Suspended Bedfordshire academic fights for reputation

Senior lecturer William Brown awaits professional conduct verdict as an earlier inquiry on a retracted paper is queried

November 20, 2014

An academic who published a paper in a leading journal that a co-author battled to get retracted has been suspended from his university pending the verdict of a formal investigation into his professional conduct.

William Brown, senior lecturer in biomechanics and exercise physiology at the University of Bedfordshire, is alleged to have “misrepresented” his position and the “status of his lab”, according to a source at the institution.

Meanwhile, the co-leader of the research group that published the retracted paper said that an earlier investigation by the university into Dr Brown’s alleged scientific misconduct in relation to the journal article was verging on “shabby”.

Dr Brown was a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Robert Trivers at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey when Nature published the results of their work on the role of dance in human sexual selection in 2005.

Professor Trivers began to have doubts about the paper’s findings when a graduate student could not replicate the results. In 2009, he co-published The Anatomy of a Fraud, a short book analysing the original research in which he claimed that the chances of it not being fraudulent were less than one in 10 billion.

An investigation by Rutgers, published in April 2012, found “clear and convincing” evidence that research fraud occurred in several areas, including biased selection of subjects, falsification of data and conflicting datasets “consistent with a cover-up”. Nature retracted the paper in November last year.

It is understood that a Bedfordshire investigation into Dr Brown’s role in the incident concluded earlier this year with the academic being allowed to keep his role. But Professor Trivers has questioned the extent of that inquiry.

“If Bedfordshire fails to take any action then it has acted in a shabby way, which is consistent with how universities tend to [act] in this situation…they want to protect themselves first and foremost,” he said.

Dr Brown is course leader for a master’s in molecular and cellular exercise physiology at Bedfordshire.

An anonymous source at the university claimed that Dr Brown lacked the necessary experience to lead the course given that his academic background was in other fields.

A profile listed on the Social Psychology Network says Dr Brown has a PhD in experimental psychology. His Bedfordshire profile page lists his last publication in 2012 as a book chapter about symmetry and evolution, on which he is the sole author.

Dr Brown’s university profile also lists three “external roles” at other institutions. The three universities in question – Birkbeck and Queen Mary University of London, and Kingston University – said he currently does not hold positions at the institutions, although he did in the past.

The source added that Dr Brown had “misrepresented both online and in person his position and the status of his lab” – claims that it is believed are being considered as part of the investigation.

Bedfordshire declined to comment, stating only that it has begun a formal disciplinary investigation into “allegations made against Dr Brown”. It added: “As Dr Brown is now subject to this investigation, it would not be appropriate for the university to comment on the detail of any claims or allegations.”

Dr Brown also declined to comment on the specifics but added: “I am confident that I will be vindicated of these serious attacks against my reputation.”

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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