Last week, Buzzfeed broke the news that leading anti-smoking and anti-vaping research, Stanton Glantz, had been sued by his former postdoc, Eunice Neeley, for sexual harassment, racial discrimination and academic misconduct. The article and other coverage appear to be based entirely on the complaint filed in a California court and a blog post by Glantz in which he denies all charges; no other information appears to be public at this time. Glanz is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Neeley filed a complaint with the university, as did one other junior researcher according to Glantz’s post, and there are rumors of possible further complaints or lawsuits.
Glantz has long been one of the leading creators of anti-smoking junk science (e.g., claiming that tightening indoor smoking bans can eliminate half of the heart attacks in a population and that depictions of smoking in movies cause a hundred thousand teenagers to start smoking every year). He was quite late to join the anti-vaping bandwagon, and for a while it appeared he might not direct his enormous propaganda machine at vaping at all. But over the last few years, he has also become the leading source of anti-vaping junk science.
Anything that diminishes Glantz’s stature is good news for vapers and for harm reduction efforts. He has been the leading purveyor of the myths that there is evidence of a gateway effect from vaping to smoking, that the droplets in vapor have the health effects of particulate matter and that vaping actually decreases the success of smoking cessation. He has been repeatedly informed about how he is misinterpreting the science in each of these and other anti-vaping claims, but he persists in repeating the same disinformation.
The lawsuit alleges that Glantz engaged in persistent leering at women who worked for him, made discomfiting sexual references in conversation and uninvitedly hugged women who worked for him. If true, this is certainly creepy behavior and probably violates university rules and perhaps California law. It is understandable why someone experiencing this would ask to be assigned to another supervisor, as Neeley did. But these alleged behaviors fall short of the allegations of criminal sexual acts or abuse of power to coerce sexual relationships that have recently made headlines about politicians, celebrities and others. It seems likely that a senior professor with millions of dollars in grant money could weather these accusations, however disturbing they might be.
The racial discrimination alleged in the lawsuit (Neeley is African-American) seems even weaker. The allegations include a couple of remarks by Glantz that are, at worst, rude insensitivity to issues of race. The only claim of active racial discrimination is that Glantz subjected the papers of two non-white postdocs to greater scrutiny than that of their white peers, but this is difficult to substantiate and the response could simply be that their work genuinely required greater editing.
While sex and race accusations make for more spectacular headlines, it is actually the accusations about Glantz’s actions as a professor and researcher that are much more damning and a greater threat to his future. The relationship of an academic mentor with his advisees is not merely an employer-employee relationship. There are legitimate paternalistic expectations. Thus when Neeley made formal accusations, regardless of whether they were true or he considered them important, Glantz’s obligation was to help her by facilitating her requested reassignment to another adviser and avoiding actions that caused her further distress. Instead, according to the complaint, he demanded that he maintain substantial control over her work even after she was assigned to another adviser, which required continuing contact. According to the complaint, the university took affirmative actions to back his position.
What is worse, according to the complaint, is that Glantz transitioned from this to full-on academic fraud. He allegedly demanded that he be listed as an author on Neeley’s future research, which meant that he was either demanding she to keep working closely with him against her wishes, or he was demanding he be given credit for papers he did not contribute to. Regarding the paper Neeley had already completed under Glantz’s supervision, the complaint suggests Glantz tried to impose conditions and force interactions that were anathema to Neeley in order to force her to relinquish her own work. Indeed, Glantz then proceeded (according to the complaint, and this is so easy to prove that it seems extremely unlikely to be inaccurate) to misappropriate Neeley’s paper, and submit it for publication in a journal under his own name, without her knowledge or permission and without even listing her as an author.
If true, this is blatant plagiarism and academic fraud. The complaint also claims that Neeley was made aware of Glantz’s intention to steal credit for another one of her papers also. Regardless of the he-said she-said challenges of sexual harassment allegations, and regardless of debates about the subtleties of the duty of an academic adviser, there is no possible way to justify taking credit for someone else’s writing. It would be a bright-line violation of academic rules and ethics. The university cannot conceivably ignore such an act and maintain its credibility as an academic institution. Assuming this one easily-proved claim is true, regardless of the other allegations, is seems that the university must “encourage” Glantz to take retirement (he is 71 years old) or fire him if he refuses.
The University of California turned a blind eye to Glantz’s alleged pattern of scientific fraud, promoting patent junk science, for decades. They enjoyed their cut of his profits from the tobacco control gravy train. Similarly, they could finesse away complaints about boorish behavior. But it will be extremely difficult for them to ignore bright-line academic misconduct if the charges prove true.
It is a bit like Al Capone being taken out for tax evasion rather than murder. But whether it is sexual misconduct charges that stick, or the technical details about authorship, if Glantz is in fact guilty, taking him out will be a huge boon to science, real public health and vaping.
[Note: This article is adapted from a longer and more detailed blog post.]