What does the Public Interest Disclosure say?

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Those following the exploding story about Paul Frijters’ research on racism and UQ’s subsequent reaction to it might wonder, as I did: what exactly is in the “public interest disclosure” referred to in media reports (e.g., http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/feb/27/university-suppressed-study-into-racism-on-buses-and-victimised-its-co-author)?

To satisfy your curiosity, I’ve written below a summary brief of the core allegations included in that disclosure, based on my reading of it over the weekend.

The bird’s eye view is that the PID alleges maladministration, particularly on the part of one particular university administrator, in regard to the handling of research misconduct allegations that were lodged against Paul Frijters after the initial media buzz over his and Redzo Mujcic’s findings in their racism study. These findings were contained in a UQ press release in March 2013. Frijters judged in the middle of 2014 that a disclosure of this alleged maladministration was in the public interest due to its having led to “substantial adverse effects” (quoting from the PID). The PID, released publicly 6 months later (i.e., last week), does not directly allege maladministration by other members of the UQ hierarchy but leaves open the real possibility that such maladministration could have occurred, and/or that others may have been complicit in the maladministration of the one administrator.

To determine whether UQ personnel followed UQ procedures when handling the misconduct case against Frijters, we need to know what UQ procedures actually were.  Here is a flow chart showing the UQ procedures for managing a Research Misconduct allegation (this flowchart apparently was, but no longer appears to be, posted on the UQ website: https://ppl.app.uq.edu.au/content/research-misconduct-procedures):

flowchart_UQresearchmisconduct

The main errors that allegedly have been committed are:
1 – Using the wrong personnel to conduct the initial Investigation. The supervisor (together with a “Designated Person”) is supposed to conduct the initial Investigation, according to UQ policy. But Frijters’ supervisor was not part of the team that conducted the initial Investigation.
2 – Using the wrong process and the wrong lines of authority to take the matter to the next level. After the initial Investigation, the CEO (DVC Research) should have been notified of its outcome, so s/he could decide whether to take matters further (meaning, to open an Inquiry through the issue of a Notice of Allegations) or, instead, to refer the matter back to Frijters’ supervisor. But a Notice of Allegations was issued by someone other than the DVC Research, who also was not Frijters’ supervisor. Around this time Frijters also learned that he now has a new “special supervisor”, a move that may go against the stipulations of the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.
3 – Willful disregard of an external report by an ethics expert. At this point in the investigations, U Melbourne Associate Professor Andrew Crowden prepared an external report in which he – according to the PID – “pointed out that there was no proper Research Misconduct procedure being followed; that the process being followed was incompatible with the NHMRC guidelines on research misconduct; and that there in fact was no good case to argue research misconduct at all.” This report was made available to the university administration but was apparently ignored.
4 – A circus of incompetence and gross delays in taking action when challenged. Upon Frijters appealing the decision to issue a Notice of Allegations, based on the procedural unfairness witnessed to that point in the investigations, the university’s lawyers referred the matter to a Committee of Review. This Committee apparently did not hold any hearings to consider the alleged procedural violations, but merely referred the procedural matters back to the university, which in turn referred them back to its lawyers. Months later, the allegations against Frijters were finally dropped.
5 – Using the wrong personnel and the wrong timing to order the retraction of research. According to UQ’s procedures, an order to retract research in a case of suspected research misconduct can only be made after an Inquiry, and must be issued by the DVC Research. In this case, a retraction order was issued before any inquiry, and that retraction was not issued by the DVC Research.

The reason for all of these errors to fall into the lap of one particular university administrator is that it is apparently that administrator’s role to be the custodian of the Misconduct Procedure. According to the PID, this administrator was made fully aware of each of the above erroneous steps in this case, and took no action to correct any of them.

4 Responses to "What does the Public Interest Disclosure say?"
  1. This situation seems completely unacceptable, but what puzzles me, is that this research clearly had to go through the UQ ethics process and if it did, how can they be disciplining the researcher for research that has been approved. Where I work, any such type of research would’ve been heavily scrutinised by the ethics committee.

  2. Okay, went back to previous post and saw new comments that indicate that this wan’t passed by an ethics committee but by an expedited process by the PhD coordinator, UQ fail for process, but if that was the accepted process, then can’t see how they can have any legitimate complaint about the researchers.

  3. Seems like another case where you get some management über alles person either with mania who thinks they are so perfect they will always be correct or so dishonest that when they make a mistake they try and victimize someone else to deflect it. This is symptomatic of the problems of the bureaucratization of universities where often not very bright career administrators basically become untouchable. The procedure is also screwed from the start here too because your supervisor and 1 designated person, neither of whom is likely to be impartial, shouldn’t be making these decisions. Once upon a time you would have had elected board of mainly academics that would have made this sort of decisions at this level, but they have been replaced in most places with unelected career bureaucrats who often have no understanding of what goes on and so you get these crazy outcomes.

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