Professor claims fracking views linked to loss of online access

But University of Glasgow says critic of shale gas extraction had email and journal access terminated as part of ‘routine review’

June 29, 2016
Fracking protest
Controversial: A young man carrying a protest sign in Washington DC

An emeritus professor has claimed that the University of Glasgow withdrew his online access to email and journals because of his views on fracking.

David Smythe, emeritus professor of geophysics at Glasgow, had his access to university email and online journal subscriptions terminated at the end of January, just days after he had posted an online article that raised concerns about fracking safety and regulation in the UK.

The university maintains that Professor Smythe’s online access was “part of a routine review of email accounts”. He left the university in 1998.

But Professor Smythe believes that the loss of online access, first reported by Scottish investigative website The Ferret, is linked to his views on fracking and his continuing use of his affiliation to Glasgow.

In 2014, the secretary to the institution’s court told him that a number of academics were concerned that views he had expressed to the media as an emeritus professor, “particularly on the subject of shale gas, are not consistent with work which is currently being undertaken at the university”.

The university asked him to make clear in future that his views were his own and were “not necessarily representative of the views held by the university’s current researchers”.

The latest article gives Professor Smythe’s affiliation as Glasgow’s College of Science and Engineering, but states that he is “now at” his home address in France.

Professor Smythe says that the title of emeritus professor and the associated email and journal access rights had been granted to him in perpetuity when he left the university, and he is taking legal advice.

“The proper forum for debate is in the academic literature and the staff at Glasgow elsewhere should argue with me in print, for and against,” said Professor Smythe. “To have me ‘terminated’ in this way is a very base tactic to use.”

A university spokesman said that Professor Smythe’s claims were without foundation.

“Professor Smythe’s email access was terminated earlier this year, as part of a routine review of email accounts in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences,” the spokesman said.

“Professor Smythe left the university in 1998 and, while he retains the title of emeritus professor, he has no continuing practical association with the work of the university.”

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Reader's comments (1)

I thank Mr Havergal for his balanced article about the abrupt termination of my online access. I should like to enlarge on Glasgow University’s disingenuous and misleading post hoc justification for its actions. I took early retirement in 1998 at the age of 51, when the University closed the Department of Geology & Applied Geology. Both the essence and the fine print of my severance agreement, running to nine pages, were designed to enable me to continue independent research up to and beyond my normal retirement age of 65, in compensation for loss of office. I was made an Emeritus Professor and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, both in perpetuity. I was assigned to what is now the College of Science and Engineering, but not to any school or department. The agreement is clear that I do not have to justify or maintain any so-called ‘association’ with the University, nor do I have to submit to any periodic review. After seventeen years of trouble-free internet access, including the issue of a new university email address last August, the abrupt and unexplained termination took place on 30 January, and cannot simply be dismissed as a “routine” matter. It was clearly linked to the publication, using the correct University affiliation as specified in my severance agreement, of my academic discussion paper on fracking. This had gone online three days earlier. Therefore the University’s claim that I was terminated as part of a “routine” review of a department with which I have no association is simply incredible. Should it transpire that the Secretary of the University Court (the governing board of the University) acted without due written authorisation then I believe he should consider his position. I am in the process of obtaining the electronic or paper trail of the actions behind this decision, under Freedom of Information regulations. The fracking discussion paper aroused far more rounds of comment and reply than had ever previously been the case in the history of that journal. Some of the comments came from two Glasgow researchers. My replies demonstrate that their comments were full of errors of fact, of logic, and of understanding. One of these two researchers then resorted to criticising the journal itself, and re-inserted, countermanding an earlier instruction by the Topical Editor, a link to a scurrilous and defamatory Daily Mail article. This tabloid story quoted defamatory comments made about me by his Glasgow colleague. The incident earned the first researcher a public rebuke from the journal’s Editor in Chief – unprecedented, in my experience. The actions of this pair of researchers are regrettable; they bring my University into disrepute, but their aggressive, defamatory and unscholarly comments are now on the permanent online archive of a major European earth science society journal. However, the fundamental point at issue is not about the technical aspects of fracking; it is that I should not be silenced by the severance of my online link to the academic research database, just because I disagree with two incumbent employees of the University. One of the pair is a member of the University Court, and thereby has the ear of the highest levels of governance. The termination breaches the terms of my Severance Agreement, which states that after the age of 65 my access rights shall be “on the same basis as an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the University”. This nowadays includes both online journal access and a university email address as a matter of course. It costs the University nothing, but without them I cannot continue as a serious researcher. The University claims that my allegations are ‘without foundation’. This claim will now have to be tested in the Scottish courts. I have the necessary legal expertise prepared and willing to represent me. This is a case of academic freedom of expression – something that Glasgow University, with its current corporate ethos, seems to have forgotten about.