Michael James PhD, Senior Researcher, Rheumatology Unit, Royal Adelaide Hospital
Les Cleland AM MBBS MD FRACP, Head of Rheumatology (1982-2015), Royal Adelaide Hospital
In July 2016, the University of Adelaide received an allegation of research misconduct involving the PhD thesis work of a graduate student. We were her supervisors.
We first heard about the allegation not from the University but from a journalist working for ABC TV Australia. It was alleged to have occurred in our laboratory over 15 years ago.
The ABC journalist was in possession of confidential emails between the complainant and the University of Adelaide and the journalist was persistent in attempts to obtain our comments. Although the University process was confidential, it appeared that the complainant was working with the journalist to run a story on unsubstantiated claims before an investigation had commenced.
The claim was made against one of our former students, Dr Maryanne Demasi, who had been awarded her PhD in 2004. Since then, Dr Demasi has worked for the SA Government as a Ministerial advisor and most recently, as a science journalist for ABC TV’s Catalyst program. In 2016 she produced and presented a program covering the scientific debate on the possible health effects of the electromagnetic radiation from Wi-Fi-enabled devices like mobile phones. This attracted criticism from the Telco industry and the ABC imposed a three-month suspension on her duties. Dr Demasi defended her program (Demasi, 2016). However, shortly after her high-profile suspension, the allegation of research misconduct arose.
The complainant’s identity was not known to us but the emails we received from the ABC journalist described the person as a ‘leading Australian scientist’ from the prestigious Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI). The journalist’s specific mention of WEHI as the employer of the complainant served to give gravitas to the allegations. They appeared to have the imprimatur of WEHI.
The complaint was made in the form of several images of Northern and Western blots with arrows and annotations and alleged that Dr Demasi had duplicated some images in her PhD thesis. The experiments had been done 15-16 years earlier and the thesis was submitted 14 years ago. The topic of her thesis relates to the effect of hypoxia on expression and activity of cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2), a pro-inflammatory enzyme. There was no context to the complaint such as whether the allegations could have affected the conclusions drawn from the impugned figures or the conclusions of each thesis chapter or the overall conclusions of the thesis. Also, there had been no suggestions of any issue with the research findings in the 15-16 year interim.
The process for managing allegations of research misconduct was specified in the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2007a). After an initial internal investigation, which took 11 months, the University convened an independent panel, external to the University, to examine the allegations. This was in accord with the Australian Code.
The Chair was the Honourable John Sulan QC, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of SA. There were three other panel members who were all academic experts. The panel took testimony from expert witnesses, from ourselves as the supervisors of Dr Demasi’s PhD studies, and from Dr Demasi. Witnesses, including ourselves, had previously provided written sworn statements and were questioned on these by legal counsel assisting the panel and by Dr Demasi’s legal team.
The hearing was held in Sydney. It commenced in March 2018, approximately 21 months after the University received the allegations, and ran over four days. At the time of our attendance at the hearing, we learned that the complainant had declined a request to attend the hearing to speak to the allegations under the panel’s rules of procedural fairness in place for all witnesses. The complainant chose not to provide a sworn statement presenting the evidence or context for the allegations.
The process placed the entire burden of proof on Dr Demasi. Most of the original documents from the experiments conducted in the years 2001-03 had been discarded years before, especially as our laboratory had closed prior to the building, in which it was housed, being decommissioned for the move to the new Royal Adelaide Hospital. The allegations were based on highly processed images that had been generated on a scanner and computer technology dating back to the 1990s.
In response to three allegations, there had been duplication and this was intended. They represented the ‘baseline’ value for time course experiments and they were intended to indicate there is only one baseline for both the normoxia and hypoxia treatments. The expert witnesses and the panel agreed this was acceptable practice at the time, circa 2002, and did not constitute a breach in any code. The panel found no evidence of duplication for the remainder of the specific allegations where the respondent had denied duplication. The panel ruled that it could not substantiate any of the allegations made by the complainant (University of Adelaide, 2018).
Within 24 hours of the panel findings appearing on the University website, the online Post Publication Peer Review (PPPR) site ‘Retraction Watch’ posted the headline ‘Controversial Australian science journalist admits to duplication in her PhD thesis’. This headline thus began by branding Dr Demasi as controversial and then misrepresented the findings of the panel (Anonymous – Retraction Watch, 2018).
Motive for vigilantism has raised considerable discussion in the PPPR environment. The Editor-in-Chief of the journal Plant Physiology is critical of the anonymous aspect of online comments on the PPPR site, PubPeer, saying, ‘The overwhelming majority of posts on PubPeer are negative and occasionally malicious.’ He further states, ‘What of the bulk of comments posted on PubPeer? These relate to small errors and oversights, not the stuff of misconduct nor likely to arouse any but the most obsessive of temperaments’ (Blatt, 2015).
By contrast, PPPR sites are supported in the article ‘Science Needs Vigilantes’ which argues that the motive for making an accusation is not relevant – ‘are the vigilantes really doing something that requires explanation?’ (Neuroskeptic, 2013).
