Saturday, December 29, 2018

An accused sexual harasser has committed suicide. Who is to blame? [Updated June 2019]

Earlier this month, Rod Scott, a talented plant geneticist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, took his own life. He leaves behind two grieving families: One consisting of three young adult children, whose mother, Scott's ex-partner, died from cancer last fall; the other, a very young daughter and his mother, Scott's current partner.

He also leaves behind many grieving colleagues and students in Bath's department of Biology and Biochemistry, where he earlier served as head of department for many years.

Finally, he leaves behind a number of current and former female students in the department, who say they were the subject of unwanted sexual attention from Scott--behavior which, according to numerous sources, was known by many in the department and by University of Bath officials.

At the time of his death, he was under active investigation by the university for sexual harassment, and had reportedly been suspended during that investigation. I knew about this because, as a reporter looking into allegations of bullying and harassment by several of the department's faculty, I had earlier reported on the allegations concerning Scott. This prompted the university to issue a statement about the situation in Biology and Biochemistry, acknowledging the problems and vaguely describing some of the investigations that had already taken place. These included allegations of bullying, which were more or less upheld, by paleontologist Nick Longrich, who subsequently lost a million pound Leverhulme Trust grant as a result. (Shortly after my own blog post on this development, Nature also reported the news.)

When someone takes their own life, there are usually multiple factors involved. I do not claim to know exactly why Scott took this action (the recent death of the mother of his adult children probably played a role), but there is considerable circumstantial evidence that the sexual harassment allegations against him were also an important factor. For one thing, sources have reported to me that some family members and colleagues are blaming both me as the reporter, and the victims who have made formal or informal accusations against him, for his death. I received an email just the other day from a researcher close to the situation who blamed me directly for causing Scott's death. **

Some readers might assume that I am feeling defensive about this. Here's what I will say: Any death saddens me, and I think the circumstances of Scott's death are tragic because I believe it could have been prevented. And in what I write here, I have tried to respect the privacy of the individuals affected by not naming them and giving as few details as I feel necessary to make clear what happened. On the other hand, such a widespread history of sexual harassment in a university science department is a matter of public concern, and full exposure and transparency is the only way that the culture of harassment will change--something that the #MeToo movement and its supporters have made clear in their advocacy.

But I will make my own accusation: To the extent that the sexual misconduct allegations played a role in his suicide, I blame the University of Bath administration, and certain leaders and colleagues in the department, for not taking the harassment situation in hand much earlier, even though they have known about it for many years. Had victims not been discouraged from filing complaints; had Scott's behavior not been excused time and again with "oh that's just Rod;" had he been issued a serious zero tolerance warning early on, and it made clear to him that his job was in jeopardy if he did not heed it; perhaps then his behavior might have been modified early enough to avoid what has now come to pass.

Instead, department leaders and university officials, through their inaction, gave harassment victims little choice but to contact a reporter and tell him their stories. The system betrayed them, and so they did what was necessary to get the truth out.

Moreover, Scott was not the only harasser in the department. Multiple witnesses also told me about the late Richard Cooper, a plant pathology researcher, who died last fall. Although not quite as notorious in his misconduct as Scott, Cooper was also well-known for harassing female students. (There are allegations against other faculty members, but I have not yet investigated them.)

Nor was Longrich the only accused bully in the department: I also wrote about the case of Stephanie Diezmann, an expert in infectious fungi. Diezmann, who has now moved to the University of Bristol, was cleared by the university of the bullying charges against her, despite clear evidence that should have upheld at least some of them.

A history of years of harassment

After I reported on Longrich's case, I was contacted by two women in the department who told me about Rod Scott's behavior for the first time. They also referred me to other sources, including former students, who had either been harassed by Scott themselves or witnessed him doing it to fellow students. So far, I have talked to five* women--current and former department members--whom I consider direct, first hand sources on Scott's misconduct. In addition, other sources who had known Scott over the years provided insights into his character, personality, and complicated family situations, as well as the culture of the department in general.

(To protect sources, I am not giving details of the numerous incidents of sexual harassment described to me by victims, as the specifics might tend to identify the women involved.)

The direct sources made clear that sexual harassment was endemic in Biology and Biochemistry. Some of this took place at social events, where inevitably a lot of drinking was done. "I have seen gross, lecherous behavior at several social events, by several members of senior male academic staff," one woman told me. In other cases, the harassment was in more private settings, from which the victims found it more difficult to extricate themselves. Yet there have only been a few formal complaints made, for fear of retaliation. Indeed, in at least one case, Scott himself attempted to retaliate against a woman who had filed a complaint against him.

"Sexism is rampant in the department," a source told me. "Especially with older members of staff towards PhD students. The problem is everyone, including myself, is too afraid to speak out, for fear of some form of repercussion in the future."

(Because of fear of retaliation, all of the women I talked to asked to remain anonymous. However, this post relies strictly on first-hand information, and not rumors or second-hand allegations.)

How long has this been going on? My investigation has relied so far on either current members of the department or researchers and students who left the department less than ten years ago. However, based on my reporting, the department and the university (more specifically its Human Resources division) had been aware of allegations concerning Rod Scott since at least 2013. Other sources tell me that it was well known in the department going back until at least 2011 that Scott was a serial sexual harasser. "During my time at Bath, the sexual harassment issues of Rod Scott were very widely known within and beyond the department," says one researcher who was there during that earlier period.

The current head of department, David Tosh, has been aware of Scott's behavior for at least three years and possibly longer, and the deputy head of department, Adele Murrell, had been aware for some time as well. (So far neither Tosh nor Murrell have responded to my requests to talk with them, and the university press office has said it will not comment further beyond acknowledging that various investigations into misconduct have been taking place.)

In fairness, department sources tell me that since the Nick Longrich affair, and my earlier revelations concerning Rod Scott, both Tosh and Bath's HR division have begun taking the situation more seriously, and actively communicating to the department and the university at large about its strict policies against bullying and harassment. Will that make victims of bullying and harassment feel more comfortable about speaking out and, if necessary, filing formal complaints?

That remains to be seen. But as I state above, all of this comes too late to save the life of Rod Scott, a talented scientist, but one who clearly behaved very badly when he was alive. Yet department and university officials waited so long to take the situation in hand, and did so much to discourage victims from speaking out, that, in this #MeToo era, it was inevitable that a deluge of accusations would be released against him--a flood that Scott's already fragile mental state may have been too weak to withstand.

I call this a preventable death; and, based on my reporting, I hold the University of Bath to be largely responsible for it.

* This number is increasing as new witnesses have contacted me since this blog was published, see update below.

** After giving it a lot of thought, I have decided to reproduce here the email I received from a researcher who is the partner of a former faculty member in the department. This and other indications that some were blaming the victims and I for Scott's suicide prompted me to post this blog earlier than I had originally planned, to set the record straight:

You are unbelievable. Not content with causing a man's death, you have to go on twitter to blame his grieving colleagues? You gonna follow this up with an expose on the role his kids played in his death? I can understand not wanting to take responsibility for your actions when they include a year-old baby growing up without her dad but couldn't you for once shut the fuck up? At least until the goddamned holidays are over? ***

In fact, Scott was still trying to hit on female students while he was living with the mother of the baby referred to. I hope it would be clear that anyone who accuses me of being responsible for Scott's death is, in effect, accusing the victims of his harassment of being responsible, since I am simply the messenger helping those women to tell their stories.

*** I made clear to this researcher that his email to me was on the record, because I had not agreed otherwise. After still more reflection, I have decided to identify him. It is Heath O'Brien, a genome evolution researcher at the University of Cardiff, and partner of accused bully Stephanie Diezmann.

Update: As often happens, the publication of this blog post earlier today has led new sources and witnesses to contact me about the situation in Bath's Department of Biology and Biochemistry, and specifically about Rod Scott. I said above that my reporting so far has established that members of the department knew about his behavior going back as early as 2011. The new information indicates that it was widely known among both students and faculty at least 10 years earlier than that. It is truly amazing that this was allowed to go on for so long, and the evidence greatly supports my contention that the department and the university were derelict in their duty to protect students. What continues to be so disturbing is the increasing evidence that senior faculty knew about Scott's bullying and harassment of students, and sexual relationships with them that many considered inappropriate, and yet nothing was done about it.

I would just add that there is a great deal about Scott's behavior and treatment of women over many years that I have been reliably told about but have not included in the above report, in an attempt to keep the focus tightly on actionable misconduct and harassment. It is terrible that he died, but he cannot be sanctified.

