The Editors' Blog

January 23, 2014

Understanding a UNC professor’s complaint, and explaining our coverage

Questions abound about the UNC-Willingham controversy, and The N&O’s reporting about it.

In Jane Stancill’s story, published online Wednesday and in print Thursday, UNC professor Daniel Nelson questioned media coverage about the university’s action last week to halt whistleblower Mary Willingham’s research on the literacy levels of student-athletes.

In our case, that would be Dan Kane’s story on Jan. 17 that used the verb “suspended” in the first paragraph to describe UNC’s action. Nelson objected, in effect saying that UNC couldn’t suspend authority that had never been granted by the university’s Institutional Review Board, which his office chairs. His point was that the board had never before determined that Willingham needed its approval, and when it determined last week that she did, that stopped her research.

We understand the distinction, and we take such complaints about our coverage seriously. I wanted to explain why Kane’s story was worded as it was.

On Thursday evening, Jan. 16, Dan was writing a story about UNC Chancellor Carol Folt’s concerns about Willingham’s research. Shortly after 6, he became aware of a CNN report saying that UNC had stopped her work.

He quickly sent an email to university spokeswoman Karen Moon:

From: Kane, Dan [mailto: ]

Sent: Thursday, January 16, 2014 6:11 PM

To: Moon, Karen B

Subject: willingham losing research approval

CNN is saying that the university yanked Mary Willingham's research access. Is that correct and why?


Moon responded 10 minutes later:

On Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 6:21 PM, Moon, Karen B > wrote:

Yes, and I want to share some important context regarding how research is administered at the University.

All human subjects research requires review by the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Review and approval must be obtained before the research can begin. In addition, any time there is a change to the research protocol, the researcher must submit an updated application for review and approval. Researchers are expected to describe in detail the data being used in their work. That includes the specific data that a researcher and their collaborators have collected and/or assembled, any further work on the data that is planned, and how the data will be analyzed.

In this case you are asking about, the information provided by the UNC employee in 2008 and later in 2013 led the IRB to conclude that this project was not human subjects research. That means the IRB understood that the investigators could not identify individual subjects and that any codes that could allow linkage to identifiers were securely behind a firewall outside the possession of the research team.

Earlier today, the University’s IRB has rescinded the earlier determination that review and approval was not required after it came to the IRB’s attention that the employee’s dataset contained identifiers. In a letter to the UNC employee, the IRB stated that the employee must submit a full application for review by the IRB, and any continued use of her data without IRB approval would violate the University and federal policies that protect people who are research subjects.

So Moon’s response is a “yes” to whether UNC had “yanked” Willingham’s research access. And she goes on to provide the context that Nelson amplifies in his statement.

Our story used “suspended” in the first paragraph. It used “halted” in the print headline and “suspends” in the summary headline.

Kane received Moon’s email a bit before 6:30 in the evening and set about rewriting what had been a fairly simple story about Folt. With the benefit of more time, we can see the distinction between suspending research that hadn’t been approved and stopping or halting research that had been underway without what the university now says would have been proper approval. But the point of the action, and of the story, was that Ms. Willingham’s research would cease. And that point was clear.

Readers also have been buffeted by the back-and-forth over whether Willingham’s research was properly done. We want to know that, too; we have requested the underlying data, both from Willingham and from the university. When we get it, we will report on it fully.

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