A strange approach to sharing 1

October 7, 2005

Does anyone claim that if I am joint owner of a house, I can sell it without the knowledge or permission of the other owners and pocket the money? That appears to be the concept of joint ownership used by Sheffield University with regard to intellectual property ("Academic who spoke out now faces sack", September 30).

The more refined world of the UK Research Councils and the international medical community clearly define the conduct reported in that article as scientific misconduct. Sheffield apparently wishes to operate outside the usual standards of scientific integrity.

The Fleming panel is reported to acknowledge Aubrey Blumsohn's ownership, as it states the grant applications were jointly owned. The panel's alleged claim that "the subsequent applications made by Jackie Clowes alone, supported by Richard Eastell, were not plagiarised, as the material was jointly owned by all parties", blatantly ignores the definition of plagiarism.The work owned by Blumsohn was used without attribution or permission, indeed, against Blumsohn's wishes ("Inaction fuels research row", April 29) and would clearly mislead the Arthritis Research Council as to the contributions of Blumsohn, Clowes and Eastell. It is impossible to interpret the definition of plagiarism given by the World Association of Medical Editors as condoning using jointly owned work without acknowledging all owners.

I think that the strategy of appointing Gordon Duff, a research collaborator of Eastell, to the first panel, shows that Sheffield is indifferent to conflicts of interest. Appointing a public relations officer to the second panel does not inspire confidence in the rigour or independence of the panels. My reading of the Public Interest Disclosure Act is that Blumsohn is justified in bringing this into the public domain: scientific misconduct should not be ignored.

Universities, research councils and other public institutions commonly require staff to report any suspected misconduct. I have confirmed with a research council that, based on the information in The Times Higher on September 30, plagiarism as reported in that article would be deemed to be scientific misconduct.

Research Councils UK states that it is the responsibility of universities to pursue investigation procedures. Sheffield apparently failed to follow its own procedures: it "set aside" the report on procedural grounds.

Research council procedures have a maximum timescale: initial reports should be made within two months. A prima facie case leading to further investigations should normally be completed within three months of appointing an investigating committee. Sheffield took six months for the initial report, and more than a year for the second.

Sheffield failed to pursue the prima facie case, only doing so after a grievance panel required further action, and then gave a decision that is completely unacceptable if the facts in the article are correct. The conclusion of the Fleming panel is extremely surprising, at best.

Giving priority to protecting some staff over scientific integrity brings a university into disrepute.

Jane Hutton Warwick University

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