Now the two crusaders appear to have gone too far, giving their enemies an excuse to muzzle them. Their sin: using a cluster of software programs they developed (dubbed a "plagiarism machine") to look for examples of copying in a biography of Abraham Lincoln. It was always murky how much leeway the self-appointed crusaders, hired as research scientists, should have to pursue investigations. But it seems indisputable that the field of history is remote from their responsibilities.
So last month the N.I.H., with the approval of Donna Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, reassigned the two scientists and ordered them not to continue their investigations of misconduct. In response, Mr. Stewart has gone on a hunger strike, now in its fourth week.
This sad denouement smacks of overkill on both sides. Hunger strikes have an honorable record in pricking consciences to right great wrongs. One thinks of Mohandas Gandhi fasting in the struggle for Indian independence, or the late Mitch Snyder fasting for better treatment of the homeless in the nation's capital. But it is grotesque for Mr. Stewart to use a hunger strike to pursue a personnel grievance. His desperate act discredits the rationality his crusade.
Still, the behavior of Government officials is as bad or worse. The action against the two whistle-blowers came without warning or due process. The two have largely been denied access to their own files, containing more cases of possible misconduct. And they have been told not to speak about their investigative work on Government time or use information unavailable to the public -- effectively barring them from an upcoming conference on plagiarism.
This crackdown smells more like vengeance than good management. Surely the two scientists could be granted access to their files on their own time. And surely they could be allowed to speak freely at the plagiarism conference or any meeting at which their views are relevant, provided they make it clear they are speaking for themselves, not for the N.I.H. The two whistle-blowers are, after all, only doing the investigative job that the N.I.H. and other scientific institutions have botched miserably for many years.