Update June 21, 2019: In the months since I first reported on this sad and tragic situation (tragic for Rod Scott's family, and for the victims of his serial sexual predation) new witnesses have approached me with new details that confirm the basic outlines of the story above, and add to it. Some of these new details come from a former PhD student of Rod Scott's I shall call "A." Sources had told me earlier that Scott's inappropriate behavior, including sleeping with students, had begun much earlier, and A--who was a student of Scott's beginning in 2001--corroborated earlier testimony that Scott had a sexual relationship around that time with an undergraduate student I will call "P." A, who was aware of the affair as was, reportedly, much of the biology and biochemistry department, says that she became the subject of severe bullying by Scott at this time, possibly as a result of her knowledge of the affair. This bullying, A says, nearly drove her to suicide.

After Scott's death, A, who had left the University of Bath long before, filed a complaint with Bath's Human Resources department concerning Scott's behavior and the way the university had dealt with the bullying issues at the time. The final report was issued on June 20 of this year,  signed by HR director Richard Brooks. The gist of the report was that since Scott was deceased, there was not much that could be done at this time. HR did, however, interview three witnesses from the time: P herself, her undergraduate supervisor (let's call him R), and James Doughty, a senior lecturer and good friend of Scott's in the department. The report says that none of them could (or would) corroborate A's account.

I have reached out to all three of these individuals, and none have gotten back to me so far. If they do get in touch, I will update this account. But the time has come for me to point out that a number of witnesses have accused Doughty himself of sexual harassment and also of inappropriate sexual relationships with students. According to several sources, Scott and Doughty regularly covered for each other in these situations. For example, when Scott's affair with P became the subject of department gossip, Doughty queried students (including A) to find out how widely the relationship was known.

It appears that sexual predation in the University of Bath department of biology and biochemistry has a very long history, and that the university is still basically covering it up. University officials used the understandable grief over Scott's suicide as a smokescreen for the misconduct that contributed to it, and is still doing so today. And Doughty, by enabling his friend and colleague Rod Scott in his continuing misconduct, may have also unwittingly contributed to his untimely death. But as I argue above, there is no question that the university itself--which turned a blind eye to years of harassment and abuse by its faculty--bears the heaviest responsibility.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

BuzzFeed's win in Steele dossier defamation case: A victory for freedom of the press and, I hope, a rebuke to gatekeeping in journalism

Ben Smith
BuzzFeed has won the defamation lawsuit filed against it by Aleksej Gubarev, owner of Luxembourg-based XBT Holding SA and Florida-based Webzilla Inc., for publishing the so-called "Russia dossier" compiled by Christopher Steele. The dossier, which BuzzFeed made public on January 10, 2017, reports allegations that Gubarev was responsible for cyber attacks on the Democratic Party during the 2016 election.

The decision is a clear victory for freedom of the press and the public's right to know. It should also be a gentle rebuke--and a lesson--to those journalists and pundits who initially criticized BuzzFeed for publishing the dossier, even though its key allegations had not (yet) been substantiated by reporters.

Indeed, in my view, the last two years have served as a clear vindication of BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith's risky decision to publicly reveal the dossier's full contents, very shortly after CNN reported its existence. As he wrote in a note to BuzzFeed's news staff later that evening, "Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers," even though, as the news outlet's accompanying story made clear, "there is serious reason to doubt the allegations." Smith concluded: "But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017."

Of course, not all journalists and editors saw it that way. Smith and BuzzFeed came in for some fairly ferocious criticism, including from the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan--a commentator for whom I have great respect and who has more recently led the way in urging journalists and the media to slice through the lies of the Trump administration. But in a column the following day, Sullivan severely chastised BuzzFeed, arguing that "It's never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo." Yet in my view, Sullivan and others undermined their own argument by pointing out that news organizations and government officials had "known for months that this information, if it can be called that, existed. But despite many attempts, the claims about Trump's behavior and relationships in Russia could not be verified."

Sullivan was far from alone. Jane Martinson of The Guardian made similar arguments in a column the same day, and many journalists employed social media to criticize BuzzFeed on the same grounds. One notable exception was Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, who took to Twitter to support BuzzFeed's decision. "If you oppose the BuzzFeed decision to publish, you need to explain why citizens should not be allowed to see the dossier," Tofel wrote, arguing that once its existence was revealed "the dossier became focus of public debate. What remained was whether the debaters should be allowed to know what they were debating." Columbia Journalism Review's Vanessa Gezari also wrote a spirited defense of BuzzFeed, branding the "media's full-throated condemnation" as "self-righteous and self-serving."

Aleksej Gubarev
In my opinion, Tofel and Gezari summed up the issues very well. In January 2017, politicians (including John McCain), journalists (including most of the major media), and many others in Washington were fully aware of the contents of the Russia dossier. The only ones in the dark were the American public. Thus many journalists and editors made the wrong call in criticizing BuzzFeed, an error that, looking back at what we have learned during the two years since--two years in which the Steele dossier has been a political football for both Trump supporters and opponents--I doubt they would make today.

And given that some journalists and editors (including myself) were vocal in defending BuzzFeed's decision at the time, we cannot be accused of benefiting solely from hindsight. The role of the press is not to serve as gatekeepers of what the public does and does not have the right to know; nor should journalists and editors be gatekeepers within our own profession when an editor makes a difficult but ultimately justifiable decision to publish a document when others declined to do so, for whatever reasons. (I sincerely hope that envy at BuzzFeed's scoop did not play a role in the criticisms, even though some accused the publication of using the dossier as clickbait.)

Whatever the case, Ben Smith and his reporters on the dossier story, Ken Bensinger, Miriam Elder, and Mark Schoofs, should be congratulated for their freedom of press victory, one which benefits us all, journalists and the public alike.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A #STEMToo Rogue's Gallery of sexual harassers, predators, and bullies in the sciences [Continually updated]

Since fall 2015, in collaboration with victims and survivors who have served as primary sources for my stories, I have had the privilege of publicly exposing the following men and women accused of sexual assault, harassment, or bullying. This list does not include a few individuals that I have named on social media, but all allegations I make publicly always based on multiple and credible sources including victims and survivors. The following links refer to my first public mentions of these individuals.

While I started off investigating sexual misconduct for Science and The Verge, I eventually moved most of my #MeToo reporting to my blog. In a September 2019 article for the Columbia Journalism Review, I explain that decision and the criticisms of media coverage of misconduct that led me to go that route.

Update July 10, 2020: Last month I was sued by the subject of one of my more recent investigations, Danielle Kurin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, for $18 million for alleged defamation. University records show that Kurin was put on three months' administrative leave by UCSB in 2016, after being found to have retaliated against students who filed Title IX complaints against her partner, Enmanuel Gomez Choque. I stand firmly by my reporting in that and all the other cases I have worked on. Defending this case will be expensive, and I would be grateful to anyone who could donate to my GoFundMe for legal expenses, and/or share the appeal with others. Thank you.

Brian Richmond, formerly of American Museum of Natural History. Richmond was accused of sexual assault by a colleague he supervised, but the museum did little until Science began an investigation. He was eventually forced to resign.

Miguel Pinto, currently Instituto de Ciencias Biol√≥gicas, Escuela Polit√©cnica Nacional, Ecuador. Pinto was eventually banned from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History after he sexually assaulted a student there.

Robert Baker, Texas Tech, emeritus. Baker had a long history of sexual harassment of students which was only publicly exposed upon his retirement.

William Hylander, formerly emeritus, Duke University. Hylander is another anthropologist with a long history of sexual harassment, about which nothing was done until he was already emeritus. A Title IX investigation ended with him being stripped of his emeritus status at Duke.

Ron Clarke, University of the Witwatersrand. Clarke was given a zero tolerance warning by Wits after evidence surfaced that he had sexually harassed graduate students.

Steven Churchill, Duke University. Churchill was forced to step down as anthropology department chair at Duke after at least one inappropriate relationship with a student.

Rob Blumenschine, Rutgers University. He was given a zero tolerance warning by Wits, with which he was also affiliated, in the same procedure that looked at Ron Clarke's behavior (see above.)

Nick Longrich, University of Bath. Longrich was removed from supervising graduate students after being found guilty of bullying students at Bath. He lost a large Leverhulme Trust grant as a result.

David Lordkipanidze, Georgia National Museum. Lordkipanidze, according to a number of women who talked to me about their experiences with him, committed multiple sexual assaults on women and harassed many more. Amazingly, despite the weight of evidence against him, the IPHES human evolution institute in Tarragona, Spain has now promoted DL to president of its Scientific Advisory Board. This is unlikely to go unchallenged.

