Harvard Professor Sues University for Defamation Over Misconduct Allegations

A superstar Harvard Business School professor accused of research misconduct has filed a defamation lawsuit against Harvard University, the school’s dean, and the three blog authors who levied the allegations.

Tenured faculty member Dr. Francesca Gino—a famous leadership expert and author of two books plus more than 100 scholarly research papers—filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on August 2 after HBS had placed her on administrative leave. Oddly enough, she stands accused of falsifying data used for a 2012 study about honesty.

We first covered Dr. Gino here on BSchools almost five years ago in our January 2019 review of the best new books for MBAs. PwC’s strategy+business had named her bestseller Rebel Talent—a book about her research on the effects of rule-breaking—as one of their top seven business books of that year, and best book of the year in their Strategy category.

Dr. Gino earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Trento, followed by a PhD from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa in 2004. Then she taught and conducted research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Carnegie Mellon University before joining the Harvard Business School faculty in 2010.

An expert on the psychology of organizations, at HBS she served as a professor of management and organizational behavior as well as the director of the Negotiation, Organizations and Markets (NOM) unit. For three years, she also served as editor-in-chief of the scholarly journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

What Counts Does the Complaint Contain?

Defendants in her $25 million litigation include three non-Harvard professors who publish a behavioral economics blog they call Data Colada. In a series of June 2023 blog posts, they allege research misconduct because they assert that at least four studies published by Dr. Gino contain suspect data.

Her 255-page amended complaint claims that Harvard had essentially hit her with a gag order, admonishing her not to advocate publicly for herself while the business school’s “confidential” investigation of her research was in progress. But now, Dr. Gino has finally broken her silence. In a LinkedIn post released on the day of her court filing, she wrote:

I want to be very clear: I have never, ever falsified data or engaged in research misconduct of any kind.

Today I had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Harvard University and members of the Data Colada group, who worked together to destroy my career and reputation despite admitting they have no evidence proving their allegations.

While claiming to stand for process excellence, they reached outrageous conclusions based entirely on inference, assumption, and implausible leaps of logic.

They created and perpetuated a false narrative about my ethics and integrity, which has had a devastating impact on my friends, colleagues, collaborators and, most of all, my family.

Like her LinkedIn statement, her lawsuit’s complaint asserts that she did not engage in any sort of data fraud. Against all defendants, five of the twelve counts that make up the bulk of the issues claim defamation and civil conspiracy to commit defamation. Of the seven counts against Harvard, four counts claim breach of contract, bad faith, estoppel, and violations of her rights to privacy.

Two additional counts against Harvard claim intentional interference with Dr. Gino’s contractual relations, such as with her corporate consulting and public speaking contracts and a book deal.

Finally, one more count claims employment discrimination in an institution receiving federal funding under Title IX of the civil rights legislation 20 U.S.C. § 1681; in this count, she’s specifically alleging illegal discrimination because of her gender.

Who Are the Defendants?

Besides naming the President and Fellows of Harvard College as defendants, the complaint specifically names Dean Srikant Datar of the Harvard Business School plus the three blog collaborators. They include Dr. Joseph Simmons, a professor of applied statistics and operations, information and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; Dr. Leif Nelson, a business administration professor with the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley; and a professor in the Department of Operations, Innovation and Data Sciences within the ESADE Business School at Barcelona’s Ramon Llull University, Dr. Uri Simonsohn.

What Are the Damages?

The $25 million measure of damages appears to be derived from the discounted present value of Dr. Gino’s lost earnings for the remainder of her career.

Harvard has never fired a tenured professor. But according to the complaint, Harvard’s “administrative leave” status wipes out her entire salary from her endowed chair as the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration, plus her faculty appointments with the Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation and the university’s Mind, Brain, and Behavior initiative; her combined salary from these sources exceeded $1 million annually. Furthermore, her next book release has been delayed until 2024, and all but one of her consulting projects and speaking engagements for major corporate clients have been put on hold.

