A month earlier, Reich had started on her quest to find fraud. She had pressured Tsoukalas to publish his allegedly negative results.
On March 2, 2006, Tsoukalas got a confirmation of his submission to Nuclear Technology, and he let Reich know immediately. He also prepared to leave the country for two weeks.
“That is great, congratulations,” Reich wrote. “Also good to have it before my story posts — either today or tomorrow. At the moment, I am trying to wait and coordinate so that I can link thru to Naranjo and Putterman’s note, which is still not online but should be soon. Have a lovely holiday in Greece, and please update me how you are when you get back.”
Original online content only at New Energy Times
Five days later, on March 7, Reich sent copies of the stories to Tsoukalas. While traveling, Tsoukalas sent them to his colleague and personal friend Tatjana Jevremovic.
“Lefteri,” Jevremovic wrote, “I am trying to have her change some of the parts that are not accurate and are not good for anyone. Could you contact her as well? Please let me know. Should I call her?”
The Purdue news service got wind of the forthcoming articles on March 7 and notified Dean Katehi and other administrators. Taleyarkhan told New Energy Times that Katehi’s assistant, Edgar Martinez, called him.
“Edgar called and talked with me to alert me and indicated that Mason would like to convene a meeting the next day in the morning,” Taleyarkhan wrote. “I was shaken and downright surprised at the turn of events so rapidly after the March 1, 2006, meeting, which I believed was a successful program review.”
On March 8, 2006, Reich, writing for Nature, in coordination with Kenneth Chang writing for the New York Times the same day, published four stories and a summary that insinuated that Taleyarkhan had committed science fraud. Reich mentioned the March 1 DARPA review meeting but said nothing in her articles about the successful demonstrations that took place on March 1 and 2, witnessed by the guests.
Tsoukalas was pleased. He wrote back to Reich the same day.
“Dear Eugenie,” Tsoukalas wrote, “Thanks so very much. All very well written, indeed excellent stories! NYT’s Ken Chang had a story today about Purdue investigating bubble fusion! Thanks.”
Many phone calls came in for Tsoukalas, Mize told New Energy Times, but he was out of the country and unreachable for comment, which was typical before conflicts flared up, according to Mize.
The day was a nightmare for Taleyarkhan, as he told New Energy Times.
“I was in state of shock, disbelief,” Taleyarkhan wrote. “ I had spoken with family members and some co-authors (I don’t recall exactly who). Jevremovic came to me with an apology, stating, ‘I am really, really sorry for this,’ to which I could only shake my head. There were so many calls coming in for comment while I was still in a state of shock and quite despondent.”
Taleyarkhan did not recall exactly when he read the New York Times and Nature articles, but he knew trouble was coming.
“Having the College of Engineering dean personally call and leave a message that had the tone of extreme concern was a wakeup call,” Taleyarkhan wrote. “I could not sleep that night and many more since.”
Here’s how Chang broke the news (and skirted Nature’s embargo).
According to a March 8, 2006, e-mail that Jeanne Norberg, the director of the Purdue News Service, sent to Ruth Francis, her counterpart at Nature, the following sequence took place the day before, March 7:
“It has been brought to my attention,” Norberg wrote, “that you have been told [by Kenneth Chang] that Purdue broadly issued a public statement yesterday about the articles that appeared in Nature.com today. That is not true. Here is what happened:
“Around noon yesterday, we were contacted by two journalists to whom Nature had given an advance copy of an article. They asked for a statement from Purdue. I obtained a copy of what you had sent to them.
“Our provost then made the following statement [to the two journalists]:
“‘Purdue Provost Sally Mason: Purdue last week initiated a review of this research and the allegations related to it. The research claims involved are very significant, and the concerns expressed are extremely serious. Purdue will explore all aspects of the situation thoroughly and announce the results at the appropriate time. To ensure objectivity, the review is being conducted by Purdue’s Office of the Vice President for Research, which is separate from the College of Engineering.’
“We certainly expected this statement to be published in tandem with a report based on your article after your embargo.
“This morning, as you know, the NYT carried an article saying Purdue is ‘investigating’ the research. It said nothing about the Nature.com article because it was honoring your embargo. I e-mailed the reporter that, because he published our statement out of context, it made it look as though Purdue had sent out a news release announcing this, pre-empting your articles, which was not correct.”
The Purdue news office was in a predicament on Tuesday. It probably did not want to say “No comment” to the two reporters. And it didn’t have the time or the facts to write a full press release. So it gave them the statement from Mason, which, without other information, was published in whatever context the two reporters chose.
Chang had apparently taken some heat from Nature for skirting its embargo, and, by the looks of a partial e-mail thread, he had told Francis that Purdue had issued a press release on Tuesday, rather than the one-paragraph statement from Mason. On receiving that information from Norberg, Francis sent the message thread to staff members at Nature: Jo Marchant, Reich’s editor, Oliver Morton, the chief news-and-features editor, and Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief.
“FYI, more evidence that this journalist [Chang] was pulling the wool over our eyes,” Francis wrote.
Chang, in an e-mail to New Energy Times on March 8, 2006, at 3:55 a.m. Eastern time, confirmed that he had agreed to an embargo with Nature and that Mason’s statement summarized the story.
“Nature has a story coming out this morning that I was not able to mention because it was under embargo,” Chang wrote. “The main angle of the story was Purdue opening an investigation against Rusi. … When Purdue begins a review because of concerns raised by people at the university, that’s news.”
Chang’s story came online at 12:30 a.m. Eastern time. Reich’s came online at 6 a.m. At 7 a.m. Eastern, Reuters was the first news agency to lead with “fraud.” The Reuters story was written by Maggie Fox and ran with the title “University Checks ‘Bubble Fusion’ Fraud Claim.” Two hours later, CNN picked up the “fraud” story. Within 24 hours, the implication that Taleyarkhan had committed research fraud was worldwide and virtually intractable.
