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Academic Misconduct at Otago University – what Misconduct?

What happens when you make the serious charge of Academic Misconduct at the University of Otago? I decided to find out.

In 2015 a doctoral thesis was awarded to one Tammo Reichgelt, under the senior supervision of Associate Professor Daphne Lee of the University of Otago Geology Department. The thesis concerned plant fossils, climate and ecology of the Miocene period in New Zealand.

As part of this publicly-funded research (the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund) a large collection of fossils was made available for the student to work on. In his thesis, the student wrote “fossils were collected”. The labourious work of collecting these over several years, the days of preparation back in the lab, the work to formally catalouge them and record their precise locations on the national database (FRED) was in fact carried out by a former Otago PhD student – myself. As far as any thesis reviewer would be concerned, and particularly in the context of Otago Geology Department theses, “fossils were collected” would be taken for granted that the student had done this, and the consequent preparation, themselves. This sails, at least, perilously close to plagiarism- passing off someone else’s work as your own.

However, more followed. In his thesis, Tammo Reichgelt then ‘relocated’ those precisely located, previously collected fossils, several kilometres to other localities – twice. That is, at best, sloppy work. The student illustrated the geology of both the re-locations with detailed diagrams. However, one locality was submerged below the waters of Lake Dunstan before the student was born – indicating that the diagram could not have been the student’s work. Instead, it was clearly copied, without acknowledgement, from the work of another previous Otago PhD, Dr Barry Douglas. That’s clear plagiarism. At the second re-location (Vinegar Hill) the fossil collection was indicated as coming from a specific level that the student simply made up. Furthermore, that fictitious level consists of the wrong rock type, and it’s enough to indicate that the student did not know the locality, and that diagram was also redrawn from the work of Dr Barry Douglas. That’s both data fabrication and plagiarism.

The fossil specimens that had been handed to the student, had already been described and figured in a series of ten publications (in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand). Avoiding the chore of acknowledging these publications and dealing with them in a scholarly way, Reichgelt simply listed some,  and ignored the key paper. A later 80 page paper synthesising the student’s topic, and dealing with the material and localities he was studying, was perhaps harder to simply ignore. Instead, Tammo Reichgelt dealt with it in a single sentence in his thesis,  by stating that it … “echoed” his thesis.

Reichgelt went on to analyse three datasets provided by another researcher. A close look finds that around 10% of all data points that are claimed in the results, do not occur in the original dataset. In just one dataset alone, there are over 80 ‘new’ data points. If there is not a very good explanation why – this is data manipulation.

These are serious issues among a chain of more technical ones that characterise the thesis as a Gish-Gallop of rot. As one example, compound stratigraphic diagrams are given, which have their basis in the comment that “sections were correlated with each other using the stratigraphic correlations of Douglas (1985)”. In reality, Douglas’s careful stratigraphic correlations – linking localities spread across tens of kilometres, with mountains in between, were simply deleted – and then the sections sandwiched. This isn’t PhD-level geology, overseen by a Professor of Geology. It’s drivel. A range of such issues demonstrate a student and supervisors incompetent in the area, the field and in basic geology.

How does one go about dealing with this? If someone is affronted by seeing an astonishing pattern of behaviour which was rewarded by the grant of a doctorate by the University of Otago, is there any recourse?

Well, the Otago University has procedures for dealing with ‘Academic Misconduct’, which just might cover the behaviour exhibited in Tammo Reichgelt’s thesis. With this in mind, I contacted Professor Richard Barker, the University of Otago’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Division of Sciences. In a phone discussion where the process of filing a complaint was outlined, Barker explained that “we don’t go to the Head of Department, we go one-up”, which sounded like a sensible way to avoid conflicts of interest. In a follow-up email, Barker wrote “I wish to assure you that the University takes these matters very seriously and that if you proceed, we will investigate your allegations thoroughly.”

I then wrote a complaint, which as I said in the opening sentence, “centres on a PhD thesis”. However, as chapters of the thesis had been published separately, and then claimed as part of the thesis, reference also had to be made of them. My complaint focused on the plagiarism against Dr Barry Douglas, the unexplained data manipulation, and added examples of incompetence – in the thesis.

The complaint was then formally referred to Professor Richard Blaikie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise. From him, if Otago University protocol was followed, it went up to Vice Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne, who then appointed Professor Jonathan Waters, Associate Dean, Research Division of Sciences, to carry out a ‘preliminary investigation’. Waters soon emailed me informally to ask if there was any way that a formal investigation could be avoided. We exchanged two frank emails, and then around three months later I received an email from the office of Professor Blaikie with three attachments. One was a letter from Professor Waters to Professor Blaikie, announcing that none of the behaviour documented amounted to “serious misconduct” and was unworthy of further investigation.

