A plant researcher is suing her former supervisor for more than $1 million in punitive damages and legal fees after he retracted two papers in Cell and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences without her consent, arguing the move damaged her scientific reputation.
Both of the retracted articles investigated nitric oxide, believed to exert direct antimicrobial effects by interfering with protein function and forming cytotoxic oxidants. In the Cellarticle, Meena Chandok, her former supervisor Daniel Klessig, and their colleagues identify the enzyme in plants responsible for producing nitric oxide, and this plant nitric oxide synthase (NOS) appeared to share features with animal NOSs.
According to the complaint, which The Scientist has obtained, Chandok, now at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, joined Klessig's lab at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research in 2000. After two years, Klessig agreed to sponsor her application for permanent residence in the U.S., as long as she stayed with his group through 2003.
Chandok left Klessig's lab in 2004, after which she claims she received a letter from her former supervisor, saying that if she did not return to BTI, he would withdraw his sponsorship of her residency application, retract the Cell and PNAS papers, and accuse her of misconduct.
After Chandok did not return, her complaint alleges Klessig told BTI that Chandok had fabricated the data in the NOS project, and wrote letters to Cell and PNAS retracting the papers, saying they contained fabrications. The claim notes that Klessig's actions sullied Chandok's scientific reputation, caused her economic loss, and cost her future opportunities for employment and publishing. "Additionally, she has suffered mental anguish and emotional distress, and lost the respect of her colleagues and friends." She is seeking $1 million in punitive damages, and $75,000 in compensatory damages.
Klessig, a former president of BTI, told The Scientist that he and his co-authors, minus Chandok, chose to retract the papers because they could not reproduce some "critical data." He added that they also could not verify some biological reagents used in the original research.
He said he did send Chandok a letter, but only to ask her to return for one week, all expenses paid, when three postdocs in his lab tried, and failed, to replicate her results. "I felt if we couldn't replicate the results, ethically, we had to retract the paper."
"BTI, institutionally, trusts that author-initiated retractions – such as in the case of Dr. Klessig – will be handled appropriately by the journal editors," BTI president David Stern said in an Email interview. "Thus, we do not presume to interfere with Cell's (or PNAS's) decision as to whether or not the retractions were warranted."
Stern declined to say whether or not the institution had investigated Klessig's accusations. A statement from the university notes that BTI has a "federally-required policy and procedure" to handle such allegations, and "this same procedure was properly followed in the case referred to in the lawsuit."
Chandok declined to comment. Her attorney, Robert Weissflach of Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP in Buffalo, Ny., told The Scientist that BTI did investigate Klessig's claim of misconduct, and "the allegations were not substantiated." A court date has not been set.
Christian Meyer of the Institut Jean-Pierre Bourgin in Versailles, France, has cited the retracted Cell paper, and recalled that, upon publication, the findings were "surprising" and "exciting," given that there is relatively little known about the production and role of NO in plants. The lawsuit "is not doing any good to the field on NO studies in plants," Meyer added in an Email. "I think that the only way to end this debate is to repeat the experiments and to analyze (the) results; only the results are right."