The quote given by Mason on Tuesday — in advance of the press release on Wednesday — appeared only on the New York Times and the Reuters Web sites; Reich had shared advance copies of her articles with Fox and Chang.
On Wednesday, Purdue University began an inquiry into the rumors about Taleyarkhan. Mason convened a meeting in her office at 11 a.m. Taleyarkhan attended and assured her of his cooperation, Taleyarkhan told New Energy Times. Mason had told the two reporters the previous day that Purdue had begun a review the week before. New Energy Times knows of no facts to support Mason’s statement that she was referring to a review of Taleyarkhan or his work. On the other hand, professor Sean McDeavitt had filed a grievance on Feb. 27, 2006, against Tsoukalas.
“Mason started the meeting and asked how I was holding up,” Taleyarkhan wrote. “I told her, ‘I could not believe what was happening.’
“What I mean is the fact that my own institution administrator — the head of the school — would be involved in this media attack; that Putterman and Suslick would, after a successful DARPA program review/demonstration, accuse [me] as such, that Nature[‘s news service] would publish such enormously damaging allegations without giving me the ability to go through the time-honored scientific [journal] process that I was taught to follow by my mentors like Dick Lahey, and then via everything I had learned while in industry and while working for the Department of Energy at ORNL; that fellow scientists that I had trusted would become animal-like.
“Mason asked me to hang in there. She said she was furious that Tsoukalas had broken rules of due process per [Purdue University’s Policy on Integrity in Research] and gone to the media to voice concerns of research misconduct.
“Mason turned to the people in the room and stated that she would initiate a series of steps to investigate the accusations made in Nature[‘s news service] by Tsoukalas and Tatjana Jevremovic, another professor in the school. Mason did not mention anything about the Putterman accusation at this time.”
Mason had no idea that Tsoukalas had started his own tribunal in February, according to Taleyarkhan.
“I offered the information to the group that, per my knowledge, Tsoukalas had already started an official Purdue investigation,” Taleyarkhan wrote. “Mason expressed surprise. Her face and complexion changed, she took in a deep breath and then asked if anyone else in the room knew of Tsoukalas’ investigation. Nobody in the room said yes.”
But Tsoukalas had sent an e-mail to Dean Linda Katehi and Peter Dunn, the research integrity officer, on Feb. 24, 2006, telling them all about it. They knew. Katehi participated in the meeting by speakerphone. Dunn was in the room.
Katehi left Purdue less than two months later.
The full Purdue press release came online at about 2 p.m., after Mason’s meeting.
Reich’s articles mentioned nothing about any review or investigation. That text came only from the statement that Norberg had sent out on Tuesday to Reuters and the New York Times. That text, coupled with Reich’s articles, gave Reuters and the New York Times the basis for running the story with the angle they did.
Mason’s hasty statement on Tuesday, while certainly intended to appease the reporters, only made things worse because it officially confirmed an investigation, apparently of Taleyarkhan, although none had started. Mason did not tell the news media that a grievance had been filed against Tsoukalas the previous week.
Reich wrote back to Norberg that day and explained why she hadn’t contacted the Purdue administration in advance. Reich denied that she had suspicions of fraud, saying only that she was aware of differences of opinion and doubts about the science.
“In the course of science reporting,” Reich wrote, “I would never usually contact university administration for an opinion on scientific doubts over work being done within its walls.
“However, I would contact the administration if I was publishing a well-substantiated fraud allegation.
“In my view, making a call to research integrity suggests [that] I think I am dealing with the latter case, not the former case. But while my stories do cast serious doubt over the reality of bubble fusion and the methodology of these authors, there is nothing about fraud in them.
“I can see from today’s stories that other reporters have pushed to try and take the story to the next level by querying you or the administration about research integrity or talking about fraud in their stories. Those are their opinions, but mine was that I did not feel I had conclusive evidence for a breach in research integrity and not enough to justify bringing scientific concerns over the reality of the effect or experimental methods to the administration’s attention.”
On the day the news broke, New Energy Times relied primarily on Google News to observe and determine the time each news story went online. We also analyzed each news story for any original quotes and performed a word comparison between them and the New York Times and Nature stories.
The Reuters story repackaged content from the Nature articles and did no original reporting except for the Mason quote it obtained on Tuesday. The CNN article came online at 9 a.m. and repackaged the Reuters article. At 11 a.m. the United Press International story came online; it was based on the New York Times article. The Associated Press article came online at 2 p.m. Of the three news services, AP was the only one that performed original reporting.
By 11:30 p.m. that evening, Google News reported that the Purdue fraud story had appeared in 54 news outlets. Only four of them appeared to have performed any original reporting on the story.
Until 2013, the United Kingdom had an unusually protective libel law. Until the law changed, even the publication of a true fact or honest opinion that resulted in defamation was not considered a defense in British law. So Reich and Nature had to walk a fine line.
Although Reich did not use the word “fraud” in her articles, everything about the five documents painted that picture, particularly this paragraph:
“Interviews with researchers who have worked closely with Taleyarkhan at Purdue reveal concerns about his actions since he arrived there full-time in 2004,” Reich wrote. “The steps he has taken, they say, include claiming he obtained positive results from equipment on which they had seen only negative data.”
In a confusing e-mail to Tsoukalas on March 20, Reich denied that she had insinuated fraud.
“Regarding ‘fraud,’ I believe my story doesn’t make fraud allegations, and hence there has been no infringement of due process,” Reich wrote. “All it conveys is the fact that the results were negative probably and the circumstances of the claims to the contrary and hence a level of concern over whether the effect is real and the work is valid.”