Court rejects defamation suit against IUSB professor

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A lawsuit between two IU South Bend professors has ended after more than two years in court.

The Indiana Supreme Court upheld a decision made by the St. Joseph County Circuit Court in favor of Mark Fox. Fox, a professor of management and entrepreneurship with the university’s Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics, said that he had found what appeared to be instances of plagiarism in an academic journal article written by two Leighton School colleagues.

Fox notified the university’s Research Integrity Office about the article, written by Peter Aghimien and Douglas Agbetsiafa. Fox also mentioned the claims in emails to other IUSB colleagues, as well as created an anonymous blog that pointed out examples of possible plagiarism in other articles written by Agbetsiafa.

Aghimien is a professor of accounting at the school. He was also chair of the school’s accounting department at the time. Agbetsiafa was a professor and former chair of the economics department.

A university statement made to the South Bend Tribune said that Agbetsiafa was terminated from his faculty position at IUSB on Jan. 18, 2014. An investigation by the university’s Research Integrity Officer had found that he committed research misconduct by including plagiarized material in published research.

Aghimien was cleared by the university of any wrongdoing. He and his wife, Mabel Aghimien, then filed suit against Fox in July 2014. The Aghimiens alleged Fox had defamed Peter Aghimien in the blog and in the emails to colleagues.

In December 2015, the St. Joseph County Circuit Court granted summary judgement for Fox and entered judgement against the Aghimiens on all counts.

“Fox posted what anyone else could have found if they conducted the same thorough research,” said Judge Michael G. Gotsch in court documents regarding Fox’s blog.

Regarding the emails that Fox sent to colleagues, the trial court ruled that sending these emails “was not only important but necessary as a member of the professorial team and thus meets the qualified privilege standard.”

Attempts for comment from Peter Aghimien went unanswered. Fox released a press release online after the Indiana Supreme Court released its judgement.

“The rulings by both the trial court and the appellate courts should serve as a wake-up call to universities, including Indiana University, that whistleblowers should not be muzzled from making allegations of plagiarism more public,” Fox said in the press release. “IU itself found that I made allegations against Aghimien in good faith. IU did find plagiarism in an article co-authored by Aghimien but, for reasons best known to IU, they cleared Aghimien of any wrongdoing. And subsequently, the Indiana courts found [the] Aghimiens’ claims of defamation against me had no legal merit.

“I have spent the best part of the last five years dealing with the IU research integrity process and with the Aghimiens’ meritless lawsuit. I am thankful to finally be vindicated by the courts and gratified by the support I have received from many colleagues. I wish that I had received more support from IU and its Research Integrity Office, and I hope IU provides more support to those raising valid claims of plagiarism in the future. Otherwise, those having good-faith claims of plagiarism may remain silent, which would be harmful to institutions of higher learning like IU.”

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