By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009; B01
A scientific journal said it found no evidence that an author gave the District's water utility control of his 2007 research paper, which mistakenly included the claim that high levels of lead in the city's drinking water had not caused a clear health threat.
A panel investigating how the conclusion was mistakenly published in a National Institutes of Health journal also found no evidence that the senior author, Tee Guidotti, tried to mislead readers. It said that the controversial claim was included because of "inattention to detail."
The panel agreed, however, that Guidotti, then a consultant to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, should have deleted the assertion, as he had agreed. The journal published his report -- saying there had been no identifiable health impact from the unprecedented concentrations of lead in the city's water from 2001 to 2004 -- although experts reviewing the paper for publication demanded that the "dubious" claim be removed.
At the panel's recommendation, Guidotti, a former department chair at George Washington University's school of public health, agreed to submit an apology and a correction.
The panel said it found "no evidence on the part of the author to deceive or subvert the publication process," it wrote in the June 8 report. "However, the Panel feels that the author must correct his failure to substitute key statements in the published paper."
Elizabeth Taylor, Guidotti's attorney, applauded the panel's findings and said they supported her client's scientific integrity.
"We are pleased that the review panel accurately determined that Dr. Guidotti fully complied with [the journal's] disclosure requirements and that WASA had no right to and did not attempt to control the substance of Dr. Guidotti's article," she said in an e-mailed comment.
The panel said it found records suggesting that neither Guidotti nor WASA intended for the water utility to control Guidotti's research conclusions. Guidotti was then head of a university team retained by WASA to advise the utility amid public concern over high lead levels in D.C. drinking water.
"Based on the evidence provided, the authors' freedom to design, conduct, interpret and publish their research was not compromised by any controlling sponsor," the panel wrote.
In February, the journal began a probe of the 2007 paper that Guidotti authored after learning from a Washington Post reporter that a central conclusion of the paper had been published in error.
The probe was supposed to determine how the mistake occurred and whether Guidotti violated a journal policy by not disclosing a contract that appeared to give WASA the right to approve his research findings. The journal does not consider research controlled by a sponsor.
But the panel, led by three federal research experts not connected to the paper, said e-mail correspondence between WASA and GWU indicated that WASA "did not intend any interference in Dr. Guidotti's exercise of complete academic freedom."
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher and Guidotti critic who had raised concerns with the journal about the reliability of Guidotti's research work, applauded the panel's findings. Edwards co-authored a study finding that elevated levels of lead in D.C. water had affected hundreds and possibly thousands of D.C. infants and toddlers.
"This action by [the journal] was important, because it strikes a misleading conclusion of the paper from the published scientific record," Edwards said.
Taylor said Guidotti stands by the study, which "was not intended to . . . determine whether there could be a causal connection" between high lead levels in water and high levels in blood.