Colleague accuses UF citrus research center head of stealing data for article
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 12:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 2:09 p.m.
HAINES CITY - One of the most powerful officials in Florida citrus research faces a University of Florida investigation on allegations she used a colleague's data in a professional journal article without proper attribution.
Jackie Burns is the director of two major UF research facilities — the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred and the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee — and oversees all citrus-related research for the university.
Both facilities are part of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), one of UF's largest academic subsidiaries.
"In a publication, she reported data from our lab as her own data without our knowledge, and additionally she stated she and her (co-author) did experiments that they did not do," William Dawson, a plant pathologist at the Lake Alfred center, wrote in an August email to UF's chief auditor, Brian Mikell. "She stole data and lied in a publication."
After The Ledger attempted to contact Mikell and other UF officials to discuss Dawson's allegations, the university Wednesday issued a statement but declined to discuss the matter further.
"UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science considers scientific integrity to be fundamental to its research mission. It is unclear why allegations regarding scientific integrity, which date back to 2009, have not been examined previously," the statement said.
"The University of Florida, with IFAS' full cooperation, is looking into the substance of the allegations and the handling of the matter from 2009 until now," it added. "UF's vice president for research has begun an investigation to determine the facts so that UF can take appropriate action."
Burns on Monday acknowledged she failed to attribute to Dawson some parts of an article she and her post-doctoral assistant, Madhulika Sagaram, published in the March 2009 Journal of the American Society of Horticulture Science. Sagaram no longer works at the Lake Alfred center, and Burns declined to give information on her current whereabouts.
Burns maintained Dawson freely shared the information used in the article and attributed the error to lack of communication between the two researchers and their assistants. There wasn't any "malicious intent," she said.
"There was no intent to steal data," Burns said. "I felt we were acting in good faith. Clearly he did not. I certainly agree we should have acknowledged he gave us access to his plants."
Burns also told The Ledger she reported the dispute to top UF officials in the spring of 2009, as soon as Dawson raised objections about her using his data in the article. She said she spoke with Joseph Joyce, IFAS associate vice president, its second highest executive.
Joyce did not return a Tuesday call from The Ledger. Other calls were referred to UF Director of Public Affairs Janine Sikes, who provided Wednesday's statement.
The Ledger also obtained documents from Allan Burrage, a disgruntled former computer technician Burns fired in March. The documents show he reported Dawson's allegation in December to his superior, Dan Cromer, IFAS director of information technologies.
Burrage contacted The Ledger last month and accused his employer of firing him because he blew the whistle on Burns concerning Dawson's charge and on allegations of mismanagement. Burrage acknowledged and documents show Burns fired him on charges he had mishandled switching over the Lake Alfred center's independent computer network to the main UF system in 2011.
Dawson told The Ledger on Wednesday that no top UF official, including Joyce, Cromer and Mikell, has ever spoken with him concerning his intellectual-property theft allegations against Burns.
Dawson said he didn't accept Burns' explanation that she didn't intend to steal his data, and he maintained the problem went beyond her using his plants.
"If you are drunk and driving and run over somebody, you can say you didn't mean it, but you're still responsible," he said. "That wouldn't hold up in court."
Wherever the truth lies, theft of intellectual property is a grave academic offense, said Susan Blum, a professor and chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of Notre Dame who wrote the book "My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture."
"It's very serious. It's a complete ethical and moral violation," Blum said.
Various UF documents refer to Dawson's and Burrage's charges as "plagiarism," but the term generally refers to using words and ideas without attributing them to the original source, she said. Taking data without permission amounts to intellectual theft, Blum said.
There's no standard punishment for such a theft or plagiarism, she said, and some academics found guilty of those charges have held onto their jobs. However, universities often treat such offenses involving top officials more harshly.
If the allegations proved true, Blum said, "If I were the person in charge, I would certainly remove her from her position (as director)."
There's also no standard regarding a university's obligation to investigate a complaint coming from a third-party source, such as Burrage, she said.
"You would think so, but there's always politics," Blum said.
