The Aprikyan Case

Happenings at the UW:

The UW Provost Phyllis Wise dismissed Dr. Andrew Aprikyan from the faculty of the School of Medicine after a seven year long investigation.  This action was taken despite the findings of a formal faculty adjudication panel that  Dr. Aprikyan was not guilty but that the Administration itself had acted improperly.  In response the President of the UW, himself not a scientist or a published academic,  rejected the faculty’s right to review scientific misconduct and referred to the panel as “capricious.” (Editor)

A letter from David Dale, former Dean, School of Medicine.

the Aprikyan Case

Recently UW Provost Phyllis Wise dismissed Dr. Andrew Aprikyan from the faculty of the School of Medicine. His dismissal occurred more than 7 years after a   “colleague” accused him of scientific misconduct.  He was dismissed despite the fact that a duly appointed faculty Adjudication Panel reviewed the case and determined that the UW’s examination of his work did not establish that he had committed scientific misconduct. Furthermore, the Panel did not find that Dr. Aprikyan is incompetent or that he had neglected his duties, as the Provost had charged. In addition, the panel reported to the UW President that the UW Office of Scholarly Integrity, an office supervised by the Provost, committed serious violations of University policy in conducting its inquiry and investigation into his research.

My concerns about this case go beyond the unjust fate of Dr. Aprikyan. They go into the heart of how faculty matters are currently handled at the UW. They raise fundamental questions about integrity in the operation of the UW Office of Scholarly Integrity (OSI). As a proud member of the faculty, colleague of Dr. Aprikyan and former Dean of the School of Medicine, I am very distressed. Simply put, what happened to Dr. Aprikyan should never have occurred.

The Rules and Regulations of the University

It is important to understand that the University of Washington operates under the rules and regulations of the State of Washington and the UW Faculty Code and Handbook. Members of the faculty do not have individual written contracts.  Instead, the Code and Handbook serve as the contract and these documents are legally binding regulations as a part of Washington State administrative law.

Several parts of the Faculty Code and Handbook are specifically relevant in this case, in particular, “Tenure of the Faculty” (Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 25), “Adjudicative Proceedings for the Resolution of Differences” (Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 28) and “Policy for Addressing Allegations of Scientific Misconduct” (Volume 4, Part 9, Chapter 1).  Faculty rights and responsibilities, the dispute resolutions processes and the handling of allegations of scientific misconduct are all addressed there.

The History

The UW administration will not reveal the identity of Dr. Aprikyan’s accuser, but it is easy to know that the Complainant is another member of the medical faculty and a former research collaborator with Dr. Aprikyan.  Not long before this sordid affair began, the Complainant and Dr. Aprikyan proposed different scientific hypotheses for the cause of a rare hematological disease. Because this investigation lasted so long, it is now clear that Dr. Aprikyan’s scientific hypothesis was right and the Complainant’s was wrong. Thus they were competing and there was a probable motive for the Complainant to want to destroy Dr. Aprikyan’s career.

The Faculty Handbook (Volume 4, Part 9, Chapter 1) spells out the UW process for investigating allegation of scientific misconduct. Elsewhere the Code and Handbook provide clear directions for managing complaints and grievances, but somehow this case was not handled by the rules. The Complainant never properly filed an allegation or set of allegations against the person(s) he accused of misconduct. His complaint was never reviewed at the departmental level as required under Volume 2, Part 2 Section 25-71 of the Faculty Handbook. Instead, someone in the School of Medicine reported a mistake noticed in a just published article in a medical journal to the OSI. Rather than follow UW policy, the OSI attorneys quickly jumped in, interviewed the “Complainant” and wrote out a whole list of allegations of scientific misconduct for him. The allegations and evidence to support them were bogus, but the OSI did not have the insights to judge them properly; the staff of that office was simply not qualified to do so.  Dr. Aprikyan’s rights were violated; the process was in the hands of non-scientists and a snowball, or from Dr. Aprikyan’s perspective an avalanche, started moving toward him.

