 - Finds Friends Of GWPF.

Update 05/31/15: Include this $2M lawsuit, the full report  and note on a formal complaint to Aurali Dade, GMU's AVP for Research Integrity and Assurance.

Image Credit: Sam72 / Shutterstock.