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The academic scandal hiding within the Stanton Glantz sexual harassment scandal

by Carl V Phillips

By now you have probably heard about the lawsuit against Glantz by his former postdoc, Eunice Neely. Buzzfeed broke the story here, which (like other reports) appears to be based entirely on the complaint filed in a California court (available here). There appear to be no public statements, other than the blanket denial that Glantz posted to his university blog, which was picked up in at least one press report.

I am fascinated by several details that were too subtle for the newspaper reporters.

First, Glantz’s post in itself — using a university resource — may be yet another transgression. He declares, “I… deny every claim reported to be included in this lawsuit.” He notes that Neely made a complaint to the university earlier this year and that someone else (presumably another junior researcher who was a Glantz protege[*] or employee) filed another complaint. He describes some details of the university investigation and repeats his denial. He does so just before — get this! — he writes, “Under University of California policy I am not supposed to discuss this investigation until it has been concluded and I have and will continue to respect that policy.” We know Glantz is not the sharpest tool, but you might think he would notice that the previous sentences in the same short document were him discussing this investigation before it concluded.

[*Dear reporters: The counterpart word for “mentor” is “protege”, “advisee”, or “student”. There is no such word as “mentee”, except perhaps as a misspelling of a flavor descriptor. That construction would only work if “mentor” meant “someone who ments”. Seriously, weren’t most of you English majors?]

Also the court complaint says (at 26) that Glantz had already talked publicly about the complaint against him and “boasted” about his defense. So we have a rather undisciplined defendant here. Not a big surprise.

Caveat: I am obviously just working from the complaint document, which might contain inaccurate assertions, though it also might fail to mention damning information that will come out later. Feel free to sprinkle these through as necessary: alleged, alleged, alleged, alleged, if true, if true, if true, claimed, claimed, reported.

First, the headline complaints themselves, those about sexual harassment, were not on the level of recent scandals that included coerced sex acts, aggressive unwanted propositions and …um… displays, and criminal battery (I assume few would suggest the unwanted hugs by Glantz, which were not described being of an overtly sexual nature, are an example of battery). The sexual harassment complaints against Glantz are a pattern of boorish leering, a few instances of gratuitous and discomfiting sexual stories or analogies, the hugs, and some vague hearsay claims. That is basically it.

That is not to dismiss these, of course, let alone say they were acceptable. There is no queue, such that complaints of less heinous harassment need to wait their turn. The sooner we have lots of muscular #MeToo actions like this, the better for our society. The acts Glantz is accused of might still violate laws, university rules, or grant funders’ rules (I offer no opinion on whether they do). It is obvious why someone would dislike this experience and want to escape from it. Any decent employer, upon hearing of this, would order the supervisor to stop doing such things and respect the junior employee’s request for reassignment.

Still, the claims are about the vulgarity, ickiness, and insensitivity that women endure as a result of merely being in the same room as creeps, not assault or exploitation that was facilitated by the abuse of power. It is difficult to imagine these allegations (by themselves) taking out a senior professor. I have witnessed academic shops where bawdy talk by everyone was the norm and no one seemed to mind (though perhaps it is relevant that these were headed by women; a sensible male professor will stay out of any such conversations even if they are common banter among his advisees). If Glantz were sensible, he would have made this all go away with an apology and an “I did not realize… but from now on….” (Spoiler: Glantz is not sensible.)

The racism (if that is even the right word) complaints are weak tea. The lawyer writing the complaint made a big deal about racism issues (Neely is black), for obvious reasons. But the specifics offered are merely: one story of what might have been (though it seems quite possible it was not) a stupid “you are black, so I just assumed you…”-type suggestion; an unsubstantiated assertion that papers by Neely and another nonwhite postdoc were subject to more review and editing than their peers (which is pretty much impossible to measure, let alone to rule out a defense that their papers simply needed more editing); and a statement that seems to be Glantz telling another nonwhite researcher in the shop she was a diversity hire.

This is not to say that any of the above is ok. What Glantz said and did was stupid. Really really stupid, and rude and gross. It would be stupid in any setting, but an academic advisor has higher standards. If Glantz really did these things (and it is really difficult to fathom why someone would make these particular details), but somehow did not understand the harm they were causing, he should have — upon receiving the first complaint about them — tripped over himself apologizing to Neely and the others, promising to stop but still offering to make it easy for her and others to transfer to other advisors, and then staying out of their lives if that is what they seemed to want, and issuing a solemn statement of concern and promises to everyone in his shop.

If he did not really commit the alleged acts, he should still have apologized for whatever disaster did inspire the allegations, and still helped Neely find another mentor if that was what she wanted. If he demonstrated he is not decent enough to do one of these, the university should have pushed him to. Note that it is possible that some of this happened — the complaint does not deny there were such attempts to fix the problem, and it is not as if the plaintiff’s attorney is going to volunteer that there were.

Regardless of the seriousness of the original behavior and any hypothetical attempts to fix the problem, what happened next — much more than the salacious allegations from the headlines — is why Glantz must be forced to resign, and the university should be on the hook for a payout.

The complaint chronicles how Glantz, after he was no longer Neely’s supervisor, demanded that he still have an authorship role (both credit and contribution) in the paper she had written under him. Indeed, what he was demanding was lead-author control over it. This was a whole additional level of stupid, as well as making the hypothetical scenario (that he or the university sincerely tried to fix this) seem extremely unlikely. This was not some landmark paper that represented a scientific innovation by Glantz that he would understandably not want to give away. It appears to be just another iteration of the silly conspiracy stories about the tobacco industry, the amateurish cherrypicking historiography, that Glantz and his minions have written at least a dozen times before. This perfectly demonstrates his clueless arrogance (I suspect that narcissism would be the technical diagnosis) when he did not cut his losses and just give the worthless paper away. No. One. Would. Care.

