Can you rescue a damaged reputation?

“Who steals my purse steals trash,” Shakespeare wrote, but one who “filches [another’s] good name” takes “the immediate jewel of their souls.” The play is Othello, but he could just as well have been writing about science, where reputation is, in the words of the University of Washington’s (UW’s) policy on research misconduct, “of paramount importance to a researcher’s career.” So when UW dismissed longtime staff researcher Mercedes Perez-Melgosa after her lab chief, genome sciences professor Deborah “Debbie” Nickerson, concluded that Perez-Melgosa had “changed data,” as Nickerson would testify in a May 2015 court trial, Perez-Melgosa was devastated. It felt as if “my scientific career, my professional career—a very big part of my life had disappeared in front of me,” Perez-Melgosa testified in the same Seattle courtroom as part of a lawsuit she brought against UW related to her termination. 

Perez-Melgosa believes she has been unjustly accused of falsification, which is an element of career-killing scientific misconduct. She denies changing data and wanted a panel of competent and impartial scientific experts to examine the evidence, but the relevant UW unit, then known as the Office of Scholarly Integrity (OSI) and now called the Office of Research Misconduct Proceedings, did not investigate the case. As this never happened, the question of whether she changed or only interpreted data appears to remain unsettled. 

For Perez-Melgosa, who spent more than 15 years at UW, during which she co-authored a number of peer-reviewed publications, “the mere fact that this allegation has been raised against me carries with it the most serious effects upon my professional career,” she stated in her testimony for the lawsuit, which alleged discrimination based on national origin. (Perez-Melgosa is from Spain.) The jurors who decided the case dismissed the lawsuit but nonetheless questioned the university’s treatment of Perez-Melgosa. Yet, as her lawyer, Jesse Wing, told Science Careers, “unfair [treatment is] not illegal.” Since her dismissal, Perez-Melgosa has been unable to find work, despite submitting hundreds of job applications.

Perez-Melgosa’s experience involves much more than personal heartache. It raises questions—but provides no answers—about issues of potentially great importance to scientists who work as at-will employees in academic labs. First is their potentially extreme vulnerability to the decisions of the faculty members who head the labs and the administrative personnel charged with carrying out university policies. Second is the treacherous ambiguity that can lurk beneath the deceptively precise policies and procedures that govern scientific misconduct.

A new boss

Perez-Melgosa had worked in Nickerson’s approximately 40-person lab for 3 years at the time UW terminated her employment. Before that, she had spent 12 years working at UW—7 as a postdoc and then 5 as a staff researcher—in the lab of Chris Wilson, then the chair of the immunology department. She testified that Wilson had repeatedly given her good annual performance reviews as well as raises. When Wilson left the university to take a position at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he transferred the project that Perez-Melgosa was working on—along with Perez-Melgosa herself—to Nickerson’s lab. 

There are doubtlessly many unknowable factors that brought Nickerson and Perez-Melgosa’s relationship to such a contentious end. But a few things are clear. The project Perez-Melgosa was working on was not going well. Perez-Melgosa found working in Nickerson’s lab more stressful than Wilson’s lab. And at some point, Nickerson, who declined to speak with Science Careers, lost faith in Perez-Melgosa’s work. 

“I did not want to work with her anymore,” Nickerson said in a sworn deposition. Perez-Melgosa’s “poor judgment” and “poor record keeping” meant that work had to be repeated, which “put us behind in the project,” Nickerson testified at the trial. “She changed data on a federal grant and I could no longer trust her work.” The changes were serious, Nickerson added in her testimony, saying that there was “no comparison” between them and errors made by other members of her lab. Yet, during Perez-Melgosa’s time in Nickerson’s lab, as sworn trial testimony established, she never received a performance review, nor any formal warning of problems with her work or opportunities to correct deficiencies, as the UW personnel policy requires. 

Nickerson acknowledged in her testimony that on more than one occasion she yelled at Perez-Melgosa in front of colleagues about problems with the research. Perez-Melgosa spoke with university administrators about this treatment, but it continued. Becoming increasingly upset and depressed, Perez-Melgosa consulted her doctor, who put her on medical leave to recover from the stress.