The UW scientific misconduct policy calls for an inquiry into an allegation of scientific misconduct to be completed within 30 days, although extensions are permitted. (Faculty Handbook, Volume 4, Part 9, Chapter 1) The OSI finished an Inquiry Report in 30 days. However, the report it submitted to the Dean on Medicine was seriously flawed, resulting in many of the problems that followed.  It is not known how the Dean handled the Inquiry Report, but somehow, in conjunction with the OSI, he decided to initiate a full investigation, apparently blinded from the inadequacies of the OSI’s inquiry. The Dean named three faculty members to an ad hoc Advisory Committee (AC); none had specific credentials or experience in administration or oversight of scientific affairs and no one was designated as committee chair. Ultimately this committee, with the help of the OSI attorneys, wandered into fields where it lacked scientific expertise, the expertise necessary to evaluate the research. The tragedy for the accused faculty was that no one with insight appears to have been overseeing what was happening.

The OSI then conducted a secret investigation. Allegedly this was to protect the privacy of the parties, but it served to hide what the OSI was doing or not doing. Review of the depositions taken during the OSI led investigation revealed that within a few weeks, it was obvious that the several of the original “allegations” were “baseless; they were fabrications. They could be called “scientific nonsense.” Despite this finding and for reasons not yet revealed, the OSI decided to pursue finding something it might declare to be scientific misconduct beyond any of the “allegations” ever made by the Complainant. Thus the process quickly evolved to a “witch hunt,” looking for errors of any sort in Dr. Aprikyan’s laboratory records and those of his research collaborators.

This open ended investigation last nearly four years. The UW policy states that it should have been finished in 90 days. Why did it go so long? Did someone make up new allegations? Who was in charge? Who was looking out for the rights of the faculty?

Dr. Aprikyan’s laboratory records were searched manually and then with forensic techniques by non-scientists. It is unclear what review was done by the faculty and what was done by others paid through the OSI. The Advisory Committee’s report shows that someone who did not understand Dr. Aprikyan’s records extracted data and made up tables containing substantial amounts of misinterpreted data. These tables later appeared in the 450 page draft report from the Advisory Committee and the Dean Decision report. There were scores of obvious and serious errors of fact and interpretation in these reports. It now appears that someone in the UW OSI decided early on that Aprikyan was guilty and was willing to go to any length to prove this point.

The Provost Office submitted the Advisory Committee report and Dean’s Decision report to the Federal Office of Research Integrity in June of 2007, despite my protest that it was wrong to submit these inaccurate reports.  Dr. Aprikyan’s colleagues then encouraged him to file for Adjudication. His petition for a Comprehensive Adjudication was granted in accordance with proper UW procedures. (See Faculty Handbook, Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 28, Sections 28-31 through 28-52 and 28-54)

As required by the Code, a panel of five senior faculty members from across the University was selected by the Chair of the UW Adjudication Panel and approved by the President to serve on an Adjudication Panel for a Comprehensive Adjudication of the Aprikyan case. To insure freedom from any form of personal influence and in compliance with UW regulations and the laws of the State of Washington, a  non-UW attorney was appointed jointly by the UW President and Chair of the Adjudication Panel  to serve as the Hearing Officer  and Chair of the Panel. The Panel was selected for its understanding of UW policies, particularly the Faculty Code and Handbook as well as its mature judgment in resolving disputed matters.  All the members are highly respected academics in their own fields.

At the hearings, the five member panel and Hearing Officer heard testimony from the Provost, Dean of Medicine and their witnesses as well as from Dr. Aprikyan and expert scientists testifying on his behalf. Provost Wise, Vice Provost Cheryl Cameron, Dean Ramsey and Barbara Van Ess from the School of Medicine, were all present at almost every session. Both Cheryl Cameron and Barbara Van Ess are non-practicing attorneys employed by the UW. Dr. Aprikyan had only one colleague with him at the meetings; he could not afford an attorney.