Additionally, Dr. Gino wants compensation from the defendants for several torts that include damage to her reputation and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), and she specifically wants the court to compel the defendants to correct the public record.

What Claims Does Her Litigation Allege?

Her case is complicated. In 2021, the Data Colada group of professors claimed to have found anomalies in a 2012 paper where she was among the authors. That paper was later retracted, although not because of Dr. Gino’s involvement.

Then, in July of that year, Data Colada allegedly contacted Harvard about other papers where Dr. Gino was listed as an author. Her complaint alleges that without her knowledge, Data Colada had threatened to contact the media with negative publicity that would impact HBS—unless the business school agreed to conduct an investigation of Dr. Gino’s research subject to a new and more restrictive employment review policy created specifically for this situation.

The complaint asserts that HBS then agreed to disclose their investigation’s results to Data Colada upon the investigation’s conclusion. At that point, the group would then be free to “publicly disparage plaintiff’s work and professional reputation on its blog.”

However, under the new review policy as depicted in the complaint and document exhibits, “research misconduct” was defined as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism” in “proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results,” and excludes “honest error.” That language meant that Harvard had to prove that Dr. Gino committed some sort of fabrication or falsification “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly,” and that the transgression also constituted a “significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community.”

Even under the more restrictive terms of this new policy, HBS and Data Colada couldn’t prove that Dr. Gino engaged in research misconduct under this definition, because that proof would have required evidence that they apparently don’t have. Incredibly, Dr. Simonsohn even admits in a July 2023 interview on YouTube conducted by the International Association for Conflict Management that there was “no evidence” that Professor Gino manipulated data. At 8:42 in the interview, he says:

Nobody has unambiguously claimed that this was Francesca Gino’s doing . . . The retractions don’t say that. They just say data she had and data she posted. Uh, my belief is that she did it, but there’s no evidence of that. But it doesn’t really matter.

Furthermore, the complaint asserts that her accusers couldn’t even find one professional colleague who had worked with Dr. Gino, was interviewed for the investigation, and who testified that they had observed research misconduct by her or any of her team members.

The filing also argues that Dr. Gino wasn’t even directly involved with the data for all of these research projects. That’s because she had relied on specialist graduate research assistants to prepare, sort, and clean the data and prepare it for analysis—a common division-of-labor practice consistent with those of other professors in her field. And no evidence was introduced during the investigation that her lab’s culture incentivized or motivated these research assistants to manipulate the data.

The complaint then contends that when HBS couldn’t prove that Dr. Gino had engaged in misconduct by at least a preponderance of the evidence, the school then shifted the burden of proof during the hearings to require that she would have to prove her innocence. This is the opposite of how the burden of proof is typically assigned in the American legal system, such as in criminal cases.

Her complaint also says that after the conclusion of the hearings, her leave was extended to two years without pay, and she was even barred from setting foot on Harvard’s campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education next published an article reporting ostensibly confidential details about Dr. Gino’s sudden administrative leave. And Data Colada then unleashed a series of four blog posts about Dr. Gino in which—despite the open admission during Dr. Simonsohn’s YouTube interview that “no evidence” of misconduct exists—they wrote about “four studies for which we had accumulated the strongest evidence of fraud. We believe that many more Gino-authored papers contain fake data. Perhaps dozens.”

Dr. Gino’s counsel Andrew Miltenberg of the high-profile New York law firm Nesenoff & Miltenberg, said in a statement to the media that Harvard’s “lack of integrity in its review process stripped Professor Gino of her rights, career and reputation—and failed miserably with respect to gender equity.” He continued:

The bias and uneven application of oversight in this case is appalling. . .Harvard’s complete and utter disregard for evidence, due process and confidentiality should frighten all academic researchers.

And her Harvard Business School colleague Dr. Frances Frei, a technology and operations management professor, told the Washington Post that even though her adversaries couldn’t prove she had done anything wrong, Dr. Gino had her life shattered.

“As a fellow professor and researcher, it is disturbing and frankly terrifying,” said Dr. Frei. “If this can happen to her, it can happen to anyone.”

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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