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Chronic Fatigue Case Dropped

The criminal charges that had been brought upon chronic fatigue syndrome researcher Judy Mikovits for stealing data from her former employer have been dropped.

By | June 15, 2012

image: Chronic Fatigue Case Dropped Flickr, Brian Turner

FLICKR, BRIAN TURNER

Since last November, chronic fatigue syndrome researcher Judy Mikovits, formerly employed by the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease (WPI) in Reno, Nevada, has been facing civil and criminal charges for allegedly taking lab notebooks and computer documents from her WPI office, after having been fired by the institute.

But earlier this week (June 11), the Washoe County district attorney's office filed to dismiss the criminal case, though it retains the right to file a related complaint in the future, according to ScienceInsider.

The civil matter, however, is still underway. The judge who initially ruled against Mikovits later recused himself because of campaign donations he had received from WPI co-founder Harvey Whittemore. Incidentally, Whittemore is also facing criminal charges regarding alleged illegal campaign contributions to a federal official, to which he pled not guilty earlier this month (June 7). According to Assistant District Attorney John Helzer, this pending case was part of the reason the office filed for a dismissal of Mikovits’s case.

“There's a lot going on with the federal government and different levels that wasn't occurring when we first became involved with prosecuting this case,” Helzer told ScienceInsider. “And we have witness-issues that have arisen.”

While Mikovits’s legal troubles have certainly made headlines in the past 7 months, she was first noted for her work linking the mouse retrovirus XMRV to chronic fatigue syndrome—work that was published in Science in 2009, but retracted last December. Mikovits told ScienceInsider she is now collaborating on a National Institutes of Health-funded study led by Ian Lipkin of Columbia University that should settle once and for all the XMRV-CFS debate, the results of which are expected within the next month.

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Avatar of: FJScientist

FJScientist

Posts: 52

June 15, 2012

This has been a bizarre case with chilling implications to researchers. The scientific concerns (was the original finding incorrect because of contaminations?) mostly have been worked out in the due course of further research. But the crux of the problem is legal issue that surrounded the scientist taking her notebooks. 

I consider this publicly-funded scientist to have a right to the notebooks. The research therein was based upon her prior research which the extramural grant funding was provided for her to continue. She likely still desired to act on the information in those notebooks for continued studies elsewhere and naturally wanted her notebooks. I acknowledge that the institution has a legal right to the information in the notebooks as, in the United States at least, they are responsible for oversight. This could have been easily resolved by having copies in both locations. Which of the parties was remiss in demanding that there is only one copy to be held by one of them, I don't know. But it shouldn't involve an investigation of theft. That's just silly.

There is precedent here that legal authorities may not have fully understood when jumping hastily into this dispute. Even though it is their legal right, academic institutions seldom ask for research notes, certainly not for costly long-term storage. That is why, when some prominent scientist dies, you sometimes also hear that she/he donates their papers to the library where that person did the bulk of their work.

It certainly didn't help that the institution in this dispute seemed to be set up under unusual circumstances. The donor (who also then assumed a leadership role, again rather unusual--perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here) seemed to confuse a gift to a public institution as something akin to an ownership stake expected in a closed commercial setting. The more recent investigations of that donor seem to confirm that he had difficulties elsewhere in distinguishing unrestricted donations from buying influence. So, this whole affair is clouded by a clash of cultures.  

Finally, the case was further complicated by the Institution claiming that the federally-sponsored research funds still were active at the institution and the notebooks were needed for others to continue the studies. Under such circumstances (released from her lab and having a sherriff arrive with an order to hand over her research so that others could continue the work under the research funding I brought in), it sounds like the researcher gave a big middle finger to everyone. Kudos.

So, setting aside the apparent sloppiness of the science, the aftermath of this sad episode is chilling. I think it important for the legal authorities to understand that this was never a criminal case. It is a dispute over a line item in a contract that states the institution has a right to the notebooks. But that does not preclude the scientist from having a right to them as well. Mostly though, I am appalled the thought that someone could try to confiscate MY life's work...

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