The second attachment was a letter to me from Professor Blaikie acknowledging Waters’ conclusion, and something about “commitment to upholding scientific standards and integrity”.

The third attachment was a letter to me from Reichgelt’s PhD chief supervisor Associate Professor Daphne Lee.

Academic Dean Jonathan Waters’s ‘investigation’ apparently consisted mainly of soliciting a response from the senior thesis supervisor – Associate Professor Daphne Lee.

In his report to Professor Blaikie, Academic Dean Jonathan Waters misrepresented the complaint as “regarding the research publications” of the student, referring repeatedly to the publication of one chapter of the thesis. while studiously avoiding any mention of the “thesis”. The obvious motive for this is, that if the complaint centred on a publication, and not the thesis – it wasn’t Otago University business.

In concert with Academic Dean Jonathan Waters, Associate Professor Daphne Lee’s response also omits all mention of the thesis, referring repeatedly only to a journal paper, which is a published version of a thesis chapter. This suggests a mutually-agreed upon response. Furthermore, despite the dogged insistence that the charge was about the published chapter of the thesis – there was no response the lead-author of the publication, and the student whose thesis was the subject of the complaint – Tammo Reichgelt.

Academic Dean Jonathan Waters characterised the plagiarism in Tammo Reichgelt’s thesis as “inaccurate referencing” and “insufficient referencing”. Prestigious universities take plagiarism seriously. Oxford University for example, recognises three categories of plagiarism: Deliberate Plagiarism, Reckless Plagiarism and Unintentional Plagiarism. They are all plagiarism. By introducing the new terms, “inaccurate referencing” and “insufficient referencing”, Academic Dean Jonathan Waters just trivialised plagiarism at the Otago University.

The documented cases of unexplained data manipulation and fabrication were ignored entirely. Although Waters claimed the existence of a “detailed, point-by-point response to the primary issues” from Associate Professor Daphne Lee, the fact that his letter included only four glib quotes suggests that no such detailed response exists.

By ignoring the most serious issues, cynically misrepresenting the complaint as about a publication, not a thesis, and trivialising plagiarism Academic Dean Jonathan Waters framed the complaint as simply some researchers “aggrieved” about not being acknowledged.

Associate Professor Daphne Lee provided her student with a significant collection of material collected and curated by a previous PhD studying in the same Otago University Geology Department. I collected and prepared over 560 specimens from three of the four localities which her student analysed. They were entered into the Departmental fossil catalogue using the Geological Society of New Zealand Fossil Record Numbers – which were obtained by me, subsequent to my collecting. Tammo Reichgelts’s thesis illustrated at least six of those fossils that were not only collected by me, but had already been described and figured in publications. As the senior supervisor, Daphne Lee accepted the student’s dishonest wording in his thesis, “fossils were collected”, implying the collection was his own. Associate Professor Daphne Lee’s response to Water’s investigation: “We accept that material from this locality may have been previously collected by Dr Pole”, makes it clear that she is likewise reluctant to acknowledge both the significant ground work that was not done by her student, and that published material was ignored.

Lee acknowledges that it would have been “more appropriate” to have referenced Dr Barry Douglas’s formal publication rather than his thesis, and she reported her discovery that Douglas’s publication is “on-line”. A moment of on-line research would have shown that his publication is on the shelves of the Otago University Library where it has sat for more than thirty years.

Having been challenged on the plagiarism of two of Dr Douglas’s diagrams, Associate Professor Daphne Lee acknowledged that it had not been made clear “which two of the four columns in Figure 2 were redrawn from Douglas (1986)”. However, since the complaint was made, it is now apparent that a third diagram in the thesis (the Nevis Drill Core) is unlikely to be based on the student’s observations. The core is stored in the National Core Store, Featherston,  but was, until recently, unlocatable,  because the Drillhole Name, Date, Coal Region, Coal Field had been incorrectly entered into the database (it was catalouged as coming from the West Coast; pers. comm. Barry Douglas, 12.09.18 ) and there was no record of it having been accessed while it was effectively lost to the system. It would seem that the major Nevis Drill Core depth on the thesis diagram was taken from Douglas (1986), while the ‘details’ were simply made-up.  Reichgelt’s entire fourth column, Grey Lake, is guesswork  (and was described as “newly discovered”, although I had grid-referenced it to the meter, and documented it in previous publications).

By implication, Professor Waters’ decision means that the pattern of behaviour (repeated failure to acknowledge, repeated unexplained data manipulation), detailed in the complaint falls within the University of Otago’s “values and accepted practices associated with academic integrity” (Otago University, Student Academic Misconduct Procedures). Any responsibilities the University of Otago might have for the conduct and content of PhD research, and correction of plagiarism and ‘errors’, were flicked off as not theirs at all, but something that needed to be dealt by someone else via the publication process.

