All views expressed in this post are my own and not of my employer, the national committees which I have served on, nor my consultancy clients
The case relates to action taken by University of Queensland against Prof. Paul Frijters because of his alleged conduct of a project without appropriate ethical clearance. The project related to the deception of participants (Brisbane bus drivers) and the dissemination of findings that reflected on them poorly as a cohort. The Bissert determination overturned UQ’s actions on procedural grounds without comment on the underlying ethical issue of the conduct of the project without the appropriate ethical clearance.
It is understood (see http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/uq-suppressed-bus-racism-study-academics-20150226-13q5lu.html) that Prof. Frijters disputes that university ethical clearance was required. The determination does reflect to some degree on the process followed to determine whether research ethics review and ethical clearance was required (e.g. provisions 286, 291 and 322-336). However it does not proffer a view as to whether prior research ethics review was required.
The substance of the Fair Work Act determination is that UQ failed to adhere to the misconduct provisions of its enterprise bargaining agreement, the framing its own research misconduct processes and denied Prof. Frijters procedural fairness.
The determination (pp21-22) rejects UQ’s assertion that the research misconduct procedure is exempt from the requirements/rights/redress articulated by the relevant enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA).
The case highlights the importance of carefully describing the interface between research misconduct procedures vis-à-vis the Australian Code and misconduct procedures as described in the Academic EBA (and indeed the general staff EBA for research assistants and student misconduct policies). This is perhaps most acute when the research misconduct process will be making the substantive determination that there is ‘a case to answer’ and the EBA process will largely be an operational application of punitive consequences of the finding of a case to answer.
The case also highlights that correspondence from a respondent (such as disputing the process or the findings of the reviewing officer) should be considered both in terms of its research integrity and its human resources (i.e. EBA process) implications. Another matter Bissert found troubling was the replacement and appointment of supervisors to Prof. Frijters, especially given the important role of supervisors described by the misconduct procedures.
The implications of the determination by Bissett are:
- the conduct of procedures to determine facts (e.g. whether research misconduct appears to have occurred) may be externally judged with regard to the appropriate industrial instrument (e.g. the academic EBA) even if a university contends those processes are specifically intended to operate outside of the EBA;
- (in light of i) the process for determining the review officer and decision maker may need to be more carefully framed;(*)
- (in light of i) a respondent should have access to a union or other representative;
- reviews and the provision of outcomes to respondents should be dealt with in a timely manner;
- correspondence from a complainant expressing dispute with proceedings should always be considered by a Human Resources Department staff member (to determine the EBA implications of the matters raised).
This may necessitate a complete rethinking of the approach many universities take to ‘Part B’ proceedings and allegations. The matters to consider include research integrity (e.g. adherence to the Australian Code), human resources (e.g. with regard to misconduct proceedings articulated by the relevant EBAs), and institutional compliance (e.g. as per the ARC/MHMRC deeds of agreement and annual compliance reporting).
Largely lost (except for provisions 286, 291 and 322-336) throughout the discussion about correct procedures and the EBA is the degree to which failure to seek ethical clearance is a serious matter especially as the project involved overt deception and risk. It also involved ‘agents acting on behalf of the researchers’ unlawfully seeking to evade paying for travel. The assessment of these matters requires a sophisticated understanding of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research and Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. Arguably it appears the University did not adequately consider whether social science research (at least from one academic area) is being correctly submitted for prior research ethics review.
Update 15/06/16 – UQ economist Paul Frijters quits over strife from race study
(*) It is not entirely clear why the Head of School, as Prof Frijters’ line supervisor was not an appropriate person to conduct the investigation. At various points in the process, different reasons were offered.
Dr Gary Allen is a Senior Policy Adviser in the Office for Research at Griffith University
Click here for Gary’s AHRECS bio
This post may be cited as: Allen G. (2016, 13 June) Reflections on case: ‘Racist bus drivers project’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: