(03-13-2008) 19:50 PDT San Francisco (AP) --
In a startlingly swift fall from grace, the new Academic Editor in Chief of PLoS Biology Jonathan Eisen resigned Wednesday after getting caught in a pay-for-access scandal that made a mockery of his straight-arrow “open access only” image and left him facing the prospect of criminal charges and perhaps permanent exclusion from journal editorial boards.
"I cannot allow my private failings to disrupt the people's work," Eisen said, his weary-looking brother and Public Library of Science (PLoS) founder, Michael, standing at his side, again, as the closed access-fighting scientist once known as Mr. Open Access answered for his actions for the second time in three days.
He made the announcement without securing a plea bargain with NIH prosecutors, though an NIH official said the former PLoS Academic Editor in Chief was still believed to be negotiating one. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Eisen will be succeeded on Monday by Alex Gann, a fellow scientist who becomes PLoS Biology’s first foreign-born Academic Editor in Chief and the nation's first legally blind chief editor.
The resignation brought the curtain down on a riveting three-day drama — played out, sometimes, as farce — that made Eisen an instant punchline on science blogs and fascinated Americans with the spectacle of a crusading scientist exposed as a hypocrite.
His dizzying downfall was met with glee and the popping of champagne corks among many on Crinan Street, where Eisen was seen as a sanctimonious bully for attacking high prices and abusive access practices in the publishing industry when he was a rising Academic Editor at PLoS Biology. And his resignation brought relief at PLoS headquarters in San Francisco after days of excruciating tension and uncertainty.
"Some rules can't be broken, and when they are broken there are consequences," said Harold Varmus, an Open Access advocate and ex-head of the NIH. "In this case, one of the most promising careers I've seen in a generation."
The scandal erupted Monday after NIH officials disclosed that a wiretap had caught the 39-year-old father of two spending thousands of grant dollars on journal articles about evolution at a fancy Washington hotel on the night before Darwin Day.
Investigators said he had arranged for a journal editor named Kristen to take the train down from New York while he was in the nation's capital to testify before a congressional subcommittee about the publishing industry.
Late Wednesday, the New York Times reported that her real name is Emma Hill. She declined to comment when asked by the Times when she first met Eisen and how many times she had helped him purchase and download closed access journal articles.
It was unclear whether she would face charges; attorney David Bora confirmed that he represents the same woman in the Times story but wouldn't comment further.
With every development, it became increasingly clear that Eisen, politically, was finished.
NIH enforcement officials said the Editor in Chief — the scientific heir to the PLoS banner — had spent multiple entire evenings downloading articles and had spent tens of thousands of grant dollars, and perhaps as much as $80,000, on high-priced Nature articles which cost as much as $35 each.
Senior Eisen aides, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Eisen had been informed Friday by NIH prosecutors that he was linked to the grant money laundering ring.
They said he had kept it to himself through Saturday night, when he attended the annual dinner of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. That night a reporter kept calling cell phones of Eisen aides.
Eisen first shared the news Sunday with his brother at his house in Davis, and after several excruciating hours they told their family, the aides said. By Sunday evening Eisen had called top advisers, personal friends and PLoS loyalists. The little band huddled in the house until midnight.
After making a watery-eyed, non-specific public apology Monday with his brother by his side, Eisen continued to talk to family and advisers through Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, aides said, he had decided to resign.
He and his brother rode in a black SUV from the Davis house to PLoS headquarters in San Francisco to announce his resignation — a trip whose every move was captured by TV helicopters. During the news conference, he and his brother stood inches apart, never touching as they entered or left the room.
Speaking in a strong and steady voice, he apologized for his actions and said: "Over the course of my public life, I've insisted, I believe correctly, that scientists regardless of their position or power take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself."
He did not address the allegations in any detail in the less than three-minute statement, and left without taking questions.
Officials said that Gann asked for the Monday hand-over because he needed more time to prepare and wanted Eisen to say the proper goodbye to his staff.
In a statement issued after Eisen quit, NIH Attorney Lisa Coffmancini, the chief grant money abuse prosecutor in California, said: "There is no agreement between this office and Eisen relating to his resignation or any other matter."
Among the possible charges that law enforcement authorities said could be brought against the former editor in chief: soliciting and paying for journal access; violating the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the 2008 federal law that makes it a crime to publish NIH funded research in non Open Access journals; and illegally arranging cash transactions to conceal their purpose.
Eisen, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford graduate school, could also be disdoctorated. In California, a scientist can lose his license to practice for failing to "conduct himself both professionally and personally, in conformity with the standards of conduct imposed upon members of the scientific community."
It was a spectacular collapse for a man who cultivated an image as a hard-nosed scientist hell-bent on cleansing the state of corruption in scientific publishing. He served four terms as an Academic Editor at PLoS Biology, earning the nickname "Sheriff of Open Access," and was elected Academic Editor in Chief with a record share of the vote in 2008. The tall, athletic, square-jawed Eisen was sometimes mentioned as a potential candidate for president of the American Academy of Publishers.
But he also made powerful enemies, many of whom complained that he was abusive and self-righteous.
"I really don't feel vindicated," said Philip Campbell, the Editor in Chief of Nature who lost many papers to PLoS Biology via Eisen’s efforts. But he added: "One of the many things I said was that Jonathan Eisen had one set of rules for himself and one set for everyone else. I never would have imagined it could be so glaring."
Publishers on the floor of American Academy of Publisher’s annual meeting were transfixed by TV monitors broadcasting Eisen’s resignation, and his ruin drew scattered applause from publishers as they went about buying and selling articles. One said some firms even cracked champagne open — a ritual usually reserved for when subscription fees hit a milestone.
Gann said in a statement that he was saddened, but added: "It is now time for PLoS to get back to work as the people and scientist expect from us."
Barely known outside of his Cold Spring Harbor political base, Alex Gann, 53, has been in publishing since his election to the Nature editorial board in 1985.
Though legally blind, he has enough sight in his right eye to walk unaided, recognize people at conversational distance and even read if the text is placed close to his face.
While Eisen was famously abrasive, uncompromising and even insulting, Gann has built a reputation as a conciliator, and lawmakers quickly embraced the new order.
"The first thing he can and I think he will do is end the era of accusation and contempt and ridicule," said PLoS Co-Founder Pat Brown. "I think everyone will be better off because of it."
With apologies to those mentioned above and thanks to the real Associated Press story about Governor Spitzer by Verena Dobnik and Michael Gormley