Burns and Dawson agreed they and their post-doctoral assistants collaborated frequently on research that led to Burns' 2009 article, which concerned a method of detecting citrus greening on trees before symptoms become visible.
Greening is a deadly bacterial disease that threatens the future of Florida's commercial citrus industry. It causes the tree to produce bitter, malformed fruit unfit for consumption.
Dawson said he freely gave Burns and her assistants supervised access to his greenhouses containing greening-infected trees, which was part of his research into how many citrus varieties were vulnerable to greening bacteria.
At the time, Burns needed Dawson's help because the U.S. Department of Agriculture had classified greening as a "select agent." That meant licenses and special facilities were required to handle infected material. The USDA had licensed Dawson, but not Burns, to handle select agents.
The USDA subsequently removed greening from the select agent list after infected trees surfaced in commercial groves across Florida. Estimates put the disease's current spread to as many as two-thirds of the state's commercial citrus trees.
Dawson said he freely offered Burns and her staff access to his plants and research into the bacteria's "host range," or which varieties become infected. Greening did not surface in Florida until the fall of 2005, and one of the early research efforts was to find whether some citrus varieties showed resistance to infection.
He shared his research, Dawson said, with the understanding Burns' research involved the early detection of greening. More than that was published in the 2009 Journal of Horticulture article.
"What she chose to do is report the host range data," he said.
Dawson pointed to Table 1 in Burns' article, which listed 20 citrus varieties from Dawson's greenhouse at the Lake Alfred center and the severity of symptoms.
The symptom severity data came from his research, Dawson said, and it wasn't properly attributed in the table or text elsewhere in the article.
The article also states Burns confirmed the results by using a common test for greening called "PCR analysis." Dawson says she could not have done so without select agent licensing.
Burns said she and her assistants observed the trees to get the symptom-severity data, and that is noted in a footnote. She said that information wasn't taken from Dawson.
The article also discusses previous research on citrus varieties susceptible to greening infection and adds, "Our report generally confirms these findings and extends this list to include an additional seven citrus species and citrus relatives categorized as mild, two citrus species as moderate, and three citrus species and hybrids as severe in symptom severity (Table 1)."
Burns lifted that from his research, Dawson said.
"She's saying she tested plant species and found more than other people did. Clearly she's saying she did things she didn't do," he said.
Dawson said he confronted Burns on use of his data, and Burns said she contacted the journal in an attempt to withdraw the article. She was told the issue had already gone to press.
He was particularly angry, Dawson said, because he had used the same data in a paper he submitted to the professional journal Phytopathology. Publication of the data in the horticulture journal raised the chance Phytopathology editors would reject his article, he said. That didn't happen, however, and it appeared in the December 2009 issue.
CHOSE NOT TO PURSUE
Dawson said he decided not to pursue his complaints because he didn't want to destroy Burns' chances for promotion from the interim director post at the Lake Alfred center she held at the time. She became the Lake Alfred director in April 2011 and the director at the Immokalee center in August.
"It was an insult to us but not so egregious that it was worth getting someone fired or destroying a career," Dawson said.
Dawson said he did not want to see an article on the dispute published in The Ledger but spoke willingly about it.
He said he wrote the August email to Mikell because he thought Burns might have treated Burrage unfairly. He also emailed a copy to the state Human Relations Commission in support of Burrage's complaint.
Dawson shared his complaint against Burns with Burrage and other Lake Alfred faculty members, he said, but he would name only one, Jim Syvertsen, professor of plant physiology.
When contacted by The Ledger on Tuesday, Syvertsen confirmed his conversation with Dawson and expressed anger at the newspaper for pursuing the story, characterizing it as "yellow journalism."
Syvertsen described the incident as a misunderstanding and claimed other issues were involved, including Dawson's motivations, but he declined to elaborate. Syvertsen said he did not discuss the matter with other UF officials.
"I think both of these people are truthful people," Syvertsen said. "I think he (Dawson) believes it to be true."
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at email@example.com or at 863-422-6800.
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