In the present case, the complainant had made allegations about thesis work conducted 15-17 years earlier for which there had been no previous suspicion of misconduct. If the motive of any science vigilante must be to correct the scientific record, there was no apparent reasonable motive for the complainant to trawl through this old thesis. Further, because the complainant worked with a journalist to run a story on unsubstantiated claims, it is presumed the motive was other than to correct the scientific record. The collaboration with the journalist overrides the requirement of procedural fairness, also described as natural justice, as required by Section 12 of the Australian Code.
In our view, the argument that the motives of vigilantes are irrelevant fails to recognise that their activities can preclude conformity with the standards for investigation of allegations and, consequently, the protections that those standards accord to participants.
The investigations were conducted according to the Australian Code (2007a). This stipulates that research misconduct has several mandatory elements, one of which is that it must have ‘serious consequences’. Therefore, an allegation of research misconduct requires content and context. However, this was absent in the allegations presented to the University by the complainant and to us by the ABC journalist. There was no suggestion that the alleged image manipulation could allow the student to make a claim or conclude anything different from that which was already in the thesis. Nevertheless, the process lasted for 21 months at great financial cost to the accused and at great cost to the health and wellbeing of the accused. It was a process that required no input from the complainant after the initial allegation.
The Code states ‘A person who makes an allegation must also be treated fairly and according to any legislative provisions for whistleblowers during and following investigation of the allegations.’ The standards for taking a complaint seriously are low, presumably to protect the vulnerable whistle blower. However, the standards for refuting even a mischievous complaint are high and onerous. Once the accused is shown to have no case to answer, the mischievous complainant should have a case to answer. The 2007 Australian Code is unbalanced and failed to protect the falsely accused.
The 2018 revision of the Australian Code devotes more space to dealing with a complaint that is made in ‘bad faith or is vexatious’ and states that ‘action to address this with the complainant should be taken under appropriate institutional processes’ (NHMRC 2018). However, such action will necessarily be limited or will be non-existent when the complainant is not an employee of the institution as in the present case.
This revision of the Australian Code and the Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Code (the Investigation Guide) published in 2018 together provide a manual for dealing with allegations of research misconduct while allowing scope for subjective judgements. The Guide does contain a list of “principles of procedural fairness” that institutions are “expected” to incorporate in their investigation processes. However, for these to clearly address circumstances such as those in the current case, it would benefit greatly from specifying ethics principles to be used in making judgements. Respect for persons, beneficence/non-maleficence, and justice are ethics principles that are adopted across medicine and human research (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2007b). The current case demonstrates unethical behaviour when measured against these principles. It can be argued that a complainant is not obliged to observe these ethics principles when making an allegation under the Australian Code because they are not explicit in the Australian Code. However, such an argument does not pass a reasonable person test nor would it prevent an institution requiring a complainant to observe the fairness principles that are now specified in the Guide.
Research Ethics Monthly invites debate on issues raised by items we publish. However, we will only publish debate about the issues that the items raise and expect that all contributors model ethical and respectful practice.
Anonymous (2018) Retraction Watch. May 9. [cited 2018 June 5] Available from: https://retractionwatch.com/2018/05/09/controversial-australian-science-journalist-admits-to-duplication-in-her-phd-thesis/
Blatt M.R. (2015) Vigilante science. Plant Physiology 169: 907-9.
Demasi M. (2016) Sometimes asking questions provides you with answers that may be uncomfortable. Huffington Post. Feb 19. [cited 2018 June 5] Available from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/maryanne-demasi/sometimes-asking-questions-provides-you-with-answers-that-may-be-uncomfortable_b_9267642.html
National Health and Medical Research Council (2007a) The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. Available from: https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/r39
National Health and Medical Research Council (2007b) The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. Available from: https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/e72
National Health and Medical Research Council (2018) Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. Available from: https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/17653_nhmrc_-_guide_to_managing_and_investigating_potential_breaches_-_v1-3-accessiblefinal_0.pdf
Neuroskeptic (2013) Science needs vigilantes. Discover magazine. Dec 31. [cited 2018 June 5] Available from: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2013/12/31/publish-damned/#.WwEm-iDhXct
University of Adelaide (2018) May 9 [cited 2018 June 13] Available from: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/research-services/oreci/integrity/inquiries/docs/summary-panel-report-for-publication-9-may-2018.pdf
Michael James, Senior Researcher, RAH – Profile (see below#) | [email protected]
Les ClelandHead of Rheumatology Unit, RAH – Profile (see below*)
# “Research activity in the Rheumatology Unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) from 1988 – 2016 involved laboratory based studies on lipid inflammatory mediators and their metabolic enzymes and also included clinical trials with omega-3 fatty acids in cardiac and rheumatoid arthritis patients. I was an Adjunct Professor in the Dept of Medicine at the Univ of Adelaide until 2018. I was Chair of the Royal Adelaide Hospital HREC for 14 years from 1995 to 2009 and have been Chair of a Bellberry HREC since 2009.”
* “Research interests have included production and regulation of lipid mediators of inflammation, clinical effects of dietary omega-3 fatty acids, early intensive treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and the role of T cells in experimentally-induced arthritis. Member of Institute of Medical & Veterinary Science Ethics of Animal Research Committee 1984-2001.”
This post may be cited as:
James M. and Cleland L. (22 June 2018) Vigilance versus vigilantism in science: Are ethics no longer important?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/vigilance-versus-vigilantism-in-science-are-ethics-no-longer-important