Perez-Melgosa, stunned and horrified at finding herself, as she said in trial testimony, “suddenly severed from a career that makes me who I am,” went to see OSI Director Anne Ackenhusen, hoping, she testified at the trial, to get underway an investigation that she believed would reject the allegation of changing data. Ackenhusen, however, testified at trial that the distraught Perez-Melgosa “did not appear interested in going into triggering the research misconduct process.” It appeared to her that Perez-Melgosa was “concerned about who or what could be done in dealing with Dr. Nickerson and stopping the termination, which is not something that I can do.” Ackenhusen further testified that she explained the process of investigating misconduct cases, but “since it didn’t appear that Dr. Perez-Melgosa was making a complaint of research misconduct against herself … and it did not appear there was an allegation of research misconduct at that time”—Nickerson had not lodged a formal complaint—“I did not pursue it further.” Perez-Melgosa then sent a letter to her and several other university officials asking for an investigation, but none occurred.

Alteration versus interpretation

As to the exact nature of Perez-Melgosa’s actions in the lab, molecular biologist Jefferson Foote testified as an expert witness on Perez-Melgosa’s behalf that, despite Nickerson’s assertions, “[n]o data were changed.” Perez-Melgosa’s actions are best characterized as interpretation of data rather than as alteration, the biotech entrepreneur and former UW affiliate faculty member argued.

As he explained in a sworn deposition, central to Perez-Melgosa’s dismissal were data produced by analysis of DNA in blood serum samples. The analysis provided two outputs: “numbers representing physical measurements of” various chemicals, and a “gender determination” that indicates whether the sample’s data fall within the typical range for males or females. Samples that did not clearly fall within either gender range were marked “undetermined.” As Foote put it, “[t]he numbers … are data. The genders … are interpretations.” As Foote testified, Perez-Melgosa did not change the numbers, but upon examining the data, she added the notation “Male?” in some cases to indicate that, though inconclusive, these samples appeared to her likely to have come from a male.

Nickerson, however, said in a sworn deposition that “it should have been undetermined. … I’m not even sure what [Male?] means”—though she also acknowledged that she never asked Perez-Melgosa what she had intended it to mean. In her testimony, Nickerson said that “I believed that she changed data, she made mistakes.” But, Nickerson added, “I did not believe this was scientific misconduct.”

Because no investigation ever took place, Perez-Melgosa believes she had no opportunity to argue that her actions constituted interpretation of data, which falls within the normal scope of scientific activity. 

“A major screw-up”

The UW policy states that it provides for means “to restore [a] respondent’s reputation” damaged by a claim of misconduct. Yet, despite numerous efforts at the time of her dismissal, Perez-Melgosa failed to access university procedures that she believed could help her clear her name.

So, the native of Spain, who speaks with what she described in her testimony as a “thick” foreign accent, finally undertook the unsuccessful lawsuit against UW for what Wing, her lawyer, told Science Careers was the only possible “theory [of the case] that would be illegal:” discrimination on the basis of national origin. But, Wing continued, “we couldn’t convince the jury that Dr. Nickerson’s real motivation was because of Mercedes’s accent,” and the case also failed on appeal.

After announcing the verdict, however, the jury foreperson took a “very unusual” step that Wing had “never heard of” before: requesting and receiving permission to explain to the court the reasoning behind their decision. “[W]e felt hamstrung by the law,” the foreperson said, according to the trial transcript. “We felt that what was morally correct here was different.” Apologizing for “getting very emotional,” the juror added, “[t]his was hard for us, because we felt like the law was so narrow, we were not allowed to find for the plaintiff and we really wanted to. We think the University of Washington did a major screw-up. … We’re very sorry that we had to find the way that we did.”

During her trial testimony, Ackenhusen said that, had she seen the documents that formed the basis for Perez-Melgosa’s dismissal at the time of the termination, she would have launched an investigation. In any case, she acknowledged, university policy requires allegations to be investigated regardless of how they come to the office’s attention. But no investigation has taken place. Without one, Perez-Melgosa testified at the trial, “my career was over. I didn’t have the opportunity to clear my name and to recover my profession.”

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