INTERVIEW BY AMY KATES
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LUKE COPPING
Q: I have a confession—I have no idea what
“scientific misconduct” means.
A: Neither did I. A good friend of mine, a
wonderful lawyer, came to me after he was
consulted for a scientific misconduct case out of
SUNY Buffalo. When he called I said, “What the
heck is scientific misconduct?”
What it generally means—and it applies to
all scientists that generate work—is any type of
publication or study in which they are accused of
plagiarism or fraud in relation to their studies and
how they’re conducting them. Anything that would
indicate that they are not being truthful throughout
the process of their scientific endeavors.
I got involved in that initial case. As a result, my
practice has really changed from criminal and First
Amendment to now handling a significant number of
defense of scientific misconduct cases. My practice is
still mainly criminal and First Amendment, but added
to that is scientific misconduct.
Q: From defending criminals to scientists—seems
like quite the departure.
A: It is a strange departure, but it’s a very fun
and challenging one. Many of the cases I’ve been
involved with are allegations that the scientist
engaged in fraud or cut corners, that he or she
altered data to get to a result that they wanted
to get to, that they lied about the number
of participants in their studies, or that they
plagiarized information or fabricated data.
That first case I was brought in on, the research
scientist was engaged in studying various types
of therapy for drug and alcohol addiction. He was
accused of fabricating the number of participants
in the study and thereby creating fake data for
those participants. I was involved in that for many
years. It’s a very long, drawn-out process when
you’re accused of scientific misconduct.
Why scientific misconduct lawyer Barry Nelson Covert
knows more about space dust than you do
It’s been very interesting work. The universities that
I have been involved with include Columbia, Harvard,
North Carolina State, University of California,
University of Colorado, Colorado State University,
and numerous cases in the SUNY system. You have
to use your skills as you’ve been trained as a criminal
lawyer to try to gather the overall picture of what’s
going on: Who are the players involved? What are
their motives? Is this a rival that’s trying to take down
my client because there is a fight over grant money?
Is there personal motivation? For some reason, does
somebody hate somebody else? Or are the accusers
trying to cover up their own fabrications and trying to
throw the blame onto my client?
Q: So it’s typically a scientist-on-scientist
accusation, right? Because how would a regular
Joe detect junk science?
A: Correct. Often it’s scientists that are accusing
other scientists of some level of misconduct. Quite
often, it’s because of rivalries.
Q: Interesting. I wouldn’t imagine that type of
behavior in that community.
A: The first case I was involved in, for SUNY Buffalo, I
was shocked that scientists are just like the rest of us.
They have the same jealousies, the same frailties, the
same shortcomings. It was eye-opening.
Q: You’re strictly working on the defense side?
A: Yes. More often than not, the scientist that I
represent is no longer at that university because
the allegations were either raised after the scientist
left, or the scientist left because of the allegations.
So now the university has to decide between the
credibility of the employees that are still there,
scientists or research assistants, and figure out if
they are more credible than the scientist who’s the
subject of these proceedings.