The hearings, review of evidence and Panel deliberations lasted nearly 2 years, from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2009. On November 5, 2009 the Panel submitted its report and findings to the President exonerating Dr. Aprikyan and indicating that the UW failed to prove by preponderance of evidence that Dr. Aprikyan had committed scientific misconduct. The Panel also reported to the President that the process of the Inquiry and Investigation was not conducted in compliance with UW regulations.  After a last minute appeal by his administrative officers, the President remanded the decision to the Panel. After further review, the Panel responded the President that it stood unanimously by it original decision.

As noted previously, Dr. Aprikyan was dismissed because President Emmert determined that the Hearing Panel’s consideration of the case was “arbitrary and capricious”. Otherwise, the decision of the Adjudication Panel would have been the final decision of the UW.  In his Final Decision issued March 4, 2010, President Emmert stated that the procedures followed by the Hearing Panel and its conclusions were not in accordance with the law or University rules and regulations. In other words, he told the Hearing Panel members that they had broken the law!

In siding with his own administrative officers and against the faculty committee, the President ruled that the Dean’s decision about scientific misconduct was not subject to review (irrespective of whether it was right or wrong). It is noteworthy that whether a Dean’s decision can subjected to adjudication was reviewed twice before the Panel began its deliberations at the request of the Provost and Dean of Medicine. In both instances the legal review by two different parties determined that it was proper to review the Dean’s decision under UW regulations and the laws of the State of Washington. It is also noteworthy that the President made the decision to call the work of the Adjudication Panel “arbitrary and capricious” only after, not before, his administrative officers had formally appealed to him to refuse to accept the Panel’s report.

What is wrong?

Here are my beliefs about what went wrong in this case:

The Provost’s Office of Scholarly Integrity over stepped its authority and competence. Then, other administrators, including the Provost and the Dean of Medicine, failed to recognize the problem and to intervene. Finally this cluster of administrators felt it necessary to defend what they had allowed to happen.

I believe that the OSI led the faculty committee to believe it was their duty to conduct an almost unending search to find errors in Dr. Aprikyan’s work, after it was obvious that the OSI staff had been “taken in” by the “Complainant” with his original “allegations.” The expansive search conducted largely by attorneys on the OSI staff introduced many errors. There are no minutes or OSI records of the Advisory Committee meetings or records of their actual proceedings in this investigation, so it is yet unclear what service the faculty members actually performed.   It appears that the OSI staff, not the faculty committee determined much of the content and wrote the committee report.  Personally, I am appalled by the absence of university records in these proceeding, but I am told administrators are now advised not to keep written records because they would be discoverable if there were court proceedings.

Some Conclusions

Dr. Aprikyan, his technicians and collaborators can be faulted for not maintaining better, more easily audited records of their laboratory work. On the other hand, the UW does not actually have standards for recording laboratory work.  Furthermore, errors in records or even the lack of records are not scientific misconduct. The errors in the records for the two papers under review were clearly explained at the Adjudication hearings and experts provided testimony there about the significance of these mistakes and how they probably occurred. It should be clear that the UW investigation found no fabricated data. There were no errors that affected the scientific conclusions from the work. In fact, since this investigation and adjudication have now gone on so long, Dr. Aprikyan’s work has now been confirmed and extended here and in other university laboratories.

It is very important that for the entire seven years of this ordeal, Dr. Aprikyan’s research colleagues have continued to support him and maintained that he did not commit scientific misconduct.  On the other hand, from the beginning it appears that the goal of the attorneys from the OSI staff was adversarial.  They acted like prosecuting attorneys charged with winning a  case.

Attorney General McKenna, the Regents, as well as the faculty and the citizens of Washington, should know just how much the Provost Office spent to “win” the Aprikyan case.

What can we learn from this case?

This case reveals that the UW does not have a proper administrative process for handling allegations of scientific misconduct. The process followed in this case was not consistent with the Faculty Code and Handbook. It was not consistent with current Federal guidelines. It was not consistent with the basic principles of fairness and justice.  It raises serious questions about protection of basic human rights and faculty rights within the organization of the UW.

The Aprikyan case also raises a “red flag” about the failure of shared governance and respect for the faculty at the University of Washington.  The members of the Adjudication Panel must be incensed by this lack of respect for their work. All of the faculty should be concerned about the disrespect shown by the administration for due process and fairness and its responsibility to follow the Faculty Code and Handbook.

