A grad student was caught in the crossfire of fraud — and fought back

uqIn March, 2013, a graduate student joined the lab of a prominent researcher in Australia, investigating new therapies for Parkinson’s. A few months later, everything fell apart.

In September 2013, the University of Queensland (UQ) announced it was retracting one of the lab’s papers, returning the money used to fund the research and launching a fraud investigation.  Since then, the scandal has grown to the point where the lead researcher and his co-author have been convicted of fraud in an Australian court.  

Now, the graduate student is fighting back. After losing her research project and being escorted off campus for allegedly erratic behavior, she has appealed to UQ to reimburse her for tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, and is now awaiting a verdict from a government ombudsman. The graduate student goes by “Dominique,” which is not her real name; Retraction Watch is keeping her identity confidential to protect her privacy.

Dominique began her studies with her co-advisors Bruce Murdoch and Caroline Barwood, basing her research on a study that her advisors had published on Parkinson’s disease. But in September 2013, the study — about using transcranial stimulation to treat the movement disorder — was retracted, leaving no legitimate basis for her own research. An investigation by UQ determined that there was no evidence the study had ever been conducted.

Murdoch received a two-year suspension, and has logged four total retractions from his fraudulent Parkinson’s research. A jury convicted Barwood of fraud last month.

 In September 2013, the university shuttered its Centre for Neurogenic Communication Disorders Research where Murdoch and Barwood had worked. Dominique was left without advisors or a place for her research.

By October 2013, one month after the lab closed, Dominique sought compensation from the university for expenses including her move from Taiwan, living costs and lost work hours, according to a report from the Queensland Ombudsman, an agency that investigates complaints about government actions and that was eventually called in to mediate the conflict. Dominique met with university staff members on April 24, 2014, to discuss settlements, but rejected three offers of $30,000, $60,000 and $92,800.

In an email to Retraction Watch, Dominique wrote:  

The offers are less than my actual expenses, and contingent upon non-disclosure, which means I would not be able to talk to people like you. Also, they kept changing the offer. They talked about a scholarship and paying for a lawyer. Neither happened. I was trying to agree to a settlement with them but they decided it was too much trouble so they made exaggerated allegations of misconduct against me and put me through a series of UQ kangaroo trials.

The University of Queensland declined to comment, citing confidentiality concerns. Five days after the failed negotiations, on April 29, 2014, things reached the point where security escorted Dominique from the campus.

The reason the university gave her was that Dominique’s behavior was becoming more and more erratic. By June 12, 2014, a university dean filed an official 17-page complaint against Dominique asking that the university conduct a thorough investigation.

The complaint stated in part that Dominique:

  • Refused to move to another research building (the Seddon Building) suggested by the university and instead camped out on the 8th floor of the Therapies Building.
  • Wrote in an email response to an administrator that she was in “a situation surrounded by enemies, isolated, and without any help. I should better disappear forever.”
  • Started a negotiation meeting by telling administrators “”No lies, no tricks, no traps”

The complaint listed five senior staff members who claimed that Dominique had harassed them. The complaint concluded with:

No amount of effort seemingly shifted (Dominique) from her position of strong distrust of the University and nothing less than hate for those who represent the University which has escalated as the months have progressed.

The complaint was written by Stephen Riek, deputy dean of the graduate school and Parkinson’s research who co-wrote five articles with Barwood and Murdoch. None of the co-written articles have been retracted.

Dominique told us:

I do not know what made Professor Stephen Riek do this. I never met him. I assumed that the [reason the] university tried to get rid of me is because I was related to the disgraced Professor Bruce Murdoch and Dr Caroline Barwood, my original supervisors.

In May 2014, a little more than a year after Dominique had arrived at the university, it suspended her, and three months after that, expelled her. Appeals to the university Senate Discipline Appeals Committee were in vain. David Lavell, associate director, closed her case in November, telling her that her complaints against the university were without evidence.

In February 2015, Dominique took her case to the Queensland Ombudsman, which looks into complaints against public agencies. It announced a year later that  the university must hold a new hearing. The university held the new hearing on Sept. 20 and Dominique is awaiting the results.

To recall what happened is still really distressing to me,” Dominique told us. “UQ hasn’t repaid me any money.”

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16 thoughts on “A grad student was caught in the crossfire of fraud — and fought back”

  1. I do feel sorry for the grad student to be “caught in the middle of research fraud”. But…

    It’s a sad fact that many research projects don’t work out. Fraud is one reason, but even without fraud, projects sometimes fail. Even the best supervisors cannot guarantee success…if they could, then it wouldn’t be called research. There are perhaps more “peaceful” ways of resolving this issue than trying to seek monetary compensation. (For example, could someone else in the department take her in? If not a full PhD degree, at least a Masters degree.)

    We all get cheated in life and on the side lines, we might applaud such courage. But honestly, if this was happening to someone I knew, I’d advise him/her to move on and be thankful that s/he has learned at an early age that some universities / PIs are not that great.

    I mean, it’s 2016 and the case dates back to 2013. She probably should accept the money and move on instead of fighting back and being forced to relive it.

    1. Sure one should advice the student concerned to move along, but it does not mean the institution involved is right. They did return the money to the funding agencies. They should also care for the people involved, in this case the graduate student.