As his “neutral observer” Academic Dean Jonathan Waters chose Otago University Geology Department Professor, Dave Craw. While Craw’s expertise is not questionable, the conflict of interests is. Craw is both a close colleague of Waters (they publish together), and a colleague of the student’s supervisor, Associate Professor Lee. So much for “going one-up”.

One might expect that doctoral candidates at the University of Otago need to demonstrate proficiency in some core criteria – by doing the ‘hard mile’, acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the subject, showing some critical thinking, and plain simple ethical behaviour. One might expect that a student is required to scholarly critique published work directly relevant to what he or she is studying. One might even naively think that a student who dismisses the most relevant publication to what he is doing by writing that it ‘echoes’ his thesis might be pulled up for this by one of his supervisors. Instead, Associate Professor Daphne Lee, as the senior supervisor of the thesis, and recipient of the Marsden Grant public funding, implicitly accepted this comment, and explicitly did so as a co-author when the thesis chapter was published.

A PhD student, funded by the New Zealand public, via the Marsden Fund (for “excellent, investigator-led research”), who wrote a doctoral thesis outright, or effectively, ignoring all the publications on the very material he was been given to research, is apparently not cause for some serious reflection about Otago University quality-control (of both students and their supervisors) but according to Academic Dean Professor Waters, merely the cause for other academics to be ‘aggrieved’ . This is a disgraceful attitude from an Academic Dean. It ought to concern anyone who sees the University of Otago as an ethical organisation, with strict standards for presenting degrees, and using public funds.

The Otago University awarded a doctorate to a student who avoided acknowledging that someone else supplied much of his material, manipulated the collection data, plagiarised another researchers work, carried out widespread unexplained data manipulation, and avoided dealing with directly relevant  literature in any meaningful way, if at all. His supervisors – at bare minimum demonstrating ignorance of this,  added their names to publications of the thesis (along with a more concerted lack of acknowledging prior work). This thesis is a low point for Otago University, and hits rock bottom for its Geology Department.

The University of Otago defines Academic Misconduct as “actions which intentionally or unintentionally are contrary to the values and practices associated with academic integrity” and “The basis for ethical decision-making and behaviour in an academic context. This is reflected in norms of acceptable academic practice and is informed by the values of honesty, trust, responsibility, fairness, respect and courage.” It also defines Research Misconduct as: “Other practices that seriously deviate from those accepted within the research community for proposing, conducting or reporting research, such as intentional infringement of the University’s code of ethical behaviour as set out in the Staff Handbook”. In what might reflect Otago University’s disinterest in the subject, a Staff Handbook has not been produced since 1994, and copies are only held in the Hocken Library.

Despite the Otago University’s official stance on academic misconduct – that it is taken seriously, and there are serious consequences, the reality is clearly different. The response appears to be embarrassment.

The message from this is that the Otago University has no enforced standards governing its doctoral degrees and a process of academic misconduct review which allows them to claim that ‘process’ was followed, but then to avoid taking serious action. The results of this academic misconduct complaint beg the question of just what does a student (or staff member) have to do, to be doing ‘misconduct’? None of this, of course, will be a surprise to anyone who knows how institutions function. However, students considering research at the University of Otago ought to take note.

If you are ever hauled up for plagiarism, look your accusers straight in the eye, and say “No, it’s just inaccurate referencing”. Use this case as a precedent.

If potential students are asking themselves the questions, “How much plagiarism is acceptable in an Otago University thesis?” or “How much data manipulation can I get away with?” the answer is, apparently, more than is documented here.

Mike Pole PhD (Otago)

Links to documents

Academic Misconduct complaint Otago University 19.03.18

Letter from Academic Dean Jonathan Waters to deputy VC Blaikie 09.05.18

Letter from Prof Lee to Dr Mike Pole 09.07.18

Letter from Deputy VC Blaikie to Dr Mike Pole 10.07.18

Reichgelt, T. (2015). Reconstructing southern New Zealand Miocene terrestrial climate and ecosystems from plant fossils (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago.

Otago University Academic Integrity Policy

Otago University, Student Academic Misconduct Procedures

 

2 Comments

  1. Graeme Ure

    Wow!
    Purely rhetorical: And what of the examiners? Is it 3? and is it 1 or 2 that have to be external? and shouldn’t there have been 2 or 3 supervisors for a PhD?
    Hopefully you’ve also written lengthy critiques to the publishing journals.
    Can’t even get the flow of time correct: echos come after.
    And here I was thinking that academic standards were set in stone.

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