Rod Scott, University of Bath. Scott had a long history of sexual harassment of students at Bath. Scott took his own life in December 2018, while being investigated for this behavior.

Stephanie Diezmann, formerly University of Bath, now University of Bristol. Diezmann bullied multiple students although she was let off the hook after an investigation by Bath.

Luiz Loures, formerly of UNAIDS. Loures allegedly sexually assaulted his colleague Martina Brostrom during a meeting in Thailand. An internal investigation let him off the hook, but an external investigation found that senior UNAIDS leaders created a culture of harassment and abuse of power at the agency.

Jean-Jacques Hublin, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. Hublin was accused by a student he had an affair with of sexual misconduct and misleading her about his marital status. Other former students have accused him of harassment, and he also allegedly fired a postdoc in his lab when he began dating Hublin's secretary (of whom he was reportedly very fond.) More recently, Tanya Smith, a highly respected biological anthropologist now at the University of Griffith in Australia, has published her story about how Hublin tried to wreck her career over many years because she did not toe the line about his insistence that no one could ever be independent of him. 

David Yesner, University of Alaska, Anchorage. (I did not break the initial story on this case, but followed it for months and I am doing followup. Yesner became a major flash point when he showed up unexpected at the SAA meetings in Albuquerque.)

Fethi Ahmed, University of the Witwatersrand. Ahmed was dismissed as head of the Wits School of Geography, Archaeology, and Environmental Sciences after being found guilty of gender-based bullying of seven complainants. His dismissal was upheld on appeal.

Deanna Grimstead, Ohio State University. Found guilty by an OSU investigation of sexual harassment of a student in 2015, no apparent action taken, still employed and teaching. Found guilty again last year, in a second Title IX investigation. Finally forced to resign, effective Jan 1, 2020.

Randall White, New York University. Suspended from NYU for a year in the 1990s for a long history of sexual harassment, the whole episode covered up by the university, but not forgotten by those who suffered. I have called upon White to come clean about what he did and the effect it had on young researchers as he retires in August.

Kevin Folta, University of Florida horticulture department, and leading biotech advocate. Although Folta is best known for extensive conflicts of interest in his self-proclaimed role as a "science communicator," there are also multiple witnesses to his having abused his ex-wife while they were married. He was forced to step down as chair of the department in the wake of those revelations.

Michael WestawayUniversity of Queensland in Australia. Bullying, harassment, unethical conduct.

Alan Cooper, ancient DNA, University of Adelaide. Bullying, harassment, unethical behavior. The university launched a "culture check" as a result of publicity about the case and victims coming forward; that inquiry led to Cooper's suspension as director of the lab pending disciplinary action. Update Dec 20, 2019: Cooper has been fired.

Charles Esdaile, University of Liverpool, Department of History. Sexual predation.

James Doughty, University of Bath. A good friend and enabler of the late U of Bath researcher and sexual predator Rod Scott (see above.) Harassment and sleeping with students.

Faye McCallum, Head of School of Education, University of Adelaide. Multiple complaints of bullying of colleagues, harassment, favoritism, preferential treatment, and other abusive and unprofessional behavior. A university inquiry ("culture check") heard the evidence but university officials have done nothing so far.

Sharon Gursky, anthropology, Texas AM. Bullying, unethical behavior including stealing student research ideas.

Bruce Dickson, anthropology, Texas AM, emeritus. Sexual harassment.

Wayne Smith, anthropology, Texas AM, nautical archaeology. Sexual harassment.

Darryl de Ruiter, department chair, anthropology, TAMU. Sexual harassment and bullying, Title IX.

Michael Alvardanthropology, Texas AM. Ethical issues with requiring students to participate in a study involuntarily, bullying and threatening students who expressed concerns about it.

Richard Martin, cultural anthropologist, University of Queensland. Long history of sexual harassment, of which the university is well aware. More to come.

Danielle Kurin and Enmanuel Gomez Choque, University of California, Santa Barbara. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and retaliation against students who reported it. An updated report on later events can be found at this link. Kurin has now sue me for defamation. GoFundMe link with updates here.

Arthur Demarest, MesoAmerica expert, Vanderbilt University. Sexual harassment, attempts at retaliation. More to come.

Alan Lee, graduate student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropology department. Sexual predation, threats against those he suspects of outing him.

Ran Boytner, Executive Director of the Institute for Field Research. Sexual harassment, bullying, racism, sexism, and enabling of sexual assault at one of the archaeology field schools he directs. Update June 2020: Boytner has been fired as IFR executive director by its governing board. 

Peter Rathjen, most recently Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide in Australia. Sexual predation over many years, protecting a pedophile. Forced to step down after a major corruption investigation that has, as they say, rocked Australia.

Pier Paolo Pandolfi, formerly cancer researcher at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, forced to resign for allegations of sexual harassment; just picked up by the Desert Research Institute in Nevada (did they know?) Update June 27, 2020: Corriere della Sera confirms the story

Sam Gue, formerly with University of Adelaide dental school and Women's and Children's Hospital in Adelaide; forced to resign for a years-long history of sexual harassment and bullying. More to come soon.

Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, an Andean archaeologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, former Peruvian culture minister, accused of bullying, sexual harassment, sleeping with students. Castillo's activities have come to light as a result of an investigation by The Harvard Crimson into misconduct by a close collaborator of his, Harvard anthropologist Gary Urton. The survivors of Castillo's abuse have issued a powerful statement about their experiences.

Geoffrey Braswell, UC San Diego anthropologist. Aggravated sexual harassment. Developing story, but when three survivors come to me independently to tell me their stories, it's time to call an abuser out.

Necmi Karul, head of the prehistory department at Istanbul University, and director of important excavations in Turkey including early Neolithic Gobekli Tebe. Sexual harassment, charges filed in July 2020. Update July 16, 2020: The allegations have now broken into the Turkish press. Update July 31: My post on the accusations including a detailed letter from one of the victims translated into English.

Mark Siddall, former curator at the American Museum of Natural History. The museum did the investigation, although it took them years of complaints to get around to it; I was tipped off some months ago and kept updating the story as it went along. Now he is gone.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Letter to an apparently unreformed harasser on rejoining the scientific community

A researcher found guilty by CalTech of "unambiguous gender-based harassment" is threatening to take legal action against me for making truthful statements about him on social media. This is not the first time that a scientist has threatened to sue me and the publications I work for, and it goes with the territory of being a #MeToo reporter; nor is it the first time that someone found guilty of misconduct has similarly threatened the reporters who made the facts public. Nevertheless such attempts to stop exposure of misconduct and rewrite history must be countered whenever possible. Thus this blog post.

From 2008 to 2017, Christian Ott was a theoretical astrophysicist at CalTech in California. When he left in 2017, in the wake of the university's findings that he had harassed two graduate students, he was a full tenured professor. Ott was one of several scientists publicly exposed for harassment in 2015 and 2016; at that time, several science writers, including Jeff Mervis at Science, Azeen Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed, Amy Harmon at the New York Times, and myself (again at Science), broke a number of stories on this subject. The accusations against Ott were first published in Science by Jeff Mervis, who reported that he had been suspended from the university without pay for a year; Azeen Ghorayshi then expanded on this reporting in at least two important articles. In August 2017, Azeen reported that Ott had resigned from CalTech after his projected return to campus was met by student protests.

Ott subsequently obtained a two-year research position at the University of Turku in Finland. However, early this year, he was fired from that job after astronomers in Finland protested (Azeen Ghorayshi again reported this news.)

In October of this year, I saw a Twitter post claiming that Ott was now working at USC. In looking at Ott's Twitter home page, I saw that indeed he described himself as a "Computational & Data Scientist" at USC's Viterbi Data Analytics Certificate Program. I then Tweeted the news that he was at USC, and reminded readers of his history both at CalTech and the University of Turku. Why did I do this? Because I believe that reporters, and anyone else with knowledge of a known harasser's behavior and whereabouts, has a duty to warn possible future victims. To me, this duty to warn is a matter of principle and not just something one should do if it is convenient or lacking in personal risk.

On November 4, Ott emailed me and asked me to delete these "inaccurate tweets." (I am reproducing the full text of his email below in fairness to his position.) Upon learning that he was a student in the USC program and not "working" there, I immediately issued a correction but advised him that he should change his own misleading description of his role there. We then engaged in a series of email exchanges, each of which Ott insisted were private and not for publication. In the last few days, Ott made statements that were clearly intended to signal that he would seek legal action against me. I informed Ott, however, that I did not agree to put the communication off the record (both the reporter and source must agree that communication is "off the record" for it to be so.)