Does anyone understand why the UW spent so much time and money on investigating the work of Dr. Aprikyan?

David C. Dale, M.D.

Professor of Medicine

July 1, 2010


3 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. BioBuddhist #

    David Dale is an individual of the highest integrity and was an outstanding Dean of the School of Medicine. He has the administrative and scientific expertise necessary to evaluate the Aprikyan case and had no conflicts of interest that I know of. It is clear that he has written this article out of deep concern over the direction the University has taken in dealing with faculty rights and due process.
    I find his points very compelling. The whole handling of the case is disgusting, Kafkaesque! After reading his letter, I would urge Provost Wise to resign. She simply does not seem to be competent. The fact that she is getting a promotion to Acting President of the University shows that no one with real power at the UW listening to people like David Dale, who really understand the significance of this case and the erosion of leadership and faculty rights at the University associated with it.
    Dean Ramsey Are you listening? We are very concerned about this case. You need to do something to address the shortcomings of the original investigation. I think a SOM Committee should investigate more fully this case and come up with some rules of conduct so that nothing like this happens again.

  2. 2

    I’d have to give carte blanche with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I really like reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to speak my mind!

  3. Truth Prevails #

    Maybe not quite so innocent, afterall:

    Case Summary: Aprikyan, Andrew

    Office of the Secretary
    Findings of Research Misconduct
    AGENCY: Office of the Secretary, HHS
    ACTION: Notice.
    SUMMARY: Notice is hereby given that the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has taken final action in the following case:
    Andrew Aprikyan, Ph.D., University of Washington: Based on the report of an investigation conducted by the University of Washington (UW), the UW School of Medicine Dean’s Decision, the Decision of the Hearing Panel at UW, and additional analysis conducted by ORI, ORI found by a preponderance of the evidence that Dr. Andrew Aprikyan, former Research Assistant Professor, Division of Hematology, UW, engaged in research misconduct in research supported by National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant CA89135 and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), NIH, grant DK18951, and applies to the following publications and grant applications:

    Blood pre-published online on January 16, 2003 (“NEM”)
    Experimental Hematology 31:372-381, 2003 (“CMA”)
    Blood 97:147-153, 2001 (“ISB”)
    R01 CA89135-01A1
    R01 HL73063-01
    R01 HL79615-01

    Blood pre-published online on January 16, 2003, has been retracted and Experimental Hematology 31:372-381, 2003, has been corrected.

    Specifically, ORI finds that by a preponderance of the evidence, Respondent falsified and/or fabricated results relating to the above publications and grants. Specifically, Respondent:

    1. falsely reported sequencing data in the NEM manuscript to strengthen the hypothesis that NE mutations contributed to the phenotype observed in severe congenital neutropenia (SCN) patients. Specifically:

    a. Respondent falsely reported in Figures 2A and 3 that patient 3 had the R191Q neutrophil elastase (NE) mutation, when the majority of the sequencing experiments showed that the mutation was not present.

    b. Respondent fabricated text (p. 12) reporting that sequencing of RT-PCR products confirmed the expression of the NE mutants in the SCN patients and that no mutations were present in the granulocyte colony stimulating factor receptor (G-CSFR) gene and the Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome (WAS) gene in SCN patients, when based on the lack of original records the experiments were not performed. The false claim for G-CSFR sequencing was also reported in CA89135-03.

    2. falsely reported a two-fold increase in apoptosis of human promyelocytic (HL-60) cells transfected with NE mutants compared to wild type NE in Figure 4A, NEM, Figure 6A, CMA, Figure 8, HL73063-01, and Figure 7, HL79615-01. Respondent used arbitrary flow cytometry data files to generate histograms with the desired result. The false results supported the hypothesis that the NE mutations were sufficient for impaired survival of human myeloid cells.

