Private company to examine Shirkhanzadeh case amid new allegations

Investigators identified by Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research

One of Shirkhanzadeh's many allegation documents regarding academic dishonesty and institutional non-compliance.
One of Shirkhanzadeh's many allegation documents regarding academic dishonesty and institutional non-compliance.
Supplied by Morteza Shirkhanzadeh

A decade of allegations against Queen’s— for research misconduct, violated academic freedom and institutional non-compliance — are now being investigated by an external body.

The 10-year-old case begun with engineering professor Morteza Shirkhanzadeh, who first brought allegations to Queen’s of plagiarism and fabricated data in the scientific papers of a fellow Queen’s professor.

Over the last 10 years, Queen’s has taken measures to silence Shirkhanzadeh’s growing number of allegations – as outlined in a report published by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

After sending “thousands and thousands of emails”, says Shirkhanzadeh, the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR) — a national governing body for the ethical conduct of research — is now involved in examining the case.

The SRCR is charged with determining whether Queen’s is guilty of institutional non-compliance for improperly investigating the evidence that Shirkhanzadeh uncovered.

On April 8, Shirkhanzadeh posted an email on his personal website — the Little Office of Research Integrity (LORI) — from Karen Wallace, senior advisor for the SRCR.

The email dates back to Jan. 22, and lists the two potential external investigators looking into the case: Martin Letendre, the managing director for Vertitas IRB — an independent ethics review board — and Larry Kostiuk, the associate vice-president at the University of Alberta.

“The Secretariat will provide the investigators with all of the institutional non-compliance allegations that you submitted to the Secretariat to consider as part of the investigation,” it reads.

The dates of the institutional non-compliance allegations listed in the email are Dec. 27, 2012, July 21, 2014, July 30, 2014, Aug. 4, 2014, Aug. 7, 2014, Oct. 31, 2014, April 17, 2015, May 4, 2015, and Jan. 15, 2015.

According to Susan Zimmerman, executive director of the SRCR, a draft of the investigator’s report on the non-compliance allegations may be finished as early as June, with a final report slated for the end of July.

“Their report comes to us, and because it’s an allegation against an institution, it’s governed by the agreement on the administration of Agency, Grants and Awards at Research Institutions,” she said.

“We attempt to resolve [the situation] at a working level, and if that’s not possible, it gets sent on to more senior levels at the agency to determine what is to be done.”

She noted that the first step in the investigation is to sort out whether the allegation is well founded, and from that point, a drafted report will be sent to both the institution and the complainant.

Either party can respond to the draft with counter-arguments or revisions. However, it is up to the investigators whether to accept either party’s commentary in their final report.

Zimmerman couldn’t comment specifically on the Shirkhanzadeh investigation, as it’s currently underway, however she pointed to two key documents in understanding similar allegations.

The first, the Tri-Agency Framework: Responsible Conduct of Research, sets out the responsibilities and corresponding policies for researchers, institutions and agencies.

The second, the Agreement on the Administration of Agency Grants and Awards by Research Institutions, governs the way that Canadian scientific research is funded and honoured.

Shirkhanzadeh said he worries about how the University will react if the external investigators conclude that they are guilty of institutional non-compliance.

“The University has got a lot of money, lots of lawyers,” he said. His worry is that Queen’s will continually delay the report with legal technicalities “until I’ve gone completely from here.”

In an email to The Journal, Dan McKeown, associate vice principal (faculty relations) said since the university is “a party to a collective agreement with [the Queen’s University Faculty Association]” investigative processes involving faculty members are confidential and cannot be commented upon.

The SRCR’s sudden interest in the case, Shirkhanzadeh said, came after eight years of trying to contact them. He estimated that the investigation is now costing them “no less than $50,000.”

“At first, SRCR did not even want to investigate my allegations against the University, because they’re embarrassed,” Shirkhanzadeh said. “They are supposed to monitor the universities.”

He believes that SRCR’s interest was prompted by someone recently lobbying the government, which would put pressure on the Secretariat to examine the matter further.

In the meantime, two other investigations are currently underway by Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) and Professional Engineers & Geoscientists of  Newfoundland & Labrador (PEGNL).

In letters provided to The Journal by Shirkhanzadeh, PEO set an investigator to look into Shirkhanzadeh’s complaints on Feb. 5 of this year. PEGNL referred allegations to its Complaint Authorization Committee more recently, on May 24.

Three days after the PEGNL letter was sent, a new post on Shirkhanzadeh’s LORI site brought to light a separate allegation of institutional non-compliance against Memorial University.

In a Feb. 2 letter from Shirkhanzadeh to the SRCR, he writes that “the investigation process followed by Memorial University was non-transparent” when examining research integrity allegations submitted in Nov. 2014.

An SRCR response is linked, dating March 11, and acknowledges Shirkhanzadeh’s allegations. The SRCR response stated that they will be contacting Memorial University for further examination.  

The Journal will update this story as more information becomes available.

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