Disgraced Harvard professor Francesca Gino’s $25 million lawsuit will scare researchers away from calling out suspected fraud, scholars fear

  • Francesca Gino is suing Harvard and bloggers who accused her of data fraud for $25 million.
  • Gino claims the university and bloggers at Data Colada worked “to destroy my career and reputation.
  • “Some scholars worry that the lawsuit will hinder future attempts to root out fraud in the field.

Francesca Gino has filed a $25 million lawsuit against Harvard and the bloggers who accused her of data fraud. According to the Harvard professor, they “worked together to destroy my career and reputation.”

The lawsuit was filed almost two months after Harvard placed Gino, a world-renowned behavioral scientist, on two years of unpaid administrative leave. Gino was investigated by Harvard in July 2021 after Data Colada, a blog dedicated to exposing shoddy research, approached the university about apparent anomalies in four of her studies. After Gino was placed on leave, Data Colada published a series of posts about him, claiming to have discovered “evidence of fraud in papers spanning over a decade.”

“I want to be very clear: I have never, ever falsified data or engaged in any kind of research misconduct of any kind,” Gino wrote on LinkedIn on Wednesday. She claimed that Harvard and the Data Colada professors — Uri Simonsohn, Joe Simmons, and Leif Nelson — “reached outrageous conclusions based entirely on inference, assumption, and implausible leaps of logic.”

Many academics are skeptical of Gino’s claims. Furthermore, some fear that the lawsuit, particularly as it relates to Data Colada, will stymie future efforts to root out fraud in the field.

“I don’t see how anyone would trust science if scientists don’t allow each other to raise concerns about each other’s work and point out red flags,” said Simine Vazire, a University of Melbourne professor of psychology, ethics, and well-being. “We can’t be taken seriously if we keep that quiet.”

The downfall of an elite Harvard professor

Gino had previously been an academic celebrity, researching hot topics such as why people cheat and how to appear important at work. She wrote two books, gave dozens of corporate lectures to companies like Disney and Goldman Sachs, and even had her lecture repackaged as in-flight entertainment by Alaska Airlines. She is an incredibly prolific researcher, having published over 140 academic papers. She earned more than $1 million as a professor at Harvard Business School during the 2019-20 academic year.

All of this is jeopardized by allegations of fraud. With one exception, all of Gino’s ongoing contracts for speaking and consulting were canceled in recent weeks, according to the complaint. In addition, her third book’s release date has been pushed back a year, to 2025, according to the complaint. Her academic reputation has suffered as a result. In an article published earlier this week, Michael Sanders, a professor of public policy at King’s College London, told Insider that many in the field believed the only thing left to discover was how many times she had forged data — just the four times exposed by Data Colada or in “20, 50, 100 cases.”

“The damage is beyond comparison to what I’ve seen in other cases – I’ve never seen this type of ‘off with their head’ response before the trial is finished,” Gino’s attorney Andrew T. Miltenberg told Insider.

Gino is suing Harvard on several counts, including breach of contract, Title IX violation, and defamation.

She contends that Harvard’s investigation was biased from the start. (Harvard did not respond.) In August 2021, shortly after Data Colada informed Harvard of their concerns about Gino, the university instituted a “onerous” new fraud policy “motivated by gender, in violation of Title IX.” Gino claims Harvard never proved she “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” committed fraud, as required by the new policy. According to the complaint, Gino was told by several Harvard colleagues, including Gary Pisano, a professor of business administration at HBS, that the outcome of the investigation “would have been different if she had been a male.” Gino claims that after the investigation was completed, Harvard defamed her by putting her on administrative leave and issuing retraction notices for “discrepancies” in her data.

Gino also accuses Data Colada of defamation, claiming that the researchers made “false and defamatory statements” in a report shared privately with Harvard in late 2021, then again in a series of posts published by the blog in June.

Data Colada reported on a series of anomalies in Gino’s data in the June blog posts. (In the 2021 report, the professors shared a similar analysis with Harvard.) In one 2015 study, for example, 20 of 488 students who completed a questionnaire wrote that their school year was “Harvard,” rather than when they would graduate. One person could have been an error, but twenty raised red flags for Data Colada. It just so happened that students who stated their class year as “Harvard” were more likely to confirm the researchers’ hypothesis, leading Data Colada to conclude that the data had been tampered with.

In the complaint, an independent forensic firm hired by Harvard discovered even more inconsistencies, such as a number of participants being removed from a later data set.

“The case that it’s been manipulated seems, from my perspective, to be a strong one,” Sanders, of King’s College London, said on Thursday.

Gino offers alternative explanations for anomalies in the lawsuit, such as responses being originally collected on paper or errors on the part of research assistants. Perhaps the students in the 2015 study were simply rushing through the study in order to get paid. According to the complaint, one of Data Colada’s researchers, Simonsohn, an ESADE Business School professor of behavioral science, publicly admitted there was no evidence Gino committed the fraud.

“Nobody has unambiguously claimed that this was Francesca Gino’s doing,” Simonsohn said in a July YouTube discussion about fraud, though his “belief is that she did it.” But there is no proof.” “Perhaps someone else did it in her computer,” he added.

Insider reached out to Simonsohn, Simmons, and Nelson for comment, but they did not respond. On Friday, Simmons, a Wharton professor, tweeted: “The lawsuit: 1. The allegations are obviously without merit.” 2. This will not prevent us from carrying out our duties. 3. What would our science look like if you were able to successfully sue/defame its zealous critics/whistleblowers? We’re not going to learn anything.”

Some worry the lawsuit will make exposing data fraud even more difficult

Gino is not the first high-profile professor accused of unethical behavior by Data Colada. Gino, on the other hand, is the first to file a lawsuit.

“Reputational damage can be career-ending, and one should not be able to essentially assassinate someone’s character without being subjected to fair and due process — both within trusted institutions and within our judicial system,” Miltenberg said.

While Gino has a large number of supporters on LinkedIn, many academics remain skeptical of the professor and her decision to sue Data Colada. “Very little of what I am thinking about this lawsuit is suitable for a family-friendly publication,” Nick Brown, a data detective who conducts similar analysis as Data Colada, told Insider.

After years of scholars pushing for greater transparency and rigor in research practices, some in the field are concerned that the $25 million case will make it more difficult to speak out against fraud in academia. Vazire, a professor at the University of Melbourne, takes issue with the claim that criticizing Gino is sexist.

“I despise that because it implies that, as a woman scholar, critics will treat me with kid gloves,” Vazire said.

The lawsuit will “make all critics think twice before going public with a criticism in general,” according to Vazire, “but probably especially if the target of the criticism is a woman.”

“That deflates anyone’s desire to uncover evidence of research malpractice,” Sanders said. “You’d have to be insane to go near that as a junior scholar, if you might be named as a defendant in a $25 million lawsuit.”

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