Charles O. Ogindo filed the civil lawsuit in state Supreme Court in May seeking $200 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages and attorney's fees. He is suing Binghamton University; his former adviser, Professor John J. Eisch; former chemistry department Chairman David C. Doetschman; Director of Graduate Studies Wayne E. Jones Jr.; and chemistry department Chairman Alistair J. Lees. T. Ogindo, 39, entered BU's doctoral program in 2004 after passing his course work, cumulative and oral exams, and submitting his dissertation prospectus, he said. With a timetable of defending his dissertation in December 2005, Ogindo said, he planned to receive his Ph.D. in 2006. But he never graduated. Instead, he claims the results of two experiments he implemented -- including one that was the crux of his dissertation -- were published by his adviser, Eisch, without including Ogindo as a co-author. Eisch is a distinguished professor of organic chemistry who has been at BU since 1972. Ogindo said he was then denied the opportunity to defend his dissertation for dubious reasons, which has left his academic and professional future in limbo.

Ph.D. Student Suing BU, says Prof Stole His Work


Chemist seeks $202 million in damages

Charles Ogindo, PhD student, BUCharles Ogindo, 39, of Sherburne, a former Binghamton University doctoral student, is suing the university and some of its professors over research he says was published without listing him as a co-author.

First comment on Ogindo's lab technique to reproduce Somnath Dutta original findings:
Accordingly, your inability to reproduce his work is unequivocal proof that after two years in our laboratory, you still do not have the necessary technique and experimental care to work with organometallic compounds in a successful and reliable way. ... Therefore, I request that you immediately cease laboratory experimentation in any of my labs... -- Professor John J. Eisch, chemistry, Binghamton University

Second comment is a clear contradiction from the first statement, and does show that Ogindo's lab technique was not a problem and his work is of quality:
Eventually, Eisch came to agree that Somnath Dutta's original findings were wrong and Ogindo was right -- but not before disciplining Ogindo and finally removing him from the program.

Ogindo on prof. Eisch action to remove him from the graduate program:
That is why the only way he can appropriate it is if I gave up and left it for him -- or if he tried to show that I was so ungifted a student as to be incapable of that. -- Charles Ogindo, doctoral candidate in chemistry, Binghamton University

Meanwhile...
While Eisch refused to co-author the papers submitted by Ogindo, he did publish his own papers on the same experiments, Ogindo said. Though Eisch proposed the topic of Ogindo's dissertation and advised on experiments that needed to be performed, he said, it was his own experiments on that topic that led to a unique discovery, which Eisch at first ridiculed.

By Debbie Swartz (Sunday, October 21, 2007)

VESTAL -- Contending that his work was stolen and that he was forced out of a doctoral program, a former graduate student has filed a $202 million lawsuit against Binghamton University and four of its current and former staff members.

Charles O. Ogindo filed the civil lawsuit in state Supreme Court in May seeking $200 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages and attorney's fees. For the case to continue, he will have to re-file it in the state's Court of Claims after a Friday pre-trial hearing before Judge Ferris D. Lebous determined the state Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over the matter.

Ogindo intends to persevere.

He is suing Binghamton University; his former adviser, Professor John J. Eisch; former chemistry department Chairman David C. Doetschman; Director of Graduate Studies Wayne E. Jones Jr.; and chemistry department Chairman Alistair J. Lees.

Ogindo, 39, entered BU's doctoral program in 2004 after passing his course work, cumulative and oral exams, and submitting his dissertation prospectus, he said. With a timetable of defending his dissertation in December 2005, Ogindo said, he planned to receive his Ph.D. in 2006.

But he never graduated.

Instead, he claims the results of two experiments he implemented -- including one that was the crux of his dissertation -- were published by his adviser, Eisch, without including Ogindo as a co-author. Eisch is a distinguished professor of organic chemistry who has been at BU since 1972.

Ogindo said he was then denied the opportunity to defend his dissertation for dubious reasons, which has left his academic and professional future in limbo.

The information supplied in his dissertation, he claims, is worth $200 million on the U.S. market alone. His research involved the development of safer and less expensive methods for transforming raw materials in fine chemicals -- including pharmaceutical drugs -- and conducting polymers.