Here is my most recent email to Ott (which makes reference to an article I am planning about the subject of whether harassers can be reformed), and below it is his first email to me. I think they state things clearly. But the most important question is that raised by San Jose State University philosopher Janet Stemwedel in the commentary I link to in my letter to Ott: What does it take for a harasser to be "reformed" and rejoin the scientific community? At a minimum, acceptance of what he or she has done and the effect it has had on the victims.

Dear Mr. Ott,

I believe that the statements I have made about you are correct.

You were found guilty by CalTech of “unambiguous gender-based harassment” and suspended for a year. I used the term “harassment” in my Tweets which is correct. You were not suspended because you used “poor judgement” in advising students, although that might have been true as well, but because you engaged in harassment that seriously affected their lives.

You had hoped to come back to campus after your suspension, but your return was met by student protests. The overall context of events, and even the letter you sent me, make it clear that you did not leave to pursue other opportunities, but because you were no longer welcome on campus by much of the CalTech community. You were a full tenured professor of astronomy at CalTech; your claims that you left “voluntarily” are not credible and true only in a narrow, technical sense that belies the truth of the matter. I believe my statement that you were forced to resign captures that truth very well.

You were hired by the University of Turku and then fired after protests by astronomers in Finland.

The only thing I got wrong, which I immediately corrected upon your pointing it out, was that you are a student in the USC Viterbi program and not “working” there. However, you yourself bear responsibility for that error, due to the misleading description you have maintained on your Twitter home page. There you identify yourself as a “scientist” with the program and not a student. You might consider correcting that erroneous profile, although I have kept a screen shot of the original version.

It’s not my role as a reporter to offer you advice, but I don’t feel good about the fact that a talented astrophysicist such as yourself  now founds himself shunned by the scientific community. But you will have no hopes of rehabilitation as long as you continue to engage in denial about what happened. Might I suggest that you read this very wise commentary on the subject?

I will keep you informed about the progress of my article. As always, all of our communications are on the record as I have not agreed otherwise.

Best of luck,

Michael Balter

Ott's email to me of November 4, 2018:

Dear Mr. Balter,

I'm writing regarding your tweets of October 10. They are inaccurate and
don't reflect the truth.

I was not forced to resign from Caltech for harassment. Caltech did not
find me responsible for sexual harassment.

I made mistakes in the advising of graduate students and displayed poor
judgment. I underwent a program of retraining encompassing more than 100
sessions of executive coaching, mentoring, and counseling. I apologized
to the students involved. I was fully reinstated by Caltech on August 1,
2017 and resigned effective December 31, 2017 to seek opportunities

I don't work at the USC Viterbi Data Analytics Certificate Program. I'm
a student in this program. The other students are working adult
professionals like me. I don't interact with USC undergraduate or
graduate students. Your tweets may have a negative impact on my
participation in this educational program.

I kindly ask you to delete your inaccurate tweets.

Thank You and best regards,

  Christian Ott

Update: This week I had asked CalTech's press office for all public statements it had made concerning the Ott case. Although I had seen various communications distributed to the campus community, I wanted to have their public and official view of things. The press office got back to me today, saying that actually none of the communications had been intended for public dissemination; but that the following letter could be made public. I think it adds in a helpful way to the context I tried to provide above.

To:      The Caltech Community
From:  Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President
            Edward M. Stolper, Provost
Date:   August 1, 2017
Re:      Important Update

In previous notes from us to the campus community, as well as from Professor Fiona Harrison to the PMA division, we promised to keep you informed of the resolution of the disciplinary process regarding Professor Christian Ott and, in particular, his possible reinstatement as a professor. Today, we write to let you know the outcome of that process.
The committee chaired by Professor Jonas Zmuidzinas to evaluate Professor Ott’s readiness to return to campus consulted broadly with Caltech students, postdocs, faculty, staff, and with Professor Ott himself. It submitted a recommendation to Professor Harrison as Chair of the PMA division, who in turn provided her recommendation to the provost for final determination. The recommendations, including evaluations submitted by professional resources, acknowledged that Professor Ott made significant progress with regard to the issues that led to the disciplinary action against him, but also acknowledged that because of his past history at Caltech, Professor Ott remained a divisive element on campus. The recommendations were shared with Professor Ott, who has decided to resign from Caltech, effective December 31, 2017. Dr. Ott’s office will remain off campus through December 31, 2017.
This has been a difficult situation for our community. We appreciate the positive engagement and input of so many students, postdocs, faculty, and staff in the process and we remain committed to fostering an open dialogue on issues that affect the well-being of the Caltech community. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

After more than 20 years in the hands of one researcher, the nearly complete "Little Foot" hominin skeleton from South Africa will finally be open to other scientists at the end of November

Ron Clarke and skull of "Little Foot"/Wits - Wikimedia Commons
In 1994, Ron Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was looking through some museum boxes filled with fossil specimens from the Sterkfontein caves, located about 40 kilometers northwest of the city. Beginning in the 1930s, a number of hominin fossils had been found there, mostly australopithecines, in what South Africans call the Cradle of Humankind.

Clarke quickly realized that four of the fossils, all small toe bones, had been misidentified as belonging to monkeys. They actually belonged to an early hominin, most likely another australopithecine. It quickly became known as "Little Foot."

Over the following years, Clarke, together with his collaborators Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi, searched the cave grotto from which the toes had come, trying to find more fossils. They eventually came across an almost complete hominin skeleton, encased in breccia. Under the official direction of the late Philip Tobias, the legendary Wits paleoanthropologist, Clarke and his colleagues began the slow task of extricating Little Foot's very fragile bones. It would take them nearly 20 years; the skeleton was finally put on brief public display last year.

Over this entire time, as he and his colleagues dug it out of the cave, Clarke had pretty much exclusive access to Little Foot, although he has so far published only very limited descriptions of the fossils. At the end of this month, however, Little Foot will become open access, or as the Wits fossil curator refers to it, "open collaboration." In other words, other teams will be able to study the skeleton and publish their own papers about it. Indeed, one research group, led by Wits paleoanthropologist Lee Berger--leader of the Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi teams in South Africa--has already had access to the skeleton earlier this year, and is expected to publish its results sometime after the open access date of November 28.

At this point I have to pause for a back story that provides important context, that of a long rivalry between Ron Clarke and Lee Berger well known to human evolution experts (even if they might not be aware of all the details.) When it came time for Tobias to retire in the mid 1990s, Clarke and Berger became the main contenders to replace him. During a visit to Wits in 2011 to profile Berger for Science magazine, I interviewed Tobias in his office and he told me the story.

Lee Berger and the cranium of Au. sediba

Tobias told me that the search committee could not decide between Berger and Clarke--individuals with very different skill sets--and so asked him for his opinion. Despite having earlier asked to be kept out of the process, Tobias told me, he agreed to do it. He made up a list of pluses and minuses for both men, and it was pretty close, Tobias said. But on balance Berger, who had done his PhD with Tobias, had a small edge, mainly because he was young, very enthusiastic, personable, and good at raising money; Clarke, very well respected and older than Berger, was a more experienced scientist, Tobias said, but less able to publicly represent paleoanthropology at Wits. (I think that anyone who has seen Berger give a public talk would see what Tobias saw; I was present when he talked to some middle school students in Johannesburg and it was quite amazing to see how brilliantly he conveyed his own enthusiasm for the science.)

But later, Tobias said, he soured on Berger, after he became convinced that the younger man had tried to steal credit for the discovery of Little Foot from Ron Clarke. Tobias told this story to many others, and before long, pretty much the entire biological anthropology community was convinced this was true. However, during my 2011 visit, I spent a lot of time in the Wits archives researching the question, as well as talking to both Berger and Clarke and many others about it. I continued this research for weeks after my return home. Most of my findings ended up on the cutting room floor, because Science thought it was inside baseball. But the bottom line was that the accusations were not true, as the university itself had found during its own, earlier investigation. I assume, however, that Tobias went to his grave still believing them.

That brings us back to the present. Berger had long argued, correctly I think, that the very long period during which Clarke had exclusive access to Little Foot was bad for science, especially after publication of the discovery of Au. sediba in 2010. Although the exact dating of Little Foot has been a matter of fierce controversy, Berger thinks they are relatively close to being contemporaneous. That means that a comparative study of Little Foot, Au. sediba, and other hominin fossils could help to illuminate a key period in human evolution, assuming that the South African hominins were not an evolutionary side show as some have argued. I've talked to many scientists who agree with Berger that it is long past time for Little Foot to be fully published and for others to be allowed to study it.