What is worse, he demanded to be a coauthor on her future papers. This is where the story in the complaint gets more subtly interesting. He was either demanding that he keep working closely with her and have major influence over her, despite what had happened, or he was basically insisting she commit academic fraud on his behalf: to make him an author of papers he did not substantially contribute to.

And apparently not content to keep the academic fraud vague and deniable, Glantz marched on.

The complaint says he reneged on a promise to let Neely be the corresponding author for their paper, demanding that role for himself. Even if there had been no such promise, and even setting aside that he was no longer her advisor and was a fool to not be contrite and conceding, it was properly up to her. She wrote the paper, and a postdoc is plenty senior to make the decision and take whatever role she wants. In addition, Glantz insisted on adding one of the in-house commentators to the paper as an author for what the complaint implies (though is very sloppy about actually saying) are mere reviewer comments, not worthy of authorship.

[Aside: Fake authorship is a major problem in public health publishing. Because the actual value (or total lack thereof) of someone’s papers is pretty much ignored, only numbers count. An unearned authorship still adds to the numbers. I have known researchers who struck a deal to include each other as authors on every paper, despite a complete lack of involvement. I quite enjoy asking anyone who has “authored” hundreds of papers — often more than ten per year — if they have even read them all. (They have not.)]

Apparently the university backed Glantz’s insistence that Neely still had to work with him on the first paper and yield to his decisions about it. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The complaint spins this as a method to manufacture excuses to deny Neely authorship of the paper, given that she was strongly averse to having any dealings with Glantz anymore. And, sure enough, a bit later Glantz went ahead and submitted the paper under his name, without telling Neely or including her as an author. The complaint also says that Neely heard that Glantz was planning to steal another paper she had written or was writing.

This (assuming it is true) is bright-line academic fraud. It is the worst kind of plagiarism and an unforgivable violation of his duties. Whatever one thinks of the seriousness of the headline rude and gross behavior, and whatever one thinks of an academic not endeavoring to make amends for hurting his protege even if accidentally, there is no getting out of this. The university has to force him to retire (or better still, overtly dismiss him), and his funders have to pull their funding. Importantly, unlike most of the acts alleged in the complaint, Glantz’s submission of Neely’s paper without her permission or name is easy to demonstrate using evidence beyond mere eyewitness testimony.

This action also reinforces the claims in the lawsuit that Glantz retaliated and the university abetted it. The cliche that the coverup is worse than the original crime is usually bullshit. But disturbingly often in sexual harassment cases, the abuse of accusers after they speak up — to cover up or just to punish them for standing up for themselves — seems to cause more harm than the original acts (not to imply the original acts are not harmful, obviously, nor to deny that sometimes they are extremely harmful).

Despite this, the #MeToo movement should hesitate to embrace Neely as a poster victim. Boorishness and academic technicalities are not exactly the most tragic abuse stories we have heard recently. In addition, there is an intriguing cause of action stated in the lawsuit (at 71), about unjust enrichment. No details are explained, so maybe this is just a meaningless copy-paste of the lawyer’s standard boilerplate. But if not, the only apparent enrichment in sight is the $20 million that FDA gave Glantz to write stupid things about tobacco. Or, apparently, to hire people to write stupid things about tobacco that he puts his name on. If any of his actions were a violation of the terms of that contract (I have no idea) and if Neely can get official federal whistleblower status (again, no idea) then she and her lawyer could collect millions if the feds sue University of California to pay back the grant money. It is better they get rich than the money be used to produce junk science, of course, but we are still not talking about selfless nobility.

Or it could be quite the opposite, that Neely is willing to expend her own resources just to retain control of her paper (as is demanded, as a matter of immediate relief, in the complaint), and all the demands for monetary compensation are just the lawyer looking to eke out his fee. We do not know at this point. However, we do know that there are no good guys in this story.

Neely was, by choice, a Glantz acolyte and thus is presumably seeking a career producing junk science and riding the tobacco control gravy train. Everyone else in the story — the unnamed other victims and the senior researchers in Glantz’s shop who Neely sought help from — were also in the business of producing anti-science that hurts a lot of people. Moreover, if(!) Glantz’s actions really were as long-standing and frequently-discussed as implied in the complaint, then the senior people are guilty of not speaking up about it to protect their proteges, and Neely deserves moral credit as a whistleblower.

There is ultimately something very Praljak-like about this (the war criminal who recently poisoned himself, getting the last word, after being convicted in The Hague). If Glantz goes down for this — and it is hard to see how he does not unless there are transparent fabrications in the complaint — it lets him off way too easily. It will be because he was a clueless oaf, and did not know when to cut his losses. It will let him quietly skate away from the tremendous damage his junk science has caused.

If he gets deposed, he will just be asked about roving eyes and authorship credit. He will not be asked about how many different data and model combinations he ran, and then hid, before finding the one that created the “Helena miracle” illusion. Nor will he be asked about how many people have explained to him the glaring flaws in his e-cigarette analyses — confusing liquids and solids, ignoring obvious confounding, combining incommensurate results, etc. — and how many times he further repeated the same misinformation anyway.

As with Praljak’s suicide, it is a bit closer to justice than him just getting hit by a bus, but it is not enough. Still whatever puts and end to such a career — whether harassment and plagiarism charges, a human rights trial, suicide, or a bus — stops him from causing more harm, and that is what matters most.

Original author: Carl V Phillips
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