    2. Sorry, but just because someone is a grad student doesn’t mean she has no legitimate grounds to ask to be reimbursed tuition fees and living expenses paid with the sole expectation of getting a degree from another country, given that she did not receive the services that she paid for. Academia is not some sort of holy untouchable domain. If the university took money in exchange for mentorship towards a PhD, a case of fraud against the mentors leaves the student out of tens of thousands of dollars and the advice to “just move on” is unacceptable. It is precisely this attitude that makes university administrators think they can get away with the kind of stuff that is mentioned in this blogpost (if the reports are accurate).

      A co-author of the fraudsters is who wrote the complaint on behalf of the university. Isn’t there some sort of conflict of interest there? This reeks of vendetta. Dominique, if you’re reading this, please disregard Raymond’s advice to “just move on”. Fight this with all you have and help set a precedent.

      1. Well, I didn’t say that she doesn’t have legitimate grounds to ask for reimbursement. My point is that you can’t win every battle in life and sometimes you have to “cut your losses”.

        It’s easy for those of us on social media to anonymously encourage someone to “keep fighting”, but after giving our comment, we click “Next” and move on to the next story. Meanwhile, the person who is in the middle of it has to continue living it…

        If Domnique is reading this, then my suggestion isn’t to quit fighting. It also isn’t to continue. Instead, it is to ask a lot of people you trust on what is the best course of action…

        1. So now you’re recommending she ask people she trusts and not “I’d recommend she move on”. The random Internet advice seemed fine to you when it came from you but when I recommended she fight this to the best of her ability, you mention random Internet advice and how that’s easy to do. Hmm…

  2. “No amount of effort seemingly shifted (Dominique) from her position of strong distrust of the University and nothing less than hate for those who represent the University which has escalated as the months have progressed.”

    I’ve no idea what the real facts of this case are, but if they’re anything close to those alleged in this blog post (and they may not be, of course), Dominque’s feelings about the university described here don’t seem unreasonable.

  3. Perhaps Prof. Riek should be the one under investigation, given that he seemingly failed to notice severe fraud going on under his very nose…? At any rate it is odd to have him passing judgment on Dominique when his own is in question.

  4. Quite bizarre from a US perspective, to think that in some places grad’ students have to pay to get a PhD! Either way, according to this table (https://graduate-school.uq.edu.au/fees) in 2013 the international student fees for biomed PhD were about $AUD 31k/yr. (~$US 23k). An offer of $AUD 90k reimbursement therefore seems quite easonable, even discounting an air fare (reloc’ expense) and some living expenses.

    This case also speaks to the advantages of the US PhD system in which grad’ students do several lab rotations within a Department or program before picking a mentor. In other countries where the student directly liaises with and is recruited by the mentor, there’s always the possibility for a bad match, which often may not be realized until after the student is on the ground. One can’t help thinking that if the student in this case had been aligned to a program, not a person, there would have been options to transfer to another mentor – after all she was only 6 months into the project so it would have been easy to start again in another lab without a big dent in the PhD timeline.

    1. Oh, don’t worry. Even professors here in the U.S. are careful to hide their neuroses, back-stabbing, and ethical violations from grad students until it’s too late. Then they really let the students have it.

  5. A sad state of affairs. Dominique is very brave to go public with her story. Duty of care has not been met by UQ. Riek, as senior management staffer, was protected. He coauthored papers in addition to some of the grant applications by Murdoch and Barwood.

  6. Painful . I wish i can have the courage of this brave student . Yet the transparency of the academic bodies is crucial .

  7. Paul Brookes – I may be mistaken, but I do not think your “US PhD system” is as universal across all American universities and departments as you have implied.

  8. Having been a PhD student at UQ who had significant problems with my supervision or lack thereof and who tried through student advocacy to address gross insufficiencies in the process that complaints are dealt with by the Graduate School, I am not surprised to hear about this story. Obviously there are two sides to every story and you have to question Dominique’s willingness to negotiate. However, if she was not willing to fully comply with the wishes of the Graduate School then she would have been isolated, ganged up on by the academics and discredited as much as possible. This is where a statement like, ”No lies, no tricks, no traps”, makes sense. This is not healthy for anyone’s mental well being and would only compound the initial problem. Although I sympathise with Dominique’s need to barricade herself in the Therapies Building, this was probably her fatal flaw and gave the university grounds to expel her. There is a lot at stake in undertaking a PhD, especially if you are from another country, and some consideration of Dominique’s state-of-mind is not evident. What is evident is that a senior academic with a clear conflict-of-interest has “dive-bombed” her from above. And after screwing her around for a while, a complaint was readily made that was instrumental in her expulsion. Sadly, this is not the first time I have seen this chain of events. It is encouraging to hear that the Queensland Ombudsman has requested that Dominique’s case be re-opened.

  9. Dominique is a strong and courageous girl, and she deserves all the rights back to her from the University of Queensland. The school is irresponsible from the very beginning when they granted Dominique the permission to persue her Ph.D. degree. The two co-advisors that she worked with, Bruce Murdoch and Caroline Barwood, were simply using her to their advantage. Thank God that their scheme was discovered and made known to the public! The poor Dominique should have been taken good care of and NOT be left alone. The univesity should compensate all the losses and nightmare that Dominique has gone through, including her tuition, living expenses, and other miscellaneous. Imagine all the prime time and life that Dominique has spent in a foreign country, even though money and time are irreversible. She deserves whatever compensation that she needs to heal the wound that she’s had. May Justice be done and the final decision is to her favor!

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