That is now happening. In a Skype interview earlier this year with Bernhard Zipfel, Wits' curator of fossils, and Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits' deputy vice-chancellor, the two men gave me the details of the open access plan. Vilakazi pointed out that Wits had an obligation under South Africa's heritage laws to make Little Foot available for study, but that policies were fairly loose concerning how long the discoverer of a fossil could have exclusive access. Zipfel said that normally a researcher would have seven years after a fossil was out of the ground, but that the long time it took to extricate Little Foot justified giving Clarke some extra time.

During the conversation, Zipfel said that he preferred the term "open collaboration" to "open access," because the university hoped to foster collaborative studies between different scientists--even between Clarke and Berger, although that does not seem likely to happen. Nevertheless, early this year, Berger's team, after submitting a research application, was given access to Little Foot, which in November 2017 had been moved from Clarke's lab at Sterkfontein to a vault at Wits in Johannesburg (more on that in a moment.)

Berger is understandably reluctant to discuss the situation, especially as his own study of Little Foot will not be published until sometime after the November 28 date and thus he is not free to talk about the results before then. And, according to Zipfel, beginning in 2016 the university had to negotiate a compromise between what Berger wanted--immediate access to Little Foot at that time--and what Clarke wanted, no access at all until he had published his own analyses and descriptions. The early access by Berger's team, but delay in publication, was the compromise arrived at by the university officials in consultation with outside experts.

But in a lengthy email to me relating his views on the process, Clarke made clear that the way it was handled had left a bitter taste in his mouth. Clarke said that Little Foot had been removed from Sterkfontein while he was giving some lectures in China, and that he was informed of this while he was there. (Zipfel confirms this account, adding that neither Clarke nor Berger knew the skeleton had been spirited back to Johannesburg until after it was done.)

Clarke also defended the long time it took him and his colleagues to get Little Foot out of the breccia, which had to be done with air scribes, needles driven by compressed air, to avoid breaking the fragile fossils. Clarke said that Berger's application to study Little Foot, in 2016, was "highly inappropriate" and that this should not have been allowed until after his own publications were in press. (Clarke told me that he expected those papers to be published by November 30.)

I've given this background because I think it is important to understanding how we have finally arrived at what most scientists will surely see as good news: Little Foot will be fully published at long last, and other researchers will be able to study it and draw their own conclusions. Science, and all of humanity, can only benefit.

Update Nov 8: Since this was published, some have pointed out to me that Ron Clarke did not use air scribes exclusively to extricate Little Foot from the breccia, but that he and his colleagues used hammers at least some of the time. This is illustrated in a YouTube video about the skeleton, and I recall seeing hammers used at least briefly during my visit in 2011. This story will be updated as it develops.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

University of Bath acknowledges ongoing misconduct investigations in its Department of Biology & Biochemistry

University of Bath
In recent weeks I have reported on allegations of bullying and sexual harassment in the University of Bath's Department of Biology & Biochemistry, and specifically on two bullying investigations the university has carried out. Today the university press office has acknowledged that it is carrying out additional investigations in the department. One of them probably involves sexual harassment accusations concerning plant geneticist Rod Scott, because my sources at Bath indicate that the university is keenly aware of those allegations. It is possible that other faculty members are implicated as well. I will continue to report as things develop, but meanwhile here is the university statement conveyed to me today. The two completed investigations refer to Nick Longrich on the bullying counts and Stephanie Diezmann on the bullying and destruction of property counts; as I indicated in my earlier reporting, Bath cleared Diezmann of the destruction charge despite uncontested documentary evidence that she had carried out the alleged acts.

A University of Bath spokesperson said: “We can confirm there have been a number of allegations about behaviours that would breach our ‘Dignity and Respect’ policy involving staff and students in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry.

“We do – and will – take all complaints extremely seriously. It is vital people feel comfortable coming forward and reporting under our Dignity and Respect policy. As part of our planned, organisation-wide #NeverOK campaign, we have launched a reporting tool that enables anyone, staff or student, to disclose information. The tool is confidential and available on our website here. In addition, a range of support services are available to any member of the University community.

“We are committed to ensuring that due process is followed. Our HR procedures ensure people involved are treated reasonably, consistently and fairly. We will support affected staff and students throughout the process.

“In fairness to all parties concerned we are not commenting on the detail of ongoing HR investigations, to allow due process to take place.

“Two, separate HR investigations have now been completed. A formal complaint under our Dignity and Respect policy was upheld and a formal, oral warning has been issued. Another investigation relating to allegations of bullying and destruction of property has been completed and found that there had been no misconduct.

“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. We expect all staff members to support and embody our values, including working responsibly and with respect for others and fostering equality, diversity, inclusivity and accessibility at all times.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

University of Bath's mounting problems: Add sexual harassment to bullying [Updated June 2019]

Rod Scott: Accused of sexual harassment
Something stinks in Bath, and its not coming from the Roman spas that gave this city in Somerset, England its famous name. Rather, the rot is coming from the nearby University of Bath and its Department of Biology and Biochemistry.

Last month I reported on the serious bullying allegations against paleontologist Nick Longrich, a faculty member in the department and a researcher in its brand new Milner Centre for Evolution. After the university upheld the bullying complaints and they became public, the Leverhulme Trust--which had awarded a nearly 1 million pound grant to Longrich--rescinded the award.

More recently, I have learned that department member Stephanie Diezmann, an expert in infectious fungi, is under investigation by the university for bullying and destruction of intellectual property. Diezmann is reportedly in the middle of a move to the University of Bristol, but it is not yet clear whether Bath has informed that institution about the allegations against her. (My queries to both the Bath and Bristol university press offices about this have not yet been answered.)

In a department where faculty bully students, can sexual harassment be far behind? The answer is apparently no. I have now talked to several sources who can document that the university--including its human resources department and the head of the Biology and Biochemistry Department, David Tosh--have been aware for at least three years about allegations of sexual harassment of students against Rod Scott, an expert in the molecular genetics of plant reproduction. (Scott is also a former head of the department.) At least two other male faculty members in the department have also allegedly engaged in harassment or other inappropriate behavior, I am told by multiple sources.

To protect victims and witnesses, I am not providing details of the harassment, although I can assert that the allegations are based on solid, credible information from sources whose identities I know. (These are best described as confidential sources, rather than "anonymous" sources.) The sources also allege that the human resources department at Bath has discouraged victims from filing complaints, in both subtle and overt ways. Finally, and most seriously, there are indications that Scott may have tried to retaliate against victims who decided to make complaints.

There are some signs that the university knows it has a serious problem. After the revelations about Nick Longrich, Bath posted confidential contact information for reporting misconduct on its internal Web site (accessible by students, faculty and staff), and made a show of concern. Yet until the university begins to weed out the abusers by willingly making its investigations public and allowing the guilty to be named and possibly fired, students and staff will continue to live in fear of bullying, harassment, and retaliation.

I welcome comments on this blog post, anonymous or otherwise; anyone who contacts me about this can be assured of complete confidentiality.

Important update 5 October:

Yesterday I was informed by the University of Bath press office that the misconduct charges against Stephanie Diezmann had not been upheld after an investigation and disciplinary proceedings. I am reproducing the university's statement below. However, this conclusion was reached despite the fact that the university is in possession of extensive documentation supporting contentions that Diezmann engaged in bullying of at least one student and that she destroyed a student's intellectual property in an apparent act of retaliation. The circumstances of the latter, well documented allegation are particularly serious and there were multiple witnesses to the event. Diezmann will soon move to the University of Bristol which was also allegedly aware of a history of bullying at the time she was hired.

As of this writing, Diezmann has not responded to my request to tell her side of the story.

To protect sources, I will not be able to provide more details at this time. But I do hope that Bristol takes steps to protect students from bullying once Diezmann takes up her new post later this fall.

This is the university response, sent to me by email:

Here’s our statement re the two questions you asked about Stephanie Diezmann.

A University of Bath spokesperson said: “The University can confirm that an investigation has taken place into alleged misconduct by a member of academic staff. The conclusion of a formal disciplinary hearing was that there had been no misconduct. The member of staff concerned has herself made her future employer aware of the investigation and its outcome.”

