Queen’s Journal: Students accuse public agency of misconduct (28 May 2012)

By Holly Tousignant.  As published in the Queen’s Journal, 28 May 2012.  See also the readers’ comments on the QJ site and “Motions” in May Senate Notes.

An Ontario government agency was accused of academic misconduct last month after two Queen’s graduate students claimed a report they authored appeared on the agency’s website containing changes they hadn’t agreed to.

Jennifer Massey and Sean Field filed a complaint with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), the body that commissioned Queen’s to produce a report on the effectiveness of supplemental instruction, an academic support model that uses peer-assisted study meetings to improve learning.

The University hired former Queen’s PhD candidate Jennifer Massey as lead investigator on a $44,633 contract. Fellow geography PhD student Sean Field and former MAcandidate Jeff Burrow were brought on to assist Massey.

HEQCO, an agency of the Ontario government, conducts and commissions research on issues relating to post-secondary education in the province.

On April 27, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), a group that represents faculty and academic librarians across the province, released a statement on their website condemning HEQCO’s actions. While not illegal, HEQCO’s actions were unethical, the statement reads.

Queen’s Senators Jordan Morelli, Terry Bridges and Mark Jones submitted three separate motions to Senate regarding the conflict. The motions called for Senate to endorse OCUFA’s statements about the incident, among other things. The Agenda Committee rejected the proposals to include the motions on the Senate agenda for May 22.

According to the Queen’s Senate Faculty Caucus blog, the committee rejected the motions because they believedOCUFA’s statements were “not factually correct.”

Massey and Field’s letters to HEQCO president Harvey Weingarten, which are available to view on the Canadian Federation of Students’ (CFS) website, outline their concerns with the published report. CFS aims to provide a voice to students and represent their interests to federal and provincial governments.

In their letters, they claim a section of their report, which was critical of supplemental instruction, was removed from the final report, and that text was added that was in opposition to their conclusions.

The authors had previously refused to add suggested changes which were later included in the final report. Both the original and the altered reports are available on OCUFA’s website.

They also took issue with the published report’s disclaimer, which stated that the report solely reflected that of its authors.

“We realized that what was posted was different than what we had submitted,” Field said.

Massey and Field requested the report be removed from the HEQCO’s website and replaced with their original submission. They also requested an apology from HEQCO.

The report was due to HEQCO in June 2010 Jennifer Massey submitted the report in December of that year. Jennifer Massey sent a report to HEQCO in June 2011. The report had already been through several rounds of edits at that point.

Weingarten said HEQCO made revisions to the report after failing to hear back from Massey.

“We felt the June 2011 report needed some edits and needed some changes,” he said. “By September we had not heard back from [Massey] and our attempts to deal with the principal investigator, well, we couldn’t deal with her because she went AWOL.”

Weingarten said HEQCO then approached Queen’s Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Ann Tierney with two options: either Queen’s abandon the project and not receive their final payment of $22,500 or have other staff at Queen’s finish the report.

The University chose the second option, and Chris Conway, director of the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, submitted a final report in Dec. 2011.

OCUFA president and Queen’s librarian Constance Adamson said she thinks Queen’s didn’t protect the academic freedom of their researchers.

“They probably should have done more to ensure that they understood what the terms of the contract meant,” she said.

Adamson said OCUFA has called for Queen’s to do an investigation and for the Government of Ontario to look atHEQCO’s research practices. No such investigation has yet been announced.

Provost Alan Harrison said he thinks it’s unfortunate OCUFA didn’t inform Queen’s what they were going to post online before they posted it.

“Had they done so, we would have pointed out some substantial factual inaccuracies,” he said. “One of those factual inaccuracies was characterizing Jennifer Massey as someone who was doing this work as a grad student, when in fact she was doing it as an employee of the University.”

Harrison declined to comment on Massey and Field’s request for an apology from HEQCO.

“It’s not anything to do with us,” Harrison said. “What they do or don’t do is entirely up to HEQCO.”

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One Response to Queen’s Journal: Students accuse public agency of misconduct (28 May 2012)

  1. As posted by Mark Jones in “Comments” on the Queen’s Journal site:

    This case raises two important issues. One is academic freedom, and the other is academic integrity.

    The issue of academic freedom is well discussed in OCUFA’s Statement (http://ocufa.on.ca/2012/ocufa-statement-on-allegations-of-research-misconduct-at-queens-university-and-heqco/). HEQCO used a common type of research contract in this case, a contract that requires the researchers to waive their “moral rights” to their research and their write-ups; such contracts permit the purchaser to alter what the researcher has provided. The signed contract makes this legal, and even OCUFA acknowledges that it was legal in this case. But in a University context the problem remains that this practice infringes on academic freedom. A researcher who signs away her moral rights has signed away her academic freedom, the right to state her research findings according to conscience without censorship or tampering.

    The other issue is academic integrity. Even though a HEQCO-style contract can make it legal to hire researchers and air-brush the results, such a practice remains a violation of academic integrity, for it reduces what is parading as academic “research” to the status of PR or propaganda. The results have been tampered with. To take a simple analogy, it is perfectly legal for a student to buy a research paper and submit it in class, but doing so remains a breach of academic integrity. Queen’s Senate’s Academic Integrity Policy Statement (http://www.queensu.ca/secretariat/policies/senateandtrustees/academicintegrity.html; approved in 2006) states that “Academic integrity is constituted by the five core fundamental values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility.” The Faculty of Arts and Science’s Academic Regulation 1, “Academic Integrity,” includes “fabricating or falsifying laboratory or research data” among its examples of “Departures from Academic Integrity” (Sec. 1.2.1(v)). It also includes “Facilitation,” or “enabling another’s breach of academic integrity” (Sec. 1.2.1(iii)). When the University adopted the principles and policies of “Academic Integrity” in 2006, it emphasized (e.g., in a SCAD Report to Senate, Jan. 2006) that Academic Integrity must be a pro-active institutional “culture” in which everyone–not just students, but everyone–participates. The Senate-approved definition of Academic Integrity (also approved in 2006) accordingly concludes with the statement that “Queen’s students, faculty, administrators and staff therefore all have ethical responsibilities for supporting and upholding the fundamental values of academic integrity.”

    The OCUFA Statement centres in the affirmation that “changing the conclusions of a research paper without the knowledge or consent of its authors, and then publishing that work under the authors’ names, is unethical practice, and steps should be taken to ensure that it does not happen again.” Further, the OCUFA Statement concludes that in this connection “a serious breach of research ethics occurred at Queen’s University.” The charge is, in essence, one of “departure from academic integrity.” Provost Harrison’s effort to dispel such a charge on grounds that OCUFA made a factual error–that Jennifer Massey was actually “an employee of the University”–is hair-splitting. It is also entirely irrelevant to the central charge made by OCUFA. Whether the authors are students, employees, or both, or neither, the university should not be involved in falsifying their research without their consent or knowledge and then publishing it under their names. The university still needs to respond to this charge on a level that acknowledges its seriousness. If it asks students to live by the culture of “academic integrity,” it must demand that its faculty, staff, and administration live by that culture as well.

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