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Illustrating Complex Science Stories
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Playing the Watchdog and Plumbing for Documents
By Tom Zeller Jr. / 4 minute read
The story of Ohio State University’s Dr. Carlo Croce is Shakespearean. He had long enjoyed a reputation as a lion of cancer research, but a less visible record of misconduct allegations and charges of data falsification burst into the open in the spring of 2017, when the science reporter James Glanz and the data reporter Agustin Armendariz dropped a nearly 5,000-word bombshell on the front page of The New York Times under the headline “Years of Ethics Charges, but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass.”
Funded by more than $86 million in federal research grants, which in turn bestowed millions of dollars on Ohio State (and perhaps provided a disincentive for the university to vigorously investigate any charges against its celebrated cancer researcher), Croce was described as a “case study of the complex and often countervailing forces at work as science seeks to police itself.” But the Times story itself was a case study in how the fundamentals of investigative reporting, and the editing structure supporting it, can and should be adroitly applied to science journalism.
In their reporting, Glanz and Armendariz conducted a sweep of any and all available public records related to Croce. Ohio, it turned out, “is paradise for open documents,” Glanz told the editor Susan Lehman in a deconstruction of the story published in The Times the following day. (Glanz declined to discuss the story with me directly, on the advice of Times counsel.) Of course, as any journalist knows, public-records laws are often only reluctantly followed by the governments and public institutions compelled to act on them. But in this case, the reporters got lucky in late 2016, with a bumper crop of emailed documents related to Croce’s work. “The documents arrived,” Armendariz told Lehman, “and lights just started shooting out of the box.”
The lights that emerged from those documents, as well as from deep dives into other publicly available databases — including at the University of California at San Francisco’s Tobacco Control Archive, which contains decades of records — was a tale of a researcher with a knack for drawing money, and a university captured by what seemed to be a clear conflict of interest in being Croce’s arbiter when charges of misconduct surfaced. (Science editors take note: There are lots of universities out there, and there are lots of Croces.)
The story had a long afterlife: Croce sued the Times, and the reporters, for libel. The case was dismissed, appealed, and thrown out again in 2019. (As it happens, Croce has recently been sued for unpaid fees by the law firm that represented him.) More important, the story illustrates the role that science editors and their reporters can play in keeping the practice of science — which involves, after all, billions of dollars in federal funding — on the straight and narrow. Sure, there are other watchdogs: for example, the Office of Research Integrity, in the Department of Health and Human Services, is nominally charged with investigating instances of research misconduct, mostly in areas of health and medicine. But in many cases, it falls to individual universities to investigate their own, and there are real questions as to how well and how vigorously these institutions do that, particularly with faculty members who draw big research grants, money from which is always peeled off for the institution’s general use.
Ivan Oransky may well know this better than anyone. Having founded Retraction Watch in 2010, he and his collaborator, Adam Marcus, have spent a decade tracking fraud and corruption in science. One thing he’s learned is that, like the Catholic Church, the university system has a way of passing bad actors around. This was, in fact, the subject of an investigative piece jointly produced by Retraction Watch and Undark in 2018, and it all started with looking through science journals’ retractions.
“Adam and I have built a whole thing … around finding problems in science that are hiding in plain sight, right? Retraction notices. I mean, there are 1,500 of these a year,” Oransky said. “Are they all interesting? No. But there are far more of them than Adam and I — and even if you add the small but really growing and really smart group of reporters who are also thinking that way now — can handle. So, like, go to town. We have a database. It’s openly available.”
Meanwhile, multiple editors and reporters I spoke with say the Freedom of Information Act is underused in science reporting. “I think at a high level,” Oransky said, “FOIA is a really important tool for science reporting, just as it is for other kinds of reporting.” Keep in mind that most public research universities are subject to FOIA by dint of being public.
The importance of enterprise journalism is easy to forget in a discipline often doubly tasked with covering the detection of a black hole or a previously unknown organism in the deep ocean. Those stories matter, too — and they have clear economic value. After all, they are the bread and butter of science sections, drawing readers and eyeballs in ways that many other stories cannot. But science editors are uniquely positioned to task their reporters, at least some of the time, with peering into the corners of the scientific enterprise that individual researchers, universities, and regulators would prefer remain in the dark. As an editor, point your reporters to databases where they can dig for leads. Set goals for filing FOIAs — even as fishing expeditions; you never know what you might catch. And remind your teams to always be skeptical, inquisitive, enterprising, and tough. (Also, I agree with Glanz: Raise some hell.)
Cultivating these sorts of sensibilities in a team of reporters should be every science editor’s goal, the British science writer Angela Saini told me — especially if their team is young, or they don’t have a lot of experience covering other topics. She didn’t have that problem. “I was lucky because before I went into fund [nonprofit-supported] journalism, I was working with the BBC. And one of my jobs was … to doorstep people. I don’t know if you have a phrase for that in the U.S., but it’s essentially where there’s some provocative story and you have to turn up to a politician’s house early in the morning, wait for them to leave, and then confront them. It’s not a fun thing to do, and they usually make the youngest person do it.
“But you learned very quickly to not take ‘no’ for an answer.”