Friday, September 7, 2018

#MeToo investigation of famed paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze sees light of day at long last

David Lordkipanidze/Wikimedia Commons

It probably does not happen often that a six-month long journalistic investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct against a leading scientist (or any leading figure, for that matter) ends up on the reporter's personal blog. Indeed, it did not have to happen this way. But the series of events I will now describe left only two choices: Bury the story forever, or post it here, where at least I have total control over its contents.

After this introduction, I will post the story itself, modified to fit the current circumstances. But first the history of the investigation, as briefly as I can manage.

In the spring of 2017, a student in Europe sent an email to several hundred anthropologists, accusing a well known human evolution researcher of misconduct during a relationship he had with her. The Verge (Vox media), for which I had already conducted a couple of key sexual misconduct investigations, assigned me to look into it. By then I already had a track record for doing this kind of reporting, largely on the strength of a lengthy investigation for Science focusing on the curator of human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Then, two weeks later, an anthropologist I will call "Diane" posted a personal account on a well known science blog about an experience she had when she was a graduate student. According to Diane, she had been sexually assaulted by the principal investigator at a well known human fossil field site. She did not name her aggressor in the original blog, but later identified him on social media as David Lordkipanidze. After discussions with editors at The Verge, we decided to combine these two stories since they both involved human evolution researchers.

(Note: Although "Diane" gave me permission more than once to name her in my article, as long as I did not directly quote out of her blog post nor refer to its contents more than just briefly, I have decided to spare her extra grief by using a pseudonym. She is aware of this. I have also eliminated any details of the sexual assault she suffered, but the contemporaneous witnesses I cite back up her account of it. For more thoughts on the question of whether victims/survivors of sexual misconduct should be named, please see the Epilogue of this story.) 

After some months, however, it became clear that these were two very different stories, and we decided to split them into two. (The original story has not yet been published, for reasons relating to protecting the student involved. That is all I can say about it here.)

As the investigation wound down and we prepared for publication, I approached Lordkipanidze--whom I have known personally for nearly 20 years--and asked him to comment on the allegations. Lordkipanidze retained an attorney in Atlanta, famed for his aggressive and successful pursuit of defamation claims: L. Lin Wood, perhaps best known for representing the parents of JonBenet Ramsey, and Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused of bombing the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Wood sent a 62 page response to my editors and The Verge's attorneys, in which he denied all of the allegations against Lordkipanidze and cast serious aspersions on my reputation, credibility, and ethics. He also questioned the credibility of Diane and other alleged victims. Wood concluded by assuring The Verge that publication of the story would lead automatically to litigation. Nevertheless, my editor and I continued for at least a couple of additional months preparing the story. But when we had prepared a near-final draft, the attorneys recommended killing the story.

I have promised my editors and the attorneys at The Verge not to discuss the details of why the story was killed, although I was told that I could say we were still on good terms and that the accuracy of my reporting was not being questioned (I was paid in full for it.) And I am confident that the article is fully and multiply sourced. I would be remiss, however, if I did not say that the threats of litigation from L. Lin Wood were highly relevant to the decision not to publish the story. There is no question about that.

After some reflection, I sent the draft to my former editors at Science, even though the publication and I had separated on bad terms--after 25 years of a very close relationship--in the spring of 2016. After about a week, Science got back to me to say they had decided to pass, on the grounds that with a story like this they prefer to work with a reporter from the beginning of the investigation. I have no quarrel with that reasoning and appreciated them considering the story.

I then, late last year, sent the story to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, to whom I had pitched previous stories. I had known Remnick since 2009, when he and the magazine were on the receiving end of a somewhat negative story about them for Science. To his credit, although he was not happy that Science did that story, he apparently no longer held it against me by the time I began pitching ideas to The New Yorker.

Remnick passed the story to the magazine's online science editor, who got in touch. We had a series of lengthy discussions about it, and at least twice The New Yorker appeared to come close to publishing it, with some additional editing and fact checking. But after three months, the magazine finally decided to pass. One reason for the delay in making a decision, I was told, was that the magazine's fact checking department was badly stretched by the big effort needed to handle Ronan Farrow's #MeToo stories (an effort I certainly applaud.) I don't want to disclose my other discussions with the editors there, but again the accuracy of my reporting was never questioned; other considerations came into play, with which I did not agree, but that was that.

That brings us to the present, and the story you will read below. I decided not to try yet another publication, for my sake as well as, mostly importantly, the sake of the victims and other sources who had thought for many months that it would eventually be published. Now it will be, on my terms, although the version here is based largely on the final version we prepared for publication at The Verge

Important note: All sources cited in this story, whether named or not, have given permission for the information attributed to them. I will have some final thoughts about my experiences trying to get this story published at the end of the article.

A blog post, an accusation, a denial

With every passing day, more and more women, and a smaller but significant number of men, are coming forward to describe the myriad ways in which they were victimized by sexual predators. Few areas of human endeavor have been spared: The entertainment industry, the political world, the media, academia, as well as the workaday world where men and women work hard for very little pay. The sciences have not been spared either. Astronomy and astrophysics, molecular biology and microbiology, neuroscience and psychology, are just some of the research fields that have had to confront allegations of sexual misconduct. In many cases, the charges have led to the resignations or firings of high-profile researchers with stellar scientific reputations and long publication records.

For the past three years, researchers who study human evolution have been forced to confront serious allegations of sexual misconduct in their own field. The most visible case was that of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who in December 2016 was forced to resign as curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, after a long investigation into accusations that he had sexually assaulted a colleague and harassed a number of students. Only this summer, after a long search, was the museum able to replace Richmond, with a talented female researcher.

Yet while the Richmond case was ongoing, both women and men in paleoanthropology and related fields such as archaeology were quietly discussing other longstanding allegations of misconduct. Last year, one colleague suddenly decided to go public. On May 2, 2017, Diane (not her real name), an anthropologist at a university in the northeast United States, posted a description of her own experiences on a popular science blog to which she is a regular contributor. Under the heading “In case this helps you: This happened to me while I was trying to become a paleoanthropologist,” Diane described being sexually assaulted in 2003 by the director of a Homo erectus field site.

Diane did not name the site nor the director in her original blog post. But as the link quickly spread on social media, she invited colleagues to ask her who she was talking about. They did, and she responded, “David Lordkipanidze.” He is the leader of excavations at the famed site of Dmanisi in Georgia, about 55 miles southwest of the capital, Tbilisi. Lordkipanidze, who rose to prominence after the discovery of numerous early human skulls and other human fossils at Dmanisi, is also the general director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.

Diane later deleted her blog post, although she has left Lordkipanidze’s name visible on social media and she has not withdrawn the accusation. (In fact she has made it clear to me and to the anthropology community that it was not because anything in the post was inaccurate.)  Meanwhile, my investigation for The Verge uncovered numerous other allegations of sexual misconduct by Lordkipanidze, including a serious charge that he sexually assaulted a colleague in his hotel room during a scientific event in the United States.

Lordkipanidze flatly denies assaulting Diane as well as other women who have made similar charges against him. And a number of Lordkipanidze’s colleagues working at Dmanisi have come to his defense, insisting that they have never observed him engage in misconduct. But others describe a chronic pattern of harassment and inappropriate behavior with women, stretching over a period of at least 15 years. And Diane’s claims are supported by at least four contemporaneous witnesses who say she told them about the alleged assault either immediately or shortly afterwards.

A pattern of sexual misconduct in anthropology, and a fabulous fossil site.

Even before the allegations first surfaced against Richmond in 2015, anthropologists and archaeologists knew their domain of research, which relies heavily on field studies in cradles of human evolution such as Africa and Asia, was particularly susceptible to sexual misconduct. In 2014, four anthropologists published a “Survey of Academic Field Experiences” in the journal PLOSOne. The so-called SAFE study, based on an anonymous online survey, found that 64% of the 666 respondents reported they had suffered sexual harassment while doing the kind of fieldwork fundamental to anthropological and archaeological research. (A sequel to this study, based on interviews with researchers engaged in fieldwork, was published late last year in American Anthropologist.) Thus a number of the alleged episodes involving Richmond took place in Kenya, which, like Dmanisi, hosts a field school which attracts young students from all over the world.

“When the Richmond allegations initially became widely known, the field was already at a heightened state of awareness,” says David Strait, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “The SAFE study had forced men in our field to confront the sobering fact that sexual misconduct, including assault, was a very real problem in our discipline. Women already knew this, of course." 

Researchers have been digging at Dmanisi since the 1980s, when they found remains of ancient plants and animals. In 1991, prehistorians from Georgia and Germany launched a new round of excavations at the site. They got lucky that first year, finding the jawbone of an early human just above a layer of volcanic rock that had earlier been dated to about 1.8 million years old. But other scientists were skeptical: conventional wisdom at that time held that humans had not left Africa much before 1 million years ago. The skepticism persisted even after a human foot bone was found at Dmanisi in 1997.

