Eleven years after blowing the whistle

By: Victoria Gibson & Mikayla Wronko



“It’s lonely.”

After eleven years, these were the first two words that Morteza Shirkhanzadeh chose to describe the complex academic and legal case that has handled serious allegations of research misconduct, violated academic freedom, workplace harassment and institutional non-compliance, and which has enveloped the past decade for the Queen’s professor.

The case has had repercussions in the academic sphere internationally, as well as personally. Shirkhanzadeh has faced multiple suspensions and holds to his pay if he didn’t desist from pursuing the case. Now, he faces the possibility of termination.

Sitting in The Journal’s editorial office, with his hands folded in his lap, Shirkhanzadeh took a deep breath and told his story from the beginning.

First allegations

It’s

been twenty-eight years since Shirkhanzadeh’s first day at Queen’s.

Joining the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, his focus until Feb. 2005 was on his own research, in mechanical and materials engineering.

“One of my colleagues came to me,” Shirkhanzadeh said. The individual asked if he had seen two papers, written by another Queen’s faculty member. The papers, the colleague alleged, contained scores of plagiarized materials.

“And at that time, I was not involved, but my colleague had already complained,” Shirkhanzadeh said. At the time, he added, it seemed to them the University was brushing the complaint under a rug.

“He showed me that paper, and I couldn’t believe it. So I looked at it myself, and I said well, this is not acceptable. So, that’s how it started,” he said.

On Feb. 22, 2005

Shirkhanzadeh sent his first formal allegations of plagiarism to Queen’s administration, and to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

NSERC is a federal funding agency for engineering and science research, providing financial backing in excess of $1 billion per year to academics across Canada.

The allegations sent to NSERC and Queen’s went beyond the two original articles his colleague had pointed out. Through his own research, Shirkhanzadeh presented allegations regarding 22 duplicated academic papers, uncredited diagrams and falsified data that had been published in 16 journals.

The common author was Reginald W. Smith, a mechanical engineering professor emeritus at Queen’s. The academic misconduct allegations against Smith began with a paper that Shirkhanzadeh alleged pulled its major parts — results from tables, equations and substantial paragraphs — from a nearly identical paper previously published by Smith and other authors in a different journal.

In his letters, Shirkhanzadeh also cited three more examples of alleged academic misconduct.

“And I thought Queen’s would thank me for bringing the issue forward. Because their policy says that we are responsible to bring it up,” he said. “From day one, they didn’t like it.”

When approached by The Journal to discuss each of the allegations and situations involved in Shirkhanzadeh’s eleven-year case, Queen’s administration responded via email.

For instances involving other institutions, they would “not presume to comment on such items,” according the statement provided by Communications Officer Jasmine Toor.

“As for those items that do appear to involve Queen's, they either are, or may be, the subject of litigation, for which reason we have no comment.”

Misconduct covered up

Ten

months after Shirkhanzadeh submitted his allegations against Smith

on Dec. 22, 2005

a Queen’s investigation concluded that no research misconduct had occurred.

Three years later, though, a since-removed Canwest news article jostled the case again. While Smith was not named in the article, a later piece in the

Ottawa Citizen

confirmed the connection.

“A Canadian academic continues to receive research money from Ottawa almost two years after top government advisers recommended the scientist be cut off and banned from receiving another penny because of misconduct, federal documents say,” the May 20, 2008 article began.

The article revealed that a 2006 convening of the NSERC integrity council had concluded that there was “sufficient evidence of misconduct” in the academic’s work.

The council had found enough

evidence,

at the time, to warrant severe sanctions against Smith and an indefinite ban on funding his work.

Despite this, the Canwest article revealed that Smith was still receiving between $20,000 and $30,000 per year from NSERC. Canwest had obtained the evidentiary documents through an access-to-information process.

The access-to-information

documents

also revealed that Queen’s had known about falsified data in Smith’s work since 2002, when a technician notified the administration of misconduct he had found dating back to 1993.

Queen’s had, contrary to Shirkhanzadeh’s knowledge, concluded at the time that there had been “gross misconduct” in Smith’s work. The Canwest article added that Smith was given a one-year suspension.

The repercussions had been kept under wraps after the University and “the researcher,” as the Canwest article refers to him, signed an agreement in 2003 not to divulge the details of the instance. Federal research guidelines dictate that universities must report to granting councils if researchers receiving federal funding are found to engage in misconduct.

