Machine designed to find plagiarism winds up wrecking inventors' careers

May 13, 1993|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

Walter W. Stewart and Ned Feder have created a device whose birth students have dreaded for as long as there have been term papers: a plagiarism-sniffing machine.

But Mr. Stewart, a chemist, and Dr. Feder, a physician and cell biologist, have discovered that sometimes the world doesn't put down its clubs after beating a path to the door of better mouse trap builders.

After some big-name scientists and a prominent historian complained that their exposes were giving scholarship a bad name, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where Mr. Stewart and Dr. Feder were researchers, told them that their laboratory was being closed.

"To say we're being sent into scientific limbo is to put it cheerily," Mr. Stewart said. "We were informed that on May 10 professional packers will pack up all the files and the information in our laboratory and put them into cold storage. Our careers follow."

Mr. Stewart is being reassigned to an NIH lab that works with lasers, a field he knows nothing about. Dr. Feder is to become a grant administrator, reviewing research projects funded by the federal agency.

On Monday, NIH officials ordered the two out of their offices and changed the locks. In protest, Mr. Stewart began a hunger strike on Tuesday.

"My partner was told," Mr. Stewart said, "that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on any errors or problems he might see in published scientific literature. We think that's just what someone who monitors research projects funded with the government's money ought to be doing."

A few weeks before their lab was closed, Dr. Feder and Mr. Stewart were given excellent ratings on their annual job-performance evaluations, plus $9,500 worth of new computer goodies to enhance their plagiarism-detecting program. The straw that broke the plagiarism machine's back was the case of Stephen Oates, a University of Massachusetts history professor and best-selling biographer. Mr. Oates had been investigated by the American Historical Association, the historians' professional organization, on allegations that he lifted material for his biographies of Abraham Lincoln, William Faulkner and Martin Luther King Jr., a charge Mr. Oates denies.

The American Historical Association found that Mr. Oates failed to cite sources he'd used for his Lincoln book properly, but it declined to characterize that as plagiarism. Then Dr. Feder and Mr. Stewart jumped into the controversy, using their computer program to compare Mr. Oates' books with 65 other works in the same fields.

In March, they filed a 1,400-page report with the historical association, accusing Mr. Oates of massive plagiarism. They sent a copy to the historian, who didn't reply to them but got in touch with their bosses.

"Dr. Oates wrote to a number of us here at the NIH, including me," said Earl Laurence, the NIH official who closed Dr. Feder's and Mr. Stewart's laboratory. "Over the last 10 years, I've continually expressed my concerns to them that if this is the line of work they want to pursue, they should find some place else to do it. This is not the inspector general's office."

Mr. Stewart and Dr. Feder said they just happened to get into scholarly snooping in the mid-1980s when they were doing basic biological research at NIH.

"Ned and I were busy dissecting snails," Mr. Stewart said, "when we got an alumni newsletter from Harvard, our alma mater, saying, 'We had a little problem here, but thank goodness we've solved it.' "

Harvard's problem involved a young medical researcher with an incredible bibliography. In 2 1/2 years he had published 122 journal articles, joining scholarly forces with about 47 co-authors.

The researcher was caught faking the data for some of those papers and dismissed. But Mr. Stewart and Dr. Feder wondered why none of his co-authors had blown the whistle.

Many were senior scientists who hadn't helped with the lab work but added their names to the researcher's to help get his papers published. "We thought the case . . . was a fantastic opportunity to see what scientists do when nobody is looking," Mr. Stewart said. "It was like cracking open a fossil."

They wrote a paper on the affair totaling up the errors that they believed the young researcher's co-authors and editors should have caught, concluding that big-time science lacks the policing mechanisms to catch fraud.

They submitted their paper to 16 scientific journals. Every time it arrived on an editor's desk, it was followed by letters from attorneys representing the researcher's co-authors threatening libel suits.

After three years, the prestigious British journal Nature finally took a chance and published Mr. Stewart's and Dr. Feder's study in 1987.

At first, Mr. Stewart and Dr. Feder checked for plagiarism the old-fashioned way, using their own two eyes to spot cheating.

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