Professor investigated for research misconduct

Marjorie Kirk

After signing his resignation in February to forgo a sexual misconduct hearing, associate professor James Harwood became the subject of a second inquiry, this time into research misconduct. 

Partners in his research suspected that he had fabricated data to meet a checkpoint required to receive about $50,000 of funding for the Dubas Bug Project, an international partnership between UK and the research council of Oman. 

The evidence uncovered in his lab and through emails led the inquiry committee to conclude that, “the lack of supporting evidence for the data…is sufficient to warrant further investigation,” the investigation report said. 

Harwood’s case is similar to that of former UK researcher Eric Smart, who was investigated for sexual harassment of female employees and scientific misconduct a few years earlier, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. 

Smart was put on probation for a year after the sexual harassment investigation and remained on payroll until 2012, after university and federal investigations concluded that he had fabricated data for years, the Herald-Leader article said. 

He resigned from UK and then took a job as a chemistry teacher at Bourbon County High School. The superintendent at the time, Lana Fryman told the Herald-Leader that the sexual harassment investigation did not turn up in the background checks, including the file they received from UK.  

While Smart was disciplined following the sexual harassment investigation, he was able to resign following his investigations into scientific misconduct. 

Harwood on the other hand resigned after his sexual assault and harassment investigation concluded that the evidence warranted a hearing. The only way he could forgo disciplinary action against him, a tenured professor, was to use the Informal Resolution Option of university sexual misconduct procedures, and resign. 

A Legal Impasse:

UK General Counsel Bill Thro said that in both Harwood’s sexual misconduct and research misconduct investigations, the university thought his resignation achieved the most speedy and effective solution to the problem—Harwood being employed at UK. 

Thro said that the proceedings of a Sexual Misconduct Hearing, and the process of revoking tenure can take up to a year and a half to two years. 

He said the university decided holistically that in the best interests of whatever victims of sexual misconduct it takes in, the university will resolve the case instead of letting it drag on for years, unless they are required to see it to its end, such as in matters of state and federal investigations. 

“If the university investigated somebody for misconduct, and the person was a tenured faculty member and we concluded that the individual was guilty, that we could prove that in disciplinary proceedings and that we should initiate those proceedings, we might choose to settle where the individual resigns form the university,” Thro said. “Our process for revoking someone’s tenure says throughout the process the individual professor will continue to be paid. It could easily take a year and a half or two years.”

After the inquiry into Harwood’s research misconduct warranted further investigation, Thro said the university decided not to move forward with it since Harwood had resigned and his employment with the university would be over at the end of August. 

To continue would have cost the university more time and money, and the end result would be almost the same, according to Thro. The difference is that instead of resignation, Harwood could have been stripped of tenure and terminated. 

“Given that he is leaving, and the only thing we could do to someone who violated university policy was to say, ‘You violated university policy,’ some sort of reprimand, some sort of penalty, the inquiry is basically finished,” Thro said.  “There will not be proceedings against him for purported violations of university policy.”

Before the university would be able to talk about an investigation and disciplinary proceedings, Thro said that another institution wanting to hire or inquire about an employee would need to get a form from them signing over their privacy rights under FERPA. 

Thro said that form would allow the university to disregard whatever confidentiality is contained in a settlement agreement, like the one UK made with Harwood. 

The Dubas Bug Project:

Dr. Michael Sitvarin worked in Harwood’s lab on the Dubas Bug Project, before the investigation began. He said that when he was brought on to the research team some of the work described in Harwood’s research proposal had already been completed by Dr. Jamin Dreyer, another post-doctoral scholar in the lab. 

Despite this, he and Dreyer believed the proposal was too ambitious with the amount of time and resources they had available. 

Dreyer even went to visit the research lab at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. Sitvarin said that upon Dreyer’s return, he told the lab group of his concerns that the research would not be finished in time and of the suspicions the researchers in Oman had of Harwood’s data reports. 

A formal complaint was brought to the attention of UK’s Office of Research Integrity who began an inquiry into Harwood’s research June 1. 

Sitvarin said investigators “stormed the lab” copying hard drives and files. Everyone in the lab was asked to sign an agreement, which asked they not delete or destroy any information related to the investigation. 

One sentence of it reads, “This is a confidential matter, and you should not discuss this with anyone besides those appointed by the University to conduct an inquiry into this matter.” 

Sitvarin said he believed he had signed a non-disclosure agreement, and felt he could not talk about the investigation, until he received an email from Dr. Joseph Chappell, one of the members of the inquiry panel saying the report had been submitted, but was “preempted by a legal agreement executed by Dr. Harwood and the University that limits further inquiry.” 

Thro said this “legal agreement” was the settlement the university made with the professor to accept his resignation earlier this year. 

Thro said the research will be continued, headed now by Dr. John Obrycki, and that the department of entomology is working to correct the harm that may have been done by the suspected fabricated data on the Dubas Bug Project.