In June 2006, NSERC terminated Smith’s grants and banned him from receiving funding in the future, according to the Ottawa Citizen article published in 2010.

However, a week later, NSERC received a letter from Smith’s lawyer, requesting the documents that the NSERC committee used to make its decision.

Those documents would have violated the federal Privacy Act however, and, as a result, on July 28, NSERC’s vice president told Smith’s lawyers that the sanctions would be dropped.

Smith passed away in May 2014. Postmedia, which acquired Canwest following its bankruptcy, was contacted for comment, however they could not provide a comment on the specific article’s removal.

Personal research

In

the wake of Queen’s 2005 investigation verdict, Shirkhanzadeh dove into personal research on the subject of academic misconduct.

In the years following the initial allegations, he published three peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, which elaborated on his allegations of plagiarism against Smith.

To him, the evidence was quantitative. “I’m a scientist,” he said simply, “and I knew these papers were fabricated.” Letting the instance slide, in his mind, was unethical.

Amidst his personal research, Shirkhanzadeh began approaching University administration members. In Oct. 2009, he wrote an email to Queen’s Vice Principal (Research), Kerry Rowe, pointing to a trail of evidence on academic misconduct, which he said continued into papers published that year.

“There is now considerable evidence showing that the remedial action taken by the university in 2006 was ineffective in preventing the reoccurrence of academic misconduct,” he wrote. The “remedial action”, according to Shirkhanzadeh, was Smith’s promise that practices would be implemented in his research group to prevent any further issues.

This email was one of ten sent by Shirkhanzadeh to Rowe between Oct. 2009 and Jan. 2010, including members of NSERC each time on the correspondence. Each presented further allegations of academic misconduct and pleaded with both bodies that his claims were worth a stricter investigation.

Among the evidence presented, Shirkhanzadeh detailed alleged fabrication of cited research groups, use of erroneous information which had been previously used in other papers by the cited authors, and hand-drawn diagrams that didn’t appear to represent any credible data.

In a Dec. 2009 email, Shirkhanzadeh said that although Queen’s assessment in 2005 found no evidence of data falsification, plagiarism or copyright infringements, it didn’t include the possibility of data fabrication.

The data fabrication allegations brought forward in 2005 had not been properly investigated, he wrote. As a result, he maintained that Queen’s had not yet determined whether a breach of integrity had taken place, and that the University was therefore institutionally non-compliant.

“Now that the case of non-compliance has been discovered, I am sending the original allegations of data fabrication with the request that the allegations be investigated in accordance with Tri-Council Policy Statement,” he wrote.

The Tri-Council Policy Statement is a joint document of NSERC as well as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which defines the policies and expectations with regard to integrity of researchers and grant councils

In June 2010, NSERC Corporate Secretary Barbara Conway

wrote back to Shirkhanzadeh.

“Given the significant period of time that has elapsed since the original case,” only his allegations against researchers from 2009 forward would be addressed through NSERC’s usual.

In August of 2010, Rowe wrote a similar letter to Shirkhanzadeh. The case had been closed, she said. Any further allegations based on this professor’s work would not be investigated.

Papers retracted, whistle-blower banned from campus

“Please

ensure that you do not defame the University,” Robert Silverman, then-Provost of Queen’s wrote to Shirkhanzadeh on Jan. 2, 2011.

His message came on the heels of a media flurry in late 2010.

Postmedia News

and the Ottawa Citizen had got wind of Shirkhanzadeh’s case, following four scientific articles by Smith being retracted by the

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The articles were retracted for what was called by the academic journal’s editors “a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system,” as cited in the Citizen article. Throughout this period of media attention, Shirkhanzadeh’s emails to Queen’s administration continued.

Shirkhanzadeh had also begun sending emails to the Queen’s Board of Trustees alleging that the situation had been mishandled, and that the University had engaged in institutional non-compliance by improperly investigating the allegations brought to them.

On

April 6, 2011,

Principal Daniel Woolf wrote a letter to Shirkhanzadeh at the request of the Board defending how the University handled the research misconduct allegations.

“Many staff members have spent countless hours looking into your allegations. I hope you will now accept the University’s findings. I consider this matter closed,” he wrote.

After persistent daily emails from Shirkhanzadeh insisting that the University look deeper, on

May 10,

Silverman sent a two-sentence letter.

“I am writing to direct you to cease emailing members of the Board of Trustees. Your emails are unwelcome and intrusive,” it read.

Two weeks later,

Silverman requested a meeting with Shirkhanzadeh in person, citing “safety and security concerns” arising from his email messages. Shirkhanzadeh refused the meeting.