    3. falsified NE and ß-actin Western blots in Figure 4B Blood, pre-published online January 16, 2003, Figure 5B of the manuscript initially submitted to Blood April 2002, and Figure 6B Experimental Hematology 31:372-381, 2003, by falsely labeling lanes to support the hypothesis that accelerated apoptosis in mutant NE transfect HL-60 cells was due to the mutation and not the level of protein present. Specifically:

    a. Respondent used portions of a single NE Wester blot to represent: Figure 4B as HL-60 cells transfected with L92H, R191Q, and wtNE, when the cells were transfected with R191Q, P110L, and D145-152; Figure 5B as HL-60 transfected with wtNE, mutNE, and EGFP when they were cells transfected with NE mutants, P110L, D145-152, and 194

    b. Respondent used portions of a single ß-actin Western blot to represent: Figure 4B as HL-60 cells transfected with L92H, R191Q, and wtNE, when they were cells transfected with I31T, P110L, and G185R mutants; Figure 5B as HL-60 cells transfected with wtNE, mutNE, and EGFP, when they were cells transfected with P110L, I31T, and INE; Figure 6B as HL-60 cells transfected with G185R, mock, D145-152, and P110L NE mutants, when they were cells transfected with I31T, P110L, G185R, and 32. The false ß-actin Western blot in Figure 6B was also included in HL73063-01, Figure 8 (where the I31Tlane was labeled correctly), and HL79615-01, Figure 7.

    4. falsified the reported methodology for flow cytometry experiments in Figure 4A, NEM, Figure 1 and 2, and Tables 2 and 3, CMA, and Figures 4, 5, and 6, ISB, to validate the key hypothesis showing accelerated apoptosis in SCN and CN patients. The methodology claimed that flow cytometry experiments were gated for GFP+ populations, or that cell purity was greater than 96%, when based on the available original records, the experiments were not performed as stated.

    5.falsified Figure 2, CMA, Figure 2, HL73063-01, Figure 3, HL79615-01, and Figure 5, CA89135-01A1, demonstrating that the overnight cultures of CD34+ and CD33+ bone marrow cells from SCN/AML patients showed normal cell survival, and only the CD15+ overnight cultures showed accelerated apoptosis, when the actual record available contradicted this result. Respondent used flow cytometry data files to generate histograms with the desired result to support the hypothesis that the progression from SCN to leukemia (AML) involves acquired G-CSFR mutations that override the pro-apoptotic effect of the NE mutations in primitive progenitor cells.

    Dr. Aprikyan has entered into a Settlement Agreement in which he denied ORI’s findings of research misconduct based on the UW Faculty Adjudication Hearing Panel decision. The settlement is not an admission of liability on the part of the Respondent. Respondent entered into the Agreement solely because contesting the findings would cause him undue financial hardship and stress, lead to lengthy and costly appellate proceedings, and he wished to seek finality. Respondent agreed not to appeal the ORI findings of research misconduct set forth above. He has agreed, beginning on March 12, 2013:

    (1) if within two (2) years from the effective date of the Agreement, Respondent receives or applies for U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) support, Respondent agreed to have his research supervised for a period of two (2) years; Respondent agreed that prior to the submission of an application for PHS support for a research project on which his participation is proposed and prior to his participation in any capacity on PHS-supported research, Respondent shall ensure that a plan for supervision of his duties is submitted to ORI for approval; the supervision plan must be designed to ensure the scientific integrity of his researchcontribution; Respondent agreed that he shall not participate in any PHS-supported research until such a supervision plan is submitted to and approved by ORI; Respondent agreed to maintain responsibility for compliance with the agreed upon supervision plan;

    (2) if within two (2) years from the effective date of the Agreement, Respondent receives PHS support, Respondent agreed that for two (2) years, any institution employing him shall submit, in conjunction with each application for PHS funds, or report, manuscript, or abstract involving PHS-supported research in which Respondent is involved, a certification to ORI that the data provided by Respondent are based on actual experiments or are otherwise legitimately derived and that the data, procedures, and methodology are accurately reported in the application, report, manuscript, or abstract; and

    (3) Respondent agreed not to serve in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant for a period of two (2) years beginning with the effective date of the Agreement.

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