Citing the ongoing litigation, BU would not comment on the case, but according to court records, Assistant Attorney General Mary A. Walsh -- who represents the state-funded school -- denied the allegations and questioned the court's jurisdiction.

The defendants would not comment on the lawsuit or the allegations, Eisch said in an e-mail, "until this case has been resolved by court action."

"The Attorney General's office, we have been advised, does not try to plead their cases in the media," he added.

Eventually, Eisch came to agree that Somnath Dutta's original findings were wrong and Ogindo was right -- but not before disciplining Ogindo and finally removing him from the program.

A Question of Authority

Reports of professors, and specifically academic advisers, pilfering work or plagiarizing -- even from graduate students -- are not unheard of, according to a 2004 special report by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The problems associated with instances of alleged theft or plagiarism are varied, the report said, for a myriad of reasons, including:

  1. Questions over jurisdiction, especially when dealing with state-funded universities.
  2. Confusion over the university's process in its internal handling of the cases.
  3. Fear of professional fallout from accusations, especially if it involves a well-known faculty member.

"The result is that people who believe they are victims of plagiarism are often left wondering where -- or whether -- to bring their complaints," the report states.

Ogindo's case is not the first of its kind, said Mark Levy, a Binghamton attorney who specializes in intellectual property. Levy has not been retained to represent Ogindo.

Some students sue and are successful, though most choose not to out of fear for their professional future, said Gina Gullace, Levy's research assistant.

"It's a dangerous position to be in," she said. "It can ruin you professionally."

One case that mirrors Ogindo's allegations took place in Michigan, Gullace said. Carolyn Phinney, a researcher in psychology, was awarded $1.67 million in 1997 after suing the University of Michigan and two faculty members, according to published reports.

Phinney's supervisor at the university's Institute of Gerontology, Marion Perlmutter, stole the research and Phinney's grant applications and claimed them as her own. When Phinney complained to university officials, the institute's director, Richard Adelman, told her she would be dismissed if she didn't cease her grievance. Phinney was later dismissed by Perlmutter.

The Michigan case is atypical, Levy said, because the plaintiff won against both the university and the faculty members. In the cases of students filing lawsuits for intellectual property theft, Levy said, most of the success is in suing the professor and not the university.

"The question is, did the university benefit from using this material unlawfully?" he said.

The nature of the relationship between a student and a professor is unequal, Levy said, which can exacerbate problematic issues.

"There's certainly an imbalance of power between a student and a professor," he said.

The fissure can be even greater for those in marginalized groups, Gullace said. "A lot of the people who sue in the sciences are women," she said.

Ogindo, who is from Kenya, made no accusations of discrimination against Eisch, who has recently mentored several international students from Africa.

Ogindo was unable to receive his doctoral degree or publish his dissertation. But less than a year later, in 2007, Eisch co-authored a paper published in the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry that Ogindo said mirrors his own work. Ogindo's name was not included as an author or a contributor, he said.

The Allegations

In 2005-2006, Eisch was a visiting professor at the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry at the Technical University in Munich, Germany. Much of the e-mail correspondence -- copies of which were obtained by the Press & Sun-Bulletin -- between Eisch, as adviser, and Ogindo, as student, paint a portrait of frustration mixed with accolades.

For Ogindo, a Clark Fellowship recipient, the events are clear. He said that while working on his dissertation in 2005, Eisch requested he stop his work to perform an experiment based on the dissertation of a former student, Somnath Dutta.

As a Clark Fellow -- entitled to a $16,000 stipend from the state plus a tuition scholarship "to recruit, enroll, and retain outstanding minority students" for both lab work and teaching assignments -- Ogindo was obliged to perform the experiment, he said.

The experiment, which took months to prepare and execute, produced results different from those Dutta had recorded, Ogindo said. When he reported this to Eisch, he said, Eisch became irate at what appeared to be Ogindo's lack of fundamental skill in performing the experiment.

After obliging a request by Eisch to make sure no contaminants were involved in the experiment, Ogindo repeated the work and met with the same results, he said.

Because of his concern about Eisch's previous reaction to his findings, Ogindo contacted other researchers, including a former student of Eisch's -- John N. Gitua -- who said he was also having difficulty reproducing the experiment.