The site of Dmanisi in Georgia

Two years later, however, the Dmanisi research team—now led by Lordkipandize, the son of a famous Georgian archaeologist—discovered two human skulls in equally old volcanic layers. (I was present at a May 2000 meeting in the south of France where Lordkipanidze presented the skulls publicly for the first time, and I coauthored a news story for Science that accompanied the publication of the skulls in that journal the week after the meeting.) The new finds silenced the skeptics, and established definitively that humans had left Africa much earlier than anyone realized. Most scientists now recognize the skulls as belonging to early members of the species Homo erectus. Further work at Dmanisi, which is still a very active research site, has now uncovered a total of five H. erectus skulls, along with many other early human fossils.

The new discoveries put Dmanisi on the scientific map; researchers and students from all over the world flocked to the site. They also turned Lordkipanidze into a top scientific celebrity, a status greatly enhanced by his power to decide who could work at Dmanisi and who could have access to the fossils and other data.

An exciting summer in the field ends with a sexual assault

In 2003, Diane was a graduate student in the anthropology department at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. She had been fascinated by Homo erectus, friends and colleagues say, and planned to make this pivotal human ancestor her life’s work. She had already published her own studies of H. erectus, and had landed a prestigious graduate student fellowship that allowed her to travel to Dmanisi, the world’s most important H. erectus site. “She was glowing with excitement,” says one of her closest friends from that time, a fellow grad student at Penn State. “She had been so thrilled about her planned PhD project with the Dmanisi material.”

Although Lordkipanidze was still director of the Dmanisi excavations, by 2003 he was spending most of his time at the museum in Tbilisi and not at the site, say several researchers who were working at Dmanisi at the time. His usual habit, they say, was to come shortly before his birthday, which would be celebrated by a large dinner and a party--a Dmanisi tradition that continues to the present day.

One female researcher who was present recalls the events that led up to Lordkipanidze’s alleged assault on Diane. “We went to lunch with [Lordkipanidze] and [Diane] other person,” this researcher says. “He was clearly interested in talking to [Diane.] He enjoyed [Diane's] company. But she was not interested.” The researcher says that she and Diane discussed the situation after lunch and decided to make a plan to protect her, because it seemed clear that during the evening Lordkipanidze’s attentions to Diane were “going to be an issue.”

Sure enough, the researcher says, during the evening party Lordkipanidze “kept trying to get her alone. All evening.” Finally, she says, Diane went upstairs to bed. The researcher followed her up minutes later, but Lordkipanidze had already followed Diane up the stairs and allegedly assaulted her. “We had spent the whole evening trying to avoid that,” she says, describing how upset Diane was at the time.

Adam Van Arsdale, an anthropologist now at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a graduate student at Dmanisi from 2002 to 2005, relates a similar version of events.

“The field team hosted a celebration of our work and of David’s birthday,” he says. “Following the dinner, a group of us were sitting at the large, common table at the field house with David. It was late in the evening at this point and dark outside, but a generator was providing light. At some point the generator went off and the porch area which housed the table more or less went dark.” Van Arsdale says it was not uncommon for the generator to either run out of fuel or be turned off, so he was not alarmed at the time. “With the lights suddenly out, people began moving off in various directions. I moved to the front of the house to continue hanging out with several of the other students. Some short time later, I recall [Diane] joining us, in a clearly agitated state.”

Diane, Van Arsdale says, then described having been assaulted by Lordkipanidze while the lights were out, and gave the group details of what had happened. (Diane described the episode in a similar way in her now deleted blog post.)

“We talked about the event a few times in the days that followed,” Van Arsdale says, “at which point another female graduate student who was with us at the time said that she had been groped by David during [that] evening as well.” (Van Arsdale, who continued to work at Dmanisi until 2011, has published several papers about fossils from the site, including some papers on which Lordkipanidze is a coauthor.)

When Diane returned to Penn State at the end of the summer, she immediately confided in a few trusted colleagues about what had happened. One of them was Pat Shipman, an anthropologist at the university and a well known science writer. “[Diane] talked to me about it,” Shipman says. “She was upset. Sure, now and then an attractive female grad student could expect to receive passes. This went beyond that, an assault, unwanted.” Diane told colleagues that she was not going back to Dmanisi. “It was untenable to continue working at the site” or on the fossils, Shipman says. “That would put her right back in that situation again. It was a potentially dangerous thing to do.”

Diane also talked to her close friend, the Penn State graduate student, about the assault. “She said she was not going back,” the friend recalls. “She was heartbroken. I realized this dream she had was not going to happen. Some man had taken advantage of her and ruined it.”

When Diane went public with her accusations last year, friends and colleagues praised her courage and expressed support on social media. One supporter--anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann of the University of Cape Town in South Africa--tried to draw a broader lesson from Diane's alleged experience and the effects that sexual misconduct have on scientific progress. Addressing Diane on Facebook, Ackermann pointed out that sexual misconduct “can shape not only the life and career trajectory of the victim, but also the direction of the science. Without you studying H. erectus, questions that would have been asked were not. And while you obviously have done remarkable things in other specialties, nonetheless paleoanthropology is poorer for losing your voice.”

Although Lordkipanidze denies assaulting Diane, I spoke with a number of researchers who worked at the site around the same time, during the first half of the 2000s. Several of them described behavior by Lordkipanidze that they considered inappropriate. One female researcher, from a European country, says that in about 2001 or 2002—she cannot recall the exact year—she had to physically shove Lordkipanidze away when he made advances towards her. “He approached me with his hand on my cheek, wanting to kiss me. I pushed him, shoved him, slapped him.”

An alleged sexual assault in the United States

But Lordkipanidze's behavior was not restricted to Dmanisi itself. Another woman says he attacked her at a conference in the United States in 2011. The alleged victim says that following a dinner meeting with Lordkipanidze, he asked her to stop by his hotel room so he could retrieve some literature about Dmanisi for her. Inside the room, after rebuffing one advance from him and thinking he had accepted that she was not interested, the victim suddenly found herself pinned down on a couch with Lordkipanidze forcibly kissing her. "I was terrified," the victim recalls, noting that Lordkipanidze is big and strong. When he finally released her, she jumped off the couch and left the room, returning to her hotel. The victim confided in a friend shortly after the alleged attack, a researcher she knew well. That friend confirmed to me that she had told him about the incident at the time.

Lordkipanidze's colleagues come to his defense

Lordkipanidze has defenders, especially among other members of the Dmanisi team who are still doing research there. Jordi Agusti, a paleontologist at the Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona, Spain, says that he has worked at Dmanisi every year since 2000 yet has “never observed the kind of [inappropriate] behavior” described by some other colleagues. Agusti adds that “this kind of behavior is also highly improbable coming from a Georgian person. Georgians have a deep feeling of the family.”

Lorenzo Rook, a geoscientist and paleontologist at the University of Florence in Italy, who has also worked at the site since 2000, says that “in almost 20 years of working at Dmanisi I have never heard, neither as rumor nor as a direct report, [a] case of sexual misconduct and harassment.”

A third team member, a female anthropologist who asked not to be named, also says that she never saw Lordkipanidze engage in inappropriate behavior. “I did not see anything like that. [Lordkipanidze] was always supportive to me,” she says. “He always respected me. If there was something there I did not know about it.”

During my investigation, I was contacted by three Georgian members of the Dmanisi team, who are also coordinators of a summer field school for students the team has conducted since 2009. In several email exchanges with me, the three—Teona Shelia, Gocha Kiladze, and Ann Margvelashvili—insisted that there was no basis for misconduct allegations against Lordkipanidze or any other member of the team. (Kiladze, in 1999, was the first to spot the glimmer of a human skull in the archaeological sediments at Dmanisi.)

“Since 2010, we continuously collect an anonymous feedback from [field school] participants, where anyone can speak out and address any topic they wish to,” the three wrote, adding that “During these surveys, we never had any complaint in regard to any type of harassment, assault or any displeasure toward the Field School organizers, research members, or participants.” And they vouched for Lordkipanidze’s good character in the most emphatic terms. “Anyone who has ever personally met him can attest that he is always trying to be kind, respectful and helpful to everyone visiting the site, to both female and male scientists.”

