Found guilty until proven innocent over unapproved research claims

Professor says he was suspended by Sheffield for mentioning a touchy subject. Paul Jump writes

October 25, 2012

An academic who believes he was suspended from his research after merely mentioning a controversial incident has said his case has serious implications for academic freedom.

Stuart Macdonald was professor of information and organisation at the University of Sheffield until his retirement last year.

He told Times Higher Education that he was suspended a day after a discussion on research ethics and integrity at a July 2010 awayday for Sheffield’s Management School, which was led by two members of the university’s research ethics committee.

During the discussion Professor Macdonald mentioned the controversial Eastell-Blumsohn affair. As reported by THE in 2005, Richard Eastell, professor of bone metabolism at Sheffield, was investigated for publishing findings on Procter and Gamble’s osteoporosis drug Actonel without having full access to the firm’s drug trial data. The concerns were raised by Aubrey Blumsohn, who was then a senior lecturer in Professor Eastell’s research unit.

A brief exchange of emails between Professor Macdonald and Colin Williams, director of research in the Management School, suggested the university believed, incorrectly, that Professor Macdonald’s remarks implied he was carrying out his own research into the affair without ethical approval.

Professor Macdonald was ultimately told in an email: “your research, now discovered, should be suspended”, and he complied by halting all of his research activities.

Fifteen days later, he received an email from the chair of the research ethics committee, Richard Jenkins, saying a “misunderstanding” had occurred, although he was offered no apology or further explanation.

After failing to elicit either of these from the university, Professor Macdonald initiated a grievance complaint. He claimed the suspension contravened academic freedom because it punished him for merely mentioning something that was in the public domain.

“It is not possible to function properly as an academic when asking a question may bring arbitrary suspension, and when the knowing of something is prima facie evidence of unapproved research,” he said.

He also claimed that the action contravened the university’s procedures, which require oral and written warnings prior to a suspension.

His grievance complaint - which was brought before he was forced to retire after reaching retirement age - was dismissed.

“The more pressure I have applied, the more intransigent the university has become,” Professor Macdonald said. “It struck me that my complaint was so clear that the university must eventually see sense, and I had no wish to cause it any embarrassment.”

In a statement, the university insisted that Professor Macdonald was never “suspended from carrying out research”, but was, instead, “asked to suspend any research he was carrying out that did not have prior ethics approval in line with the university’s internal procedures”.

“The university was able to quickly satisfy itself that Professor Macdonald was not carrying out any research that did not have prior ethics approval and as far as it was concerned the matter was swiftly resolved. The university has been satisfied throughout that its research ethics policy has always been used appropriately and the university acted within its procedures at all times,” the statement said.

But Professor Macdonald responded: “All I knew at the time was that I was suspended from research. There was no explanation of why, or of what this meant. And despite my very best endeavours over two years, there has been no explanation since.”

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