"It was obvious the experiment wasn't working," Ogindo said. "I had sleepless nights, nightmares. I was very distraught."


In a December 2005 letter, Eisch chastised Ogindo for his inability to reproduce Dutta's results:

"Accordingly, your inability to reproduce his work is unequivocal proof that after two years in our laboratory, you still do not have the necessary technique and experimental care to work with organometallic compounds in a successful and reliable way. ... Therefore, I request that you immediately cease laboratory experimentation in any of my labs," the letter states.

Ogindo asked Gitua to contact Eisch and tell him of the problem, which he did, and Ogindo was returned to the lab in a probationary manner, Ogindo said.

Eventually, Eisch came to agree that Somnath Dutta's original findings were wrong and Ogindo was right -- but not before disciplining Ogindo and finally removing him from the program.

During the probation period, Eisch required Ogindo to have another student oversee the setting up of his lab apparatus. Ogindo contends the probation was a setup for permanently removing him from the lab.

"This probation is like a trap," he said during an interview about the pending case.

According to letters from Eisch in January and February 2006, however, the probation was meant to improve Ogindo's "unsatisfactory laboratory performance since June 2005," including failure to:

  1. Turn off a flammable vapor valve, which led the vapor to spread throughout the lab and adjoining hallway.
  2. Adequately perform requested experiments.
  3. Use laboratory chemicals properly.
  4. Carry out requested experiments.

In addition, Eisch had another student, Paul Fregene, give Ogindo a tutorial in laboratory technique. The assistance, Ogindo said, wasn't needed and Ogindo claims there was no proof of his inability to conduct experiments. In fact, his correct refutation of the Dutta experiment results indicated his correct lab techniques, he contends.

The Conflict Escalates

The probation and Eisch's displeasure with his performance, Ogindo said, also cost him a part-time teaching job at the State University of New York at Oneonta.

Handling the rigors of finishing his dissertation and teaching at SUNY-Oneonta would have been possible, he said, but under university guidelines, Eisch needed to agree to the proposal. Eisch opposed Ogindo taking the position and expressed incredulity over his student's decision to seek additional employment when Eisch said Ogindo was having so much difficulty.

"From even your considering this external part-time position," Eisch states in a letter, "I get the impression that you do not grasp the gravity of your situation at SUNY-Binghamton."

By February, however, a letter from Eisch states Ogindo's improved performance could mean removal of the probation and states, "I am hopeful that you and I can cooperate in our shared desire to have you finish your doctorate studies as expeditiously as possible."

Over the next few months, Ogindo's work did not meet the expectations of a dissertation, according to correspondence from Eisch. His student's original work was not adequate for a dissertation, he stated, and Ogindo's research notebooks -- which are records of experiments -- were another problem.

"As to the quality of your work and its reliability, as reflected in your research notebook records, I must express my extreme disappointment that a person of your laboratory experience could keep such an unacceptably and unreliably poor record of your work," the letter states.

By July 2006, Ogindo was removed from Eisch's research program and lab at Eisch's request and given the option of writing a master's thesis on his findings, according to letters written by Eisch. Ogindo opted against writing a master's thesis, he said, because he believed his work was worthy of a Ph.D.

Instead, Ogindo attempted to have his dissertation materials published in two chemistry journals, though Eisch warned him that it would be unwise.

"For you to pursue your intended course to publish these results without my approval would be for you to take the final step of professional ruin in chemistry," Eisch wrote to Ogindo.

Ogindo did submit his paper, and the editors of both journals contacted Eisch because they were concerned there was no co-author listed on the submission, which is a rare occurrence for a graduate student. In correspondence with the journals, Eisch alerted editors to "some unpleasant background" on Ogindo including:

  1. A lack of significant research progress from February 2005 to July 2006.
  2. Poor quality and quantity of experiment results.
  3. A lack of detail recorded in Ogindo's lab notebooks.

Eisch requested a copy of Ogindo's manuscript, "to learn how close his findings, as they're reported, agree with what I know to be the state of our knowledge."

In addition, since the work was done in Eisch's laboratory, and he suggested the original study, "joint consensual publication is the only legal possibility," he states.