As for the specific allegations that have been made against Lordkipanidze, the three stated in a later email, “we cannot exclude a possibility that we must deal with a carefully planned malicious plot to discredit some of the major architects” of Dmanisi’s success. They did not, however, respond to repeated requests to provide evidence for such a plot or possible motivations for why some alleged victims might be falsifying their stories. (And some of these team members helped Lordkipanidze's attorney, L. Lin Wood, and his law firm prepare the 62 page response to the allegations referred to above. In their eagerness, they compromised the identity of at least one possible victim of Lordkipanidze's inappropriate behavior, someone whose name I did not know previously.)

To get a better idea about the atmosphere at Dmanisi in more recent years, I contacted 15 former field school students to ask them about their experiences, including both men and women. Eight of them responded, and of those, four said that they had not seen any behavior they considered inappropriate—although some added that Lordkipanidze was rarely at the site when they were there.***

But the other four, all women who attended the field school in 2015, told a somewhat different story. Each of the four described situations that made them uncomfortable. One says that on the evening of Lordkipanidze’s birthday party, two men she had not seen before arrived for the celebrations. “I had no idea who they were or why they were at the field school, but all the Georgians seemed to know them, so I assumed they were part of the Georgian Museum. It became evident, very quickly, that the only reason they were there was to pick up girls.” The student says that the men focused their attention on two students in particular, although she was not one of them.

A second student says that one evening, in the midst of some heavy drinking, a young Georgian man who was working on the excavations pulled one of her female fellow students away and got her in a location that was out of sight of the others. Shortly afterwards the woman could be heard yelling, and her colleagues had to intervene to pull the man from on top of her. They did not report this episode to the leaders of the field school, however.

A third student says that Lordkipanidze himself engaged in behavior with her that she considered inappropriate. “On a few occasions, under the influence of alcohol, he got a little handsy with me. Not to the point where he couldn’t feign ignorance but enough to make me uncomfortable.” Asked to clarify what she meant by “handsy,” the student added: “He would touch my back casually, and then slide it much lower than is appropriate, at which point I would distance myself pretty fast.”

Dmanisi: An atmosphere charged with sexism and harassment?

While the allegations against Lordkipanidze himself are very serious, the ambience at Dmanisi seems typical of that at many archaeological and paleontological field sites. Some researchers say that the ubiquitous presence of alcoholic beverages exacerbates the problem, providing both an opportunity and an excuse for misconduct. Such a view is expressed by the European researcher who says she had to physically rebuff Lordkipanidze’s advances in 2001 or 2002. The ubiquitous availability of alcohol at Dmanisi, she says, including chacha, a Georgian brandy with at least 40% alcohol content, creates an atmosphere that blurs the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. “When you are drunk you lose the boundaries,” she says.

A male scientist who worked at Dmanisi also describes the party atmosphere at the site. “There were quite often large parties at the field house, especially when international teams would come visit, with music, dancing, and drinking competitions.” During these parties, a second researcher who attended them in those early days says, “whenever I would see [Lordkipanidze] he would be sitting as close as he could sit to a female student or kissing her on the cheek or the neck.” This researcher says that the women would typically be wearing tense smiles, “trying not to offend him. I saw this on a number of occasions, at least five times.” In one case the researcher remembers particularly well, the student “was cringing, cowering into a ball, trying to close off her body physically.”

A third Dmanisi team member from that time says that while he did not directly witness any incidents, Lordkipanidze’s visits “were usually preceded by warnings from senior graduate students, male and female, about his behavior. I think at some point we may have started being more careful about not letting female graduate students get into a situation where this might happen, that is, always being in groups and not letting them get separated or isolated.”

“It was common knowledge that Lordkipanidze was a sexual predator at the field house at Dmanisi, and that sexual harassment was basically institutionalized there and facilitated by his staff,” says another archaeologist who also worked at the site in the early days. “Often times my fellow archaeologists would commiserate about his predatory behavior, but we were very aware that we were guests in a foreign country. To impose our values and ethical standards on another culture, albeit reprehensible in our view, is against a foundational principle of anthropology, the concept of cultural relativism, where we accept cultures on their own terms without judgement.”

[Please see clarification below about the meaning of cultural relativism, which several anthropologists have pointed out is incorrectly defined in the paragraph above]

Added to that concern, a former Dmanisi team member says, was the sheer scientific excitement about working at such an important early human site. “There were about 40 archaeologists there, it was the golden era,” he says. “The sheer number of hominin fossils we were finding in the early and mid 2000s was absolutely staggering, which, like the constant flow of alcohol at Dmanisi, intoxicated all of us, blurring our senses and our ethics.”

It remains to be seen whether public exposure of the long hidden allegations against Lordkipanidze will sharpen the senses of researchers who work there. “Culture change is hard and is dependent on smaller and larger everyday actions by members of the group,” says Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University and immediate past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. While high-profile cases such as Richmond’s and Lordkipanidze’s allow “discussion of a once taboo subject,” she says, too much focus on individuals “runs the risk of allowing each of us to avoid individual responsibility for our role in producing our culture.”

During my investigation, a number of current Dmanisi team members expressed considerable concern that publication of the allegations against Lordkipanidze would damage the important excavations there, and possibly lead to international colleagues shunning the site. Just how the accusations will affect the future of the research at Dmanisi remains to be seen. Yet, as we have seen with the Weinstein case and so many others in recent months, that future may depend heavily on whether those individual team members choose to believe the accusers, or the accused.


Over the months since The Verge killed this story, I have been determined not to let it be buried. While trying to interest another publication in publishing the investigation, I have used social media repeatedly to warn researchers--especially female students--about the danger I see if Lordkipanidze managed to get them alone. In the meantime, the testimony of Diane--who is highly respected in the anthropology community, and whose allegations are widely believed by her colleagues--has raised the consciousness of anthropologists about the situation at Dmanisi and Lordkipanidze's behavior in particular.

As an example, earlier this year the German Academy of Sciences organized a human evolution meeting in the German cities of Leipzig and Halle, which was supposed to take place this coming November. Many illustrious researchers were invited. However, when some of them learned that Lordkipanidze was scheduled to speak during the very first session, at least a half dozen wrote to the Academy to protest and said they would not attend if he was present. In the end, the Academy cancelled (or at least postponed) the meeting rather than face the embarrassment of a boycott and a public scandal.

Moreover, the story I tell above is not complete. There were other victims who told me their stories but are not yet ready to see them in print, even anonymously. They are still recovering from the trauma of their experiences, and they still fear retaliation if they go public.

As for me, my experience with this story has led me to conclude that, since the Weinstein revelations, editors have raised the bar too high for victims who want to speak out about their alleged abuse. When I began writing about sexual misconduct, the longstanding journalistic rule that victims of sexual assault did not have to name themselves to have their stories told was still in force. Indeed, in my article for Science about Brian Richmond, we did not name the principal victim nor others who were victims of harassment (although a brief episode, during which my editors pushed me to pressure the victim into going fully public--which I refused to do--was a major factor in the breakdown of mutual trust between me and that publication.)

Post-Weinstein, most editors I have worked with, and I think others as well, have begun insisting that at least some victims be named. That puts incredible pressure on both victims and reporters, because this really should be a choice. It's a kind of "Me Too" in the worst possible sense, in which the priorities of the publication are privileged over the needs of the victims. I hope that an open discussion of this can take place soon. But for that to happen, the problem has to be identified and recognized.

*** This section involving the students at the field school has been updated based on new information that came to light since the story was first published.

Clarification: Several anthropologists, including one who writes in the Comments below as "Anonymous," have pointed out that the archaeologist quoted in that paragraph was using the term "cultural relativism" in an incorrect and misleading way. As one expert put it, cultural relativism is about understanding a culture, not necessarily accepting all aspects of a culture uncritically. A very interesting discussion of these issues can be found in this post by Jason Antrosio in the blog Living Anthropologically (Full reference: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Cultural Relativism 2011 – DSK, Guinea, & Mike McGovern.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 20 July 2011. Revised 7 September 2017.) A key quote from this article: "...cultural relativism is a method, a way of understanding, but not a philosophy. It is not a way of avoiding judgment, but may actually lead to better judgment.”

Thus the archaeologist quoted also assumed that by harassing and assaulting women, Lordkipanidze was acting according to the norms of his own Georgian culture, which is insulting to that society. I personally agree that this appears to have become an intellectual excuse for not protesting clearly unprincipled and abusive behavior, so as to retain access to the fossils and other data (and to further one's own career.) There is considerable evidence that some non-Georgian members of the Dmanisi team are continuing to overlook bad behavior at the site out of this kind of expediency.