Whistleblowers: Queen Mary accused of ignoring misconduct

September 19, 2003

London University's Queen Mary College failed to act over an allegation of scientific misconduct made by a member of its staff about a colleague, according to documents leaked to The THES this week.

In July 2001, Norman Miller, former British Heart Foundation professor of cardiovascular biochemistry at Queen Mary's St Barts Hospital, made a complaint of misconduct against his junior research colleague, Gillian Cockerill. Dr Cockerill, he said, had attempted to "plagiarise" his work when his name was excluded - without, he said, his knowledge or consent - from a list of collaborators to a major research project.

Professor Miller claimed that while Dr Cockerill was a research fellow in his department of Cardiovascular Biochemistry in 2000, she had collaborated with him and colleagues on an important research project on techniques that would reduce the damage to organs and tissues when their blood supply was stopped and restarted, which are crucial developments for therapeutic applications in surgery.

He explained that the project work had "provided the basis for a patent application filed by the college, with Dr CockerillI and me listed as inventors".

A paper reporting the results - crediting Professor Miller and others as co-authors behind Dr Cockerill as the lead author - had been submitted for publication in the high-impact Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology . The paper was accepted but was returned for revisions.

During the revision process, Dr Cockerill, after an unrelated row with Professor Miller over a grant application, was transferred to another research department at the hospital.

When the revised paper was returned for publication - in April 2001 while Professor Miller was abroad - his name and that of his department had been excluded.

Alerted to the proofs by a colleague in July, Professor Miller wrote immediately to his manager at Queen Mary, Adrian Smith: "This was plagiarism... I had worked hard on the manuscript, and had contributed intellectually to the design and the study and the interpretation of the results. My right to be a co-author had never been questioned."

He also wrote to the journal's editor, Vincent Marchesi, adding: "I request that you stop publication of this paper immediately... (until) my name is reinstated."

The journal agreed not to publish the article as it was, accepting that it "lacks all the names of the original authors" and the editor wrote to Dr Cockerill: "We will not publish this manuscript without including Miller as a co-author, unless there is a good reason why his name was deleted. We will withhold publication until we hear from you."

It is unclear whether, or how, Dr Cockerill responded, but later in the year the article was published with Professor Miller's name restored.

But while the journal responded immediately to Professor Miller's complaints, the university appeared to be more reluctant to get involved.

In February 2002, seven months after his complaint about Dr Cockerill's conduct, Professor Miller had to ask what action had been taken. He received no reply, so wrote again in March.

In April, Claire Barnes, then head of personnel at Queen Mary, replied:

"With regard to the complaint you made about Dr Gillian Cockerill... it is assumed that your letter to the editor of the journal resolved the matter one way or another."

Professor Miller told The THES this week: "The letter I received implied that no action had been taken... If this is true, I think an explanation from the college is warranted."

A spokeswoman for Queen Mary said: "We are aware that there was a dispute some considerable time ago between Professor Miller and Dr Cockerill. Both have since left the college. We would not condone plagiarism in any form."

Dr Cockerill said she would talk to The THES only in a "personal meeting" at her office, a requirement that The THES was unable to meet. She declined subsequent offers to be interviewed by telephone, or to answer questions by email.

Dr Cockerill is now a senior lecturer in vascular biology in the department of surgery at St George's Hospital Medical School in London.

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