Newcastle Herald

Asking for trouble

Author: DONNA PAGE
Date: 08/05/2010
Words: 1949
Source: NCH
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: H2
Page: 6
Like the whistleblowers who have gone before her, Dr Michelle Adams's pursuit of justice at the University of Newcastle has had devastating repercussions. DONNA PAGE reports.

TELLING the truth can be a dirty business.

Whistleblowers in institutions around the world have ruined their careers, endured family splits, lost their livelihoods and even their health.

For some, following their conscience has resulted in them being declared mad.

If people don't like the message, it's often the messenger who gets shot.

Fairly or not, a string of high-profile plagiarism cases have thrust the University of Newcastle into the national spotlight not only for academic plagiarism, but for how the institution dealt with whistleblowers.

The case of Dr Michelle Adams, revealed in The Herald in March, is the latest in a line of academics and students who claim they have endured harassment after reporting misconduct and that bullying is an "ingrained culture" at the institution.

University Vice-chancellor Nick Saunders strongly disagrees. Saunders said he did not believe bullying or harassment were a problem at the university.

Adams has been on suspension since August 2009 with her mental health in question and faces an uncertain future after reporting allegations in September 2003 that two fellow academics plagiarised a student's honours thesis.

Last week a recommendation was made by the Workers Compensation Commission that the university's insurer appoint a back-to-work co-ordinator for Adams.

The case dates back to 2003 when it was alleged two academics used data collected by a student via personal interviews from more than 350 people over several months about cardiovascular disease, without her knowledge. Adams was the student's principal supervisor and reported the matter when it came to her attention.

The plagiarism case was finalised last year when the two academics in question were counselled about "the need to carefully and fully acknowledge authorship in all aspects of their work".

Adams said following the initial allegation she was bullied and harassed at the university for years. She eventually suffered depression and became suicidal.

The 44-year-old microbiologist admitted that she was bitter at how the matter had been handled. Many aspects of the affair, she said, were painful and had had an enormous impact on her career, family and mental health.

She said she was treated like a "leper" after reporting the issue to management and believed the university's failure to immediately investigate created a "perception" she raised false allegations.

Adams's boss, Environmental and Life Sciences head of school Professor Hugh Dunstan, said in a statutory declaration in March last year that he was informed the plagiarism allegation was unsubstantiated.

"Over the last two years, Michelle has made it clear to me that she did not get along with two other staff . . .," Dunstan said. "In relation to [academic's name], Michelle had previously accused him of plagiarising the work of an honours student of hers. I have been advised that this matter was properly investigated by the university at the time and it was subsequently found that the allegations could not be supported."

Adams said the belief that she had raised false allegations against colleagues painted her in a "very negative way".

"People believe it was investigated and found to be completely groundless," she said. "This was no doubt going to affect the way I was viewed and treated."

A university spokeswoman told The Herald this month that Adams had not lodged a formal, or written, complaint about the matter despite being "encouraged to do so by many people from 2003 to 2009".

Documents obtained by The Herald show that in October 2006, three years after Adams first raised the plagiarism allegations with senior staff, Deputy Vice-chancellor research Barney Glover instructed the university's complaints manager, Kim Foster, to investigate the claims.

The university spokeswoman said a "thorough search" was carried out in 2006 for the five papers that allegedly carried the data, but the university was only able to locate four conference posters, which are used to prompt discussion at conferences, and none had been published. She said the final paper was found to be an abstract for a conference.

"The investigation found that no papers appear to have been published and distributed in full text, in print or online," she said.

"In the absence of formal publications a determination was made that no further investigation would be undertaken."

The Herald obtained copies of two documents online in the Atherosclerosis Supplements journal from an international conference held in Japan and a third document was found in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition in hard copy and online.

One document is listed on the scientific database PubMed and two others on the ISI Web of Knowledge. They range in size from 250 to 400 words.

According to the university's website two of the documents were classified as C1 publications under guidelines set by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR).

The department guidelines are used by Australian universities to obtain government funding based on publications as a measure of research output.

Under the system the publications are audited by the university, classified and submitted to DIISR for funding consideration under a grants scheme.

The university must also provide DIISR with evidence supporting its claims.

According to information provided by DIISR, a C1 publication is defined as a "substantial work of scholarship published in a scholarly journal following a formal process of peer review" and the journal must have an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN).

When contacted last week about the fact that two of the documents in question were listed on the university's website as C1 publications, the university spokeswoman described it as a categorising error on the website.

"They should not have been classified as C1 publications," she said. "Thank you for drawing our attention to this. It is being corrected on the website."

A university academic workload register obtained by The Herald dated December 2006 listed the two documents as being worth 17 points each for one of the academics. This is the same value attributed to C1 publications. The university did not respond to The Herald's question in relation to the matter.

