In 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 But in September 2013, the study — about using transcranial stimulation to treat the movement disorder — was retracted, leaving no legitimate basis for her own research.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.
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.”
Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.