Professor's academic freedom violated, report finds

CAUT report finds “pattern of retaliation” against professor alleging research misconduct

Letter from Provost and Vice-Principal Robert A. Silverman to Dr. Morteza Shirkhanzadeh, with Principal Daniel Woolf and Bill Young, chair of the Board of Trustees, copied.
Letter from Provost and Vice-Principal Robert A. Silverman to Dr. Morteza Shirkhanzadeh, with Principal Daniel Woolf and Bill Young, chair of the Board of Trustees, copied.

According to a report published last month by a national union association, Queen’s has taken steps over the past 10 years to silence an engineering professor who attempted to expose evidence of research misconduct. 

Morteza Shirkhanzadeh, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has provided Queen’s with alleged instances of plagiarism and fabricated or falsified data in scientific papers written by another  Queen’s professor in 2005, who will remain unnamed due to legal concerns. 

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), a nationwide union association, represents 68,000 university teachers. 

According to the report, “The behaviour of Queen’s Administration in this matter is a typical reaction of an organization that has to deal with issues brought to it by a whistleblower. Rather than deal with the allegations in a fair and impartial manner, it seeks to silence the whistleblower to preserve its own reputation.

“We conclude that there is a pattern of retaliation against Professor Shirkhanzadeh in response to his allegations of fraud and misconduct.”

However, Queen’s Provost Alan Harrison told The Journal that CAUT has no jurisdiction over matters of academic freedom due to the collective union agreement between the Queen’s University and the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA). Because of the agreement, Queen’s didn’t participate in the investigation. Instead, CAUT used materials provided by Shirkhanzadeh and QUFA for their report. 

Shirkhanzadeh said research misconduct had been occurring for years before a colleague brought it to his attention in 2005. Shirkhanzadeh brought his allegations to the University shortly after. 

“I thought that what I’m doing is good for the University, it’s good for the funding agencies, good for the students and public,” Shirkhanzadeh said. “My general feeling over the last 10 years is they don’t like that. They don’t want to investigate.”

Shirkhanzadeh found multiple journal articles credited to the accused professor with research from a Queen’s physics experiment that he alleges contain plagiarism and falsified or fabricated data.

“It was a clear case of research misconduct,” he said.

His allegations of academic misconduct received media attention from Maclean’s magazine and Post Media News. In 2009, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences retracted three of the accused professor’s journal articles.

Despite this,  Shirkhanzadeh said attempts to silence him have gone largely unnoticed. Upon bringing new allegations to the University in 2010, Shirkhanzadeh engaged in constant email communication with the Queen’s administration. In 2011, the University blocked Shirkhanzadeh from sending emails to Queen’s employees and he was banned from entering three university buildings. 

These sanctions were based on allegations that Shirkhanzadeh emails were “unwelcome”, according to an official letter sent to Shirkhanzadeh from former Provost Robert Silverman.

“There was no physical threat, I didn’t enter any buildings. It was all electronic communications,” Shirkanzadeh said. “I don’t know [the people I emailed in the administration]. I’ve never been to some of those buildings at all.”

Shirkhanzadeh published new allegations of research misconduct on his personal website, called the Little Office of Research Integrity (LORI), in 2012. The University charged him with workplace harassment in 2014 based on the posts he published on his website.

Shirkhanzadeh, along with QUFA, filed grievances against the University and in August 2014 both parties settled to drop charges if Shirkhanzadeh removed certain posts from his website. However, the settlement included a provision that made it void if the CAUT published a report. Shirkhanzadeh says he no longer knows where he stands with the University.

In response to the report and the allegations, Provost Alan Harrison said the University takes allegations of research misconduct seriously and that policy sets a clear process for investigating allegations. But he added that all Queen’s faculty members, staff and students have the right to “work in an environment free from intimidation or harassment”. 

He said QUFA is the “sole and exclusive bargaining agent” with representation rights for academic staff. The collective agreement between the University and QUFA contains provisions on academic freedom and a grievance procedure for faculty “if s/he believes his/her academic freedom is being violated,” he said. CAUT, meanwhile, doesn’t have an agreement with the University.

“Given this, CAUT does not have the jurisdiction to conduct any investigation into this matter, and therefore Queen’s University did not participate in the CAUT investigation,” he said.

When the case began in 2005, Shirkhanzadeh collected alleged instances of research misconduct and brought the allegations to the University in accordance with Senate policy on research misconduct.

Senate policy reads: “If a member of the Queen’s community has reasonable grounds to suspect misconduct in research or scholarly activity it is the member’s responsibility to bring forward an allegation promptly”.

“That Senate policy basically makes faculty members become responsible,” Shirkhanzadeh said.

On Dec. 22, 2005, Shirkhanzadeh received a notice from the University that the case had been closed, and the University sent a report to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Dissatisfied with the results of the investigation, Shirkhanzadeh began publishing his own research.Between 2007 and 2009, he published three peer-reviewed journal articles with his findings. 

“Right from the beginning, they didn’t like my allegations. They knew they were correct, but they didn’t like it. They thought it would be embarrassing for them,” he said.

In 2009, Shirkhanzadeh followed up with NSERC and requested that they send him the report they received. Upon reading NSERC’s response to the Queen’s investigation, he said he concluded that the University had covered up misconduct. NSERC’s 2006 report on the allegations stated disappointment with the thoroughness of the Queen’s investigation and raised concerns of a conflict of interest on the part of the parties investigating the misconduct. 

An excerpt of the letter Dr. Shirkhanzadeh received from NSERC dated June 27, 2006 (Supplied by LORI)
An excerpt of the letter Dr. Shirkhanzadeh received from NSERC dated June 27, 2006 (Supplied by LORI)

After the ban on email communications in 2010, Shirkhanzadeh sought other ways to get his message out. In 2012, he started a website called LORI to publish his findings and he continued to publish the allegations throughout 2012 and 2013.

According to documents provided by Shirkhanzadeh, Provost Alan Harrison directed  Shirkhanzadeh on April 7, 2014 to take down posts from the website because the investigation had been closed. 

Harrison also made threats of discipline if he didn’t comply, according to Shirkhanzadeh.

On April 28, 2014, Shirkhanzadeh was notified that he was the subject of a harassment lawsuit filed by the University for materials and assertions made in regards to Queen’s employees on his website. Shirkhanzadeh refused to take down posts and latter settled the matter with the University. 

Following the CAUT report, Shirkhanzadeh said he feels he has the support of other academic colleagues. But he added that the past 10 years haven’t been easy for him.

“It takes too much of my time, energy,” Shirkhanzadeh said. “With the disciplines and threats it has not been a very good time for me.”

Shirkhanzadeh said he never considered leaving Queen’s, because the lack of investigation made into allegations of research misconduct isn’t a problem isolated to Queen’s. In Canada, research project funding agencies allow universities to investigate their own instances of alleged misconduct, which Shirkhanzadeh said is a conflict of interest.

“We need to have a system independent of the University,” he said.

 

The Journal will update this story and provide new information when it becomes available.

 

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