The spokeswoman said after Adams raised the allegation directly with Saunders last year, a review of the 2006 investigation was ordered. She said the 2006 findings were "upheld", but it was also found the original data was used without acknowledging the roll of the honours student and the academics were "counselled".

The Herald can now reveal that not long after the plagiarism allegation was raised in 2003, tuberculosis research being undertaken by Adams was tampered with, resulting in a police investigation.

Audit documents show poor security at the Ourimbah campus meant a large number of people had access to the research lab.

Email evidence indicated Adams reported four incidents of the research being tampered with over a period of several months in late 2003 and early 2004.

The police investigation concentrated on the final theft of two bottles of tuberculosis bacterium and no suspect was identified.

When asked about the investigation in March, Saunders told The Herald the university had reported "all cases" of the research being tampered with to police, but he declined to identify the number of incidents.

Adams said she believed a discrepancy in the number of times the TB research was interfered with contributed to a psychiatrist's report last year that declared her medically unfit for work.

The psychiatrist initially wrote an inconclusive report stating it was difficult to differentiate the cause of her illness and suggested trialling medication. He also asked for further information in relation to some matters.

The university's head of human resources, Ian Pike, responded to the psychiatrist with a three-page letter detailing a range of issues, many of which Adams disputes. Pike noted that Adams told an insurance investigator last year that there were four thefts of TB.

"These thefts were not reported or mentioned in the initial 2004 investigation to the university's knowledge," Pike wrote.

Six weeks later the psychiatrist submitted a second report that stated Adams had "permanent psychological restrictions" and she was suspended.

Adams said: "The claims made by the university undermined my professional ability. Even though there is documentation and people who were involved that are willing to support that I did everything correctly and the university promoted me to senior lecturer not long after the TB theft."

Following conciliation in the Industrial Relations Commission in October 2009 the psychiatrist's report was set aside and it was agreed Adams would be reviewed by another physician this year. The process is ongoing.

The matter is also before the Workers Compensation Commission.

In February the university agreed to pay for Adams's medical treatment for her psychological illness, recredit months of sick leave and reimburse her legal costs.

The university spokeswoman said the institution did not accept liability in the case and there was no determination that Adams suffered a workplace psychological injury. She said Adams was engaged by the university to work at the Central Coast campus, but she refused to work there.

Research shows that the price paid for blowing the whistle is often high with job loss, divorce and attempted suicide common.

History shows it's not easy being a whistleblower at the University of Newcastle. Just ask Ian Firns, whose repeated allegations of a plagiarism cover-up led to an Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation in 2003. It occurred at the same time Adams raised her plagiarism allegation.

The investigation, which centred on the cover-up of plagiarism by 15 full-fee-paying international students, found two former university senior staff members guilty of corrupt conduct and recommended disciplinary action against then deputy vice-chancellor Brian English.

For his troubles Firns said he received "massive" criticism and wound up with symptoms of depression.

And there was the case around the same time that involved doctorate student Peter Shimeld who reported plagiarism that was found proven against another student. In 2004 Shimeld provided information to the NSW Ombudsman alleging bullying and ill treatment. Dr Stuart Pearson, who was one of several academics who supported Shimeld in his plagiarism claim, described the atmosphere at the time as "vicious" and "dysfunctional".

Rewind to 1976 when former commerce senior lecturer Dr Michael Spautz accused a fellow academic of plagiarism but the university council sided with the accused person and sacked Spautz in 1980. He later spent 56 days in prison following defamation proceedings linked to the matter after failing to pay court costs.

And then there is the infamous case, which plagued the university for 20 years, involving the late Coral Bayley-Jones who was accused by former academic Dr Don Parkes of plagiarism and other misconduct. In 2005 the university was forced to issue an unreserved public apology to Parkes for failing to hold public inquiries, which it agreed to do on three occasions.

A university spokeswoman says the institution has clear policies in relation to whistleblowers and abided by the NSW Protected Disclosures Act.

NSW president of Whistleblowers Australia Dr Peter Bowden said whistleblowers had very limited protection in Australia.

Bowden said there were no federal laws and he described the NSW legislation as "disgraceful".

"There are very real and genuine concerns that whistleblowers in Australia can be treated very badly," he said.

"Our legislation is a long way behind other developed countries, we have a great deal of work to do in this area."

The Federal Government announced last month that public servants who went to the media to blow the whistle about public health and safety concerns, corruption, misconduct and the waste of taxpayers' money would be protected from prosecution by proposed

new laws.

A whistleblower who has an "honest and reasonable belief" about a wrongdoing will also keep their protection even if they are wrong.

The proposed changes were unveiled by Special Minister of State Joe Ludwig, who said he hoped legislation would be introduced soon and the new laws could start on January 1, 2011.

 
 
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