The day after Shirkhanzadeh’s response, on May 30, he received

another letter

from Silverman. He was labelled a security threat and banned from three administrative buildings on the campus.

“These prohibitions have been put in place as a protective measure for our staff and they will remain in place until we are satisfied that you have modified your behaviour,” Silverman wrote.

Academic freedom violated

In

2012, Shirkhanzadeh modified his behaviour, though perhaps not in the way Silverman expected. On May 1, the

Little Office of Research Integrity (LORI)

appeared online.

LORI was Shirkhanzadeh’s database, accessible to anyone with a web connection. It allowed him to openly publish his allegations of research misconduct across Canadian institutions.

The site was immediately picked up by news outlets, with a

story

featured in Maclean’s Magazine on the project only a few weeks later.

“Ideally, Shirkhanzadeh says, there should be an official office to make these corrections. Part of the purpose of the web site is to show that more needs to be done,” author Todd Pettigrew wrote.

However, after two years of LORI’s operation, Silverman’s replacement, Alan Harrison, pushed back against the site. On April 7, 2014, Harrison wrote a letter to Shirkhanzadeh, directing him to immediately remove 30 posts which made new allegations of research misconduct against another senior professor at Queen’s.

Two weeks later, on April 28, Harrison’s directive grew into a workplace harassment investigation against Shirkhanzadeh for the material and allegations that he had posted on his site.

A meeting was scheduled for the next day, between Shirkhanzadeh, Leslie Jermyn from the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) and University officials — Harrison, Dan Bradshaw and Cynthia Fekken.

Shirkhanzadeh made it clear during the meeting that he had no intention of removing the posts, but later added that he was willing to correct any errors in information if the University could point to them.

On June 3, Shirkhanzadeh was given an ultimatum. He had 10 days to remove his web posts, to “avoid the imposition of further discipline,” Harrison wrote in a letter.

Within a few days, QUFA had been notified about the harassment investigation against Shirkhanzadeh. QUFA initiated a grievance against Queen’s the following week.

“This is a spurious investigation designed to find the respondent guilty without having to prove that any harassment has occurred,” Jermyn, from QUFA, said at the time in a letter to Bradshaw.

On July 4, the posts remained on the site. Queen’s suspended Shirkhanzadeh for a day with pay, and Harrison gave him until July 11 to comply and avoid the discipline heightening.

On July 10, Shirkhanzadeh deleted nearly 30 posts.

The harassment investigation continued into the first days of August, when Shirkhanzadeh was charged with workplace harassment.

In order to put the issues on both sides to rest, a settlement was drafted and agreed upon at the time by Queen’s and Shirkhanzadeh. Shirkhanzadeh’s allegations and the University’s case of workplace harassment against him would both be dropped.

Part of the settlement included a year-long sabbatical for the 2015 academic year, for Shirkhanzadeh to settle back into his own research outside of the confines of his teaching schedule, he told The Journal.

However, an important provision was made. If the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) — a national union for academic staff — released a report on Shirkhanzadeh’s case, the University had the right to declare the settlement void.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers

The

University’s provision regarding a CAUT report wasn’t without reason.

In June 2014, before the settlement was made, the CAUT requested information from both Queen’s and QUFA on Shirkhanzadeh’s situation.

At the time, Principal Woolf refused to provide CAUT with any of his files, but QUFA agreed to provide all the information they had available.

“CAUT simply has no jurisdiction to conduct any investigation into this matter, and it would be entirely inappropriate for CAUT to do so,” Woolf wrote in a letter to CAUT officials.

However, CAUT was not daunted by Woolf’s refusal to cooperate. In September 2014, CAUT representatives met with Shirkhanzadeh, officials from QUFA and other members of the Queen’s faculty to discuss the allegations and how they had been handled.

In April 2015,

CAUT released a report

concluding that the University had violated Shirkhanzadeh’s academic freedom by silencing his allegations.

“The case raises important questions about the intersections between academic freedom, whistle-blowing, and extramural communications,” it said.

On May 8, Queen’s declared the settlement with Shirkhanzadeh void and his academic leave was rescinded. Afterwards, David Robinson, executive director of CAUT, spoke to The Journal.

“The fundamental question is ‘what is the University afraid of?” he asked. ‘‘Why would they be so obsessed with having this report come to light?”

On July 3, Robinson confirmed to The Journal that CAUT would be covering the legal costs for Shirkhanzadeh’s grievances against Queen’s for violating his academic freedom.