An Abrupt Turn

While Eisch refused to co-author the papers submitted by Ogindo, he did publish his own papers on the same experiments, Ogindo said. Though Eisch proposed the topic of Ogindo's dissertation and advised on experiments that needed to be performed, he said, it was his own experiments on that topic that led to a unique discovery, which Eisch at first ridiculed.

But two years into Ogindo's research, he said, Eisch became a believer, as Eisch's published papers on the work they shared are proof, Ogindo said.

"Eisch knows this," Ogindo said. "That is why the only way he can appropriate it is if I gave up and left it for him -- or if he tried to show that I was so ungifted a student as to be incapable of that."

According to BU's chemistry department guidelines for publication, the co-authors of a paper "should be all those persons who have made significant scientific contributions to the work reported and who share responsibility and accountability for the results."

Ogindo asked Eisch to co-author the articles, but the professor refused and cited Ogindo's poorly recorded lab notes and other shoddy work, which made it impossible to verify the articles' veracity, according to correspondence between the two.

Both teacher and student filed grievances over the attempted publications, during which time Eisch discussed a possible remediation with Jones -- calling for Ogindo to withdraw from the graduate program in return for Eisch not pursuing his grievance -- according to court-filed correspondence between Jones and Eisch.

"The advantage for Ogindo is that his disgraceful acts would not become more widely known among the faculty and the graduate students both in the department and in the university," the e-mail states.

Ogindo was given the option of submitting his doctoral dissertation as a master's thesis, which he declined for another arrangement, which called for his dissertation to be sent to an anonymous outside expert to determine its worthiness, Ogindo said.

The expert's comments, according to a letter by Lees, were not complimentary and led the graduate program committee to declare that Ogindo's dissertation "had extremely limited scientific merit."

Ogindo was unable to receive his doctoral degree or publish his dissertation. But less than a year later, in 2007, Eisch co-authored a paper published in the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry that Ogindo said mirrors his own work. Ogindo's name was not included as an author or a contributor, he said.

In addition, Eisch and Gitua co-authored an article published in the journal Organometallics on the new findings of the Dutta experiment, Ogindo said, though no mention of Ogindo's work on the project was noted.

Gitua, now an assistant professor of organic and organometallic chemistry at Drake University, was unaware of the lawsuit, he said. While the work Ogindo performed was similar, Gitua said, a different approach was used in the published paper.

The Law

Both patent and copyright law could come into play in Ogindo's lawsuit, Levy said.

Since Ogindo's dissertation was written, anyone who improperly copies from it could be subject to a lawsuit, he said.

"He may have an action in copyright infringement," Levy said.

The issue of patents is relevant, he said, for two reasons. In the United States, Levy said, an individual has one year to seek a patent on an innovation following its public disclosure. In other countries, he said, a patent cannot be secured following a public disclosure, so that loss would make Ogindo's case for damages stronger if he were to win the lawsuit.

While $200 million is a large number, Levy said, it isn't when talking about technological or science-related discoveries. "He's actually in the ballpark," Levy said.

The fight to win the case will still be an uphill battle, he said. "He might have a tough role to prove actual damages," Levy said.

The Future

While he has searched for an attorney, Ogindo said, the upfront costs associated -- one lawyer wanted $3,500 down, plus $190 per hour -- are too expensive for him, so he has represented himself since filing the lawsuit in May.

"This case, I think, is special," Ogindo said.

For now, he said, he lives in Sherburne and works as a chemist at Norwich Pharmaceuticals. The work is that of a technician, Ogindo said, a far cry from his work at BU.

"It's not the work I should be doing," he said.

The bright spot in his life, Ogindo said, is watching his 2-year-old daughter, Caidyn, who has been his "inner fuel," grow up.

The problems of the last few years, he said, have plagued him greatly, but he decided to go forward with the lawsuit so Caidyn would not think him a coward for not fighting for what he believed was right.

He is still trying to get his former department to let him submit and defend his dissertation, Ogindo said, though it is an uphill battle.

"Defending will allow me to practice the profession," he said. "Without defending, I can't get a job."

Originally appeared in Press & Sun-Bulletin.