A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Ronald Dorn, a geographer at Arizona State University, has filed a lawsuit against the authors of an article critical of his research according the September 30 issue of the journal Nature. The lawsuit is sure to cast a chill on peer reviews in which research proposals and scholarly manuscripts are critiqued by outside experts as part of the grant-funding or publication process.
The 1998 Science article contended that 80 samples of rock varnish--a coating (consisting of clay minerals, iron and manganese hydroxides and oxides, and small amounts of organic matter) that forms on exposed rock surfaces in deserts--contained pieces of what appeared to be coal and charcoal-like material. Such inclusions could be added to samples to manipulate the radiocarbon dates. It also concluded that the rock-art dating method used by Dorn was flawed.
The suit, for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with prospective economic advantage, was filed on June 25. It names the authors--scientists at the University of Arizona's Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, and Northern Arizona University--and their spouses, a tactic that Nature interprets as "an apparent attempt to maximize potential economic recovery and pressure." According to Nature, Dorn's attorney filed a claim for $482,542 in damages on September 21, alleging that the University of Arizona and the authors had mislabeled, confused, or contaminated 96 rock samples Dorn sent in for dating.
Nature quotes court records of Dorn's claim as saying the authors "intentionally manipulated, omitted and misrepresented data for the purpose of making it appear [he] engaged in professional misconduct and impropriety." Dorn himself is under federal investigation for possible scientific misconduct and has also been probed by his own university, though neither National Science Foundation nor ASU officials would comment on their findings to Nature. In 1996 some of the authors of the Science article had reported suspicions about the work to the National Science Foundation, which had provided much of the funding for it.
Update: The October 29 issue of Science reports that Dorn has been cleared of misconduct by both the National Science Foundation and Arizona State University. An amended complaint filed on October 5 also names scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.