Amidst this, the CDIO Initiative — an international conference, based in Sweden, for education in the field of engineering — retracted four conference papers by one of the professors Shirkhanzadeh had named.

Provost Harrison requested a meeting with Shirkhanzadeh to discuss his grievances, which Shirkhanzadeh cancelled on Aug. 12, seeing Harrison’s role in the investigation as a violation of his right to procedural fairness.

Shirkhanzadeh requested that the restarted harassment investigation be delayed, in order to wait for the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR) to review the University’s original report on his allegations.

Five days later, a

new letter

from Harrison showed up in Shirkhanzadeh’s inbox. He had been suspended for three days, without pay, for workplace harassment.

External investigations begin

Hundreds

of emails fly out of Shirkhanzadeh’s outbox on a weekly basis. For years, he pleaded with the SRCR to investigate his case.

Finally, an

email

from Karen Wallace, an SRCR senior advisor, appeared on Shirkhanzadeh’s LORI site at the beginning of April 2016. Two external investigators were now on the case, to determine whether Queen’s was guilty of institutional non-compliance by improperly investigating evidence.

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, were selected. They would not be investigating every instance — they were tasked with a specific list of allegations

, from

Dec. 27, 2012

to Jan. 15, 2015.

The investigation would be conducted and a drafted report was intended to be finished as early as June, to be sent to both the institution and the complainants for comments and revisions.

As of July 21, Shirkhanzadeh said that he hasn’t received anything yet. The final report, according to Susan Zimmerman, executive director of the SRCR, had been slated for the end of July.

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

Shirkhanzadeh provided The Journal with the letters sent by both organizations. PEO promised to set an investigator to look into complaints on

Feb. 5, 2016

.PEGNL referred his allegations to its Complaint Authorization Committee only a few months ago, on

May 24.

The PEO investigation has to do with the misuse of funds and duplication of academic information by another professor at Queen’s, says Shirkhanzadeh.

The professor will remain unnamed due to legal concerns, however, Shirkhanzadeh alleged in a letter to Karen Wallace, on

Feb. 15, 2016,

that less than 1 per cent of the author’s work was examined by the university for research misconduct. According to him, they failed to investigate over 100 conference papers.

As well, according to Shirkhanzadeh’s letter, the allegations of “misuse of funds” were unaddressed, as expenses were used that weren’t on the list of eligible expenses by NSERC. Primarily, the funds were used to travel to international conferences with duplicated papers, he claimed.

Three days after the response letter from PEGNL in May, Shirkhanzadeh’s posted a

new allegation of institutional non-compliance

, this time against Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The investigation process followed by Memorial University was non-transparent “when examining research integrity allegations submitted in Nov. 2014,” Shirkhanzadeh wrote on his website.

Speaking to The Journal, he explained that his involvement in the Memorial case stemmed from a Queen’s professor who Shirkhanzadeh had named in previous allegations.

In letters provided to The Journal, he noted that failing to conduct an adequately transparent investigation violates the Collective Agreement between Memorial University and Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association.

An SRCR response to Shirkhanzadeh confirmed that Memorial would be contacted for further examination. As of June 16, Shirkhanzadeh said that the power was in the hands of the SRCR to investigate.

On June 24, Memorial’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Gary Kachanoski, wrote a letter to Shirkhanzadeh. “Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention,” Kachanoski wrote, adding that he always took allegations of academic misconduct seriously.

At the time of the letter’s writing, he had appointed two independent investigators to the case. Their deadline was expected to be within less than 90 days.

However, while the external investigations have been underway, the investigations against Shirkhanzadeh at Queen’s have carried on. At the end of June, one concluded.

Termination warnings

"You

are at risk of dismissal.”

The statement fell at the end of a letter to Shirkhanzadeh from Deputy Provost Teri Shearer, sent on

June 29, 2016.

For the third time in a year, the letter informed him that he was suspended. Again, he wouldn’t be paid. This time, he was asked to leave for a month.

The letter was the result of a new investigation launched by Shearer, which alleged that Shirkhanzadeh had been insubordinate to his superiors at the University.

Requests had been made of him to meet with the dean of his faculty, he explained to The Journal, after receiving his University Survey of Student Assessment of Teaching (USAT) scores.

On April 4, Shirkhanzadeh had penned a letter to associate vice-principal Dan McKeowen arguing that the scores were based on unreliable data, and therefore asking him to meet was not justified. He told The Journalthat it seemed to be another retaliatory action for his whistle-blowing.

