French physicist accused of plagiarism seems set to lose prestigious job

Étienne Klein, a celebrated French physicist and popularizer of science, seems set to lose his post as president of the Institute for Advanced Studies for Science and Technology (IHEST) in Paris after allegations that he plagiarized more than a dozen scientists, philosophers, and writers in books and articles. A source at France’s science and education ministry yesterday confirmed to ScienceInsider that a decree ending Klein’s tenure has been signed by Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and State Secretary Thierry Mandon and is now awaiting the signature of French President François Hollande.

But Klein says he refuses to leave. In an open letter published last week, he wrote that an investigative panel that looked into the matter at Mandon’s request has found no evidence of misconduct and that he sees no reason to step down. “My scientific integrity is absolute,” Klein wrote to ScienceInsider in an email. The report has not been made public.

Klein leads a small group studying science itself at the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) near Paris, but rarely publishes in the scientific literature; his fame stems from books and articles in popular magazines, mostly about physics. He also hosts a weekly radio show about science. Hollande appointed Klein president of IHEST—which seeks to build trust in science and to reflect on its social, economic, and political aspects—in September 2016.

In November, the weekly magazine L’Express reported that Klein had copied passages from French and foreign authors—including Émile Zola, Stefan Zweig, and Bertrand Russell—in a recent biography of Albert Einstein and in several other publications. Klein defended some of the instances but admitted he had made “mistakes” in others; a few days later, L’Express published seven more examples of alleged plagiarism, to which Klein has not responded.

CEA has not investigated the matter. Although the agency features a list of Klein’s books about science and time on its website, a spokesperson says Klein wrote the disputed publications on his own time, not as a CEA researcher. “This is a private matter,” the spokesperson says.

That’s why Mandon asked an independent four-member panel chaired by Michel Cosnard, president of the French High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education (HCERES), to investigate the accusations. Cosnard says the commission finished its work late January and presented its report to Mandon. Then nothing happened for almost 2 months—until Klein published his open letter on 29 March.

In the letter, he quoted a few paragraphs from the report in which the commission said it had not found ethical breaches in Klein’s work for CEA, and that it was “not competent,” and hadn’t been asked to judge whether Klein committed plagiarism in the legal sense. Nonetheless, the commission recommended that he step down from IHEST, Klein wrote, “so as not to cause difficulties for the institute and its important missions.” Klein says he has no intention of doing so. “I don’t want to be judged by the press, but according to the criteria of French law,” he wrote in an email.

Cosnard says he can’t discuss the report; he says he hopes Mandon will make it public. But he confirms that the panel did not wade into the issue of whether Klein’s reuse of other writers broke any laws. “Klein came to the commission with his lawyer,” he says. “We’re not judges, we’re not the police. We’re just four academics.”

Klein says that his book about Einstein contains more than 120 attributed quotes as well, which “proves that I have no problem with quoting someone. What I am being blamed for is due to carelessness or negligence, especially in my file management, not to a conscious desire to plagiarize.”

In a story published last weekL’Express speculates that Klein’s open letter may have been a last-ditch effort to avert his dismissal or delay a decision until after the upcoming elections, in the hope that a new president might save him. But Klein says he’s not aware of any decision to fire him. He says he went public because he had expected the commission to publicly reaffirm his scientific integrity. “That was a key issue for me,” Klein says. “When nothing happened in that regard, I decided to speak out myself.”

As it happens, HCERES will be home to a new French Office of Scientific Integrity (OFIS), announced by Mandon on 22 March. Cosnard says it would not have made a difference for Klein’s case if OFIS had been created earlier; the agency’s mission is to serve as a center of expertise, debate, and assistance for research institutes, but it won’t investigate individual cases of alleged misconduct such as Klein’s.

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