UNC research chief steps down over plagiarism charge

Genetics expert Magnuson leaves vice-chancellor post saying he inadvertently copied online text into grant application

March 11, 2022
Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Terry Magnuson, an expert in developmental genetics, resigned as vice-chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after a federal finding of research misconduct.

Professor Magnuson agreed to step down from UNC’s top research post after a case that he has explained as involving his inadvertent copying of online text into a federal grant application.

Federal investigators, in their summary of the matter, said the grant application included four instances of “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly plagiarising text” from published material.

In a note to the UNC community two days after the investigation was publicly revealed, Professor Magnuson joined with top UNC leaders in saying his resignation was “in the best interest of the university”.

Professor Magnuson “accepts responsibility for his mistake” and will soon explain the situation publicly, UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, and provost, Christopher Clemens, said in the message.

“The university has a very specific role it must play in these matters, and it followed its federally mandated policy regarding research misconduct,” the chancellor and provost said.

The UNC leaders acted shortly after Mimi Chapman, a professor of social work and UNC’s chair of faculty governance, warned them that the symbolism of Professor Magnuson remaining as vice-chancellor for research appeared unacceptable to many of her colleagues.

The investigation of Professor Magnuson by the federal government’s Office of Research Integrity (ORI) concerned a grant application for cancer research submitted last March to the National Institutes of Health. The plagiarised text came from three online articles and one published paper, the ORI said.

It said Professor Magnuson accepted a settlement agreement that includes a nearly two-year period beginning last month in which any of his grant applications would be subject to layers of additional scrutiny and approvals within both UNC and the federal government.

In the immediate aftermath of the matter becoming public, UNC issued a statement saying it has “high professional expectations for the integrity of all research activities carried out by our faculty, staff and students”, but declined at that time to answer questions about any internal disciplinary actions.

Professor Magnuson was appointed vice-chancellor for research in 2016, and was credited with steady annual growth in research income to the point where it now exceeds $1 billion (£800 million) a year.

The university appointed Penny Gordon-Larsen, the associate dean for research at UNC’s School of Global Public Health, to serve as interim vice-chancellor for research.


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