In his letter, he wrote that the dean gave his scores to higher administrative members “without considering the fact that the response rate for the first two questions was only 16%”.

The minimum response rate considered representative by the Senate Committee on Academic Development (SCAD) guidelines at Queen’s is 65 per cent.

On June 26, in a letter to Engineering Dean Kimberly Woodhouse, Shirkhanzadeh stated that he wished to “make it clear that I cannot and never will obey an order to prepare a “Teaching Improvement Plan” and present that plan in a meeting.”

If he did, he wrote, it would come in response to an assessment practice that “is so obviously non-transparent and in gross violation of the Collective Agreement and SCAD guidelines”.

Days letter, the suspension letter arrived from Shearer. The investigation had closed, and disciplinary measures would be imposed for two acts of insubordination by Shirkhanzadeh.

Shearer cited the Collective Agreement, stating that the intent of the disciplinary action was corrective. The appropriateness rested on the cause, she wrote. As well, due to his prior disciplines, the suspension would be lengthened to a month: from July 1 to July 31.

Shearer asked that he “not attend work or perform duties” at this time. As well, Shirkhanzadeh’s email would be suspended for the period. The warning of dismissal was given “if your performance or behaviour should attract the imposition of further disciplinary measures”.

As of July 3, Shirkhanzadeh told The Journal that QUFA will be filing grievances in response to the new disciplinary measures. He had only just returned to work post-suspension when another letter arrived announcing a new investigation against him by Queen’s.

A confidential investigation

Don't

inform anyone in the workplace or connected with the workplace about this investigation. As well, do not comment publicly on the fact it is proceeding. These were the warnings given in an August 11 letter, from Shearer to Shirkhanzadeh.

In her most

recent letter,

the Deputy Provost informed the professor that there was a new investigation against him.

“I have initiated an investigation to determine whether you have been insubordinate in failing to attend a meeting in August 2016 with your Unit Head, Kevin Deluzio, as directed. The purpose of my investigation is to determine whether the imposition of discipline may be warranted,” Shearer wrote.

The law firm of Andrew Zabrovsky had been retained by the University to conduct the investigation. “Mr. Zabrovsky will contact you to invite you to meet,” the letter continued.

During this meeting, or by written response, Shearer noted that Shirkhanzadeh would be able to “respond fully to any such allegations” and to inform him of anyone else thought relevant to speak with about the case.

She also recommended that Shirkhanzadeh speak with QUFA about whether he should have legal representation during the meeting.

Any individual participating in the process should be free from negative reprisal, and she directed Shirkhanzadeh to inform her of any negative repercussions he may experience.

“Please know that we will make every effort to conclude this investigation as quickly as possible. Once the investigation is complete, you will be advised of the outcome,” the letter said.

Who am I doing this for?

Back

in his chair at The Journal office, hands still folded neatly in his lap, Shirkhanzadeh has little idea what’s coming next.

“I just don’t want to become the center of all this,” he said, asking that photographs of him were minimal while telling the story in its entirety. “I just want the main issue to be out. It’s like when I write a scientific paper.”

Looking back on the last decade of his life, Shirkhanzadeh explained that he had learnt a great deal about whistle-blowers — especially those who never intended it to happen.

“Whistle-blowers don’t decide to become whistle-blowers. They are drawn in,” he said.

If he had known the tangled mess that came from his first allegations, he admitted that he may have just kept up with his personal life and his own work.

He is tired, he said, of walking into his own faculty building to hostility. Tired of fighting the University, tired of legalities and lawyers and allegations. But, he said, it’s too big now not to carry on.

Over the last eleven years, he says that watching the culture and approach to academic integrity shift on university campuses has been painful.

“If you go back ten years ago, we had very many impressive faculty members, and they were challenging the administration. But now, we’ve got this culture of complicity,” he said. He watched other professors operate “like workers on an assembly line.”

“Because they don’t want to jeopardize their job here,” he said. On days where he feels alone, and bombarded with reports and letters, he says he wonders why he is still doing this.

“You feel so lonely,” he reiterated. He fumbled with his hands, looking for an example. “Say you’re in Egypt,” he said. “You go to the square, and there’s a revolution there. You look at the people, and you say I’m doing it for these people. I’m doing it for my people.”

“I know this isn’t like a revolution,” he admitted, “but what I’m doing, it is important? I just don’t know, who am I doing this for?"