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Cancer researcher receives legal reprieve in misconduct case

Posted on behalf of Brendan Borrell.

Last year, cancer biologist Philippe Bois was stripped of his right to apply for federal grants for three years after United States regulators ruled that he had committed scientific misconduct. Now, a federal judge has reversed the ruling and given Bois a new chance for a hearing to defend himself.

As noted by The Scientist, the case marks the first time that a decision by a judge working for the US Department of Health and Human Services has been overturned. The Office of Research Integrity handles about 12 misconduct cases a year, and the majority of those are settled without a hearing.

Bois’s case stems from two papers he published when he was a postdoctoral researcher at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2005.

Bois requested a hearing to defend himself against charges that he had faked data, but an administrative law judge denied that request last year on the grounds that he had “not raised a genuine dispute over facts”.

Bois appealed that finding in federal court, becoming the third such defendant to do so since 2005, and the first to achieve some measure of success. In her 2 March decision, US District Judge Amy Jackson reaffirmed the finding that Bois falsified a figure in the Journal of Cellular Biology, but wrote that the decision to deny Bois a hearing on his Molecular and Cellular Biology article was “arbitrary and capricious”, giving Bois another chance to make his case.

That’s not to say that Jackson believes that his case will be all that persuasive. “Dr. Bois’s story lacks coherence . . . is internally inconsistent . . . and, in places, it is inconsistent with known facts.” Nevertheless, the judge wrote, “there should be a hearing.”

“Someone accused of a violation that involves their livelihood ought to have a right to a trial,” says lawyer Jack Young of Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb in Washington DC, the firm that represents Bois. “That’s fundamental American jurisprudence, and it has not happened in the realm of research misconduct cases.”

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