A group of Australian researchers who studied the cat’s meow as a model for urinary incontinence and other motor-neural issues in people have lost a 2015 paper in the wake of a misconduct investigation.
The target of the inquiry was Hari Subramanian, a former senior research fellow at the Queensland Brain Institute, part of the University of Queensland (UQ). Subramanian was leading studies of incontinence in the elderly, for which he sometimes used nerve stimulators on live rodents and cats. As The Australian reported last September, animal rights activists have objected to his research methods — which sometimes involved sticking probes into the brains of living animals.
Recently, the school launched an investigation — prompted by an unknown complainant — into the integrity of Subramanian’s data in two articles, including one, now retracted, that appeared in the Journal of Comparative Neurology.
The case is controversial, to say the least, replete with allegations of unfair attacks. Subramanian’s lawyer told us the journal may be reviewing its decision to retract the paper. (We couldn’t confirm that with the editor.)
Here’s what we’ve found out so far.
According to The Australian, Subramanian believed he had been denied a more secure position at the university because of the cloud of the investigation, which also sought to determine if he had obtained appropriate ethics approval for his work. Indeed, his co-author, UQ professor Gert Holstege (who also happens to be an associate editor of the Journal of Comparative Neurology) declared UQ’s probe to be unfounded, and motivated by attacks from animal-rights activists. Holstege told the paper:
I have told the integrity committee that they should also attack me, but they refuse to do so, which fits in with this totally scientifically illogical attack. It is not about scientific misconduct, it is about Hari Subramanian working with cats.
Holstege, who is Dutch, added that:
I have been warned by the police (in The Netherlands) to buy enough fire extinguishers because of the possibility that, because of my cat work, the ‘cat people’ might set my house on fire.’
According to his biography, in 2015, Subramanian was named one of UQ’s 12 most promising early-career researchers.
The above article, published online on 1 August 2015 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com), has been retracted by agreement between the journal Editor in Chief, Patrick R. Hof and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. The retraction has been issued following an investigation conducted by the University of Queensland and reviewed by the Editor in Chief.
But Chris McArdle, a lawyer for Subramanian, told us that the journal might be revisiting its decision. In one of several recent emails with us, McArdle said the JCN:
… agreed to review the unwarranted retraction of the paper.
We have pointed out that all of the claims made by the University of Queensland have been examined by the Editorial Committee of the Journal, and have been dismissed. The Editorial Committee published the paper with confidence.
After being rebuffed by the Editorial Committee, the University went about seeking out alternative means to damage our client, and so made representations to the publisher. We found out what had happened “second hand” and so had to make representations this week.
McCardle suggested that someone with a vendetta against Subramanian is behind the affair:
We (with some substance) suspect that their “complainant” is a vexatious individual with an agenda not associated with science. If proceedings are necessary, the person will be identified by subpoena.
JCN editor Hof has not responded to our requests for comment, so we haven’t been able to confirm McArdle’s claim.
Another area of murk: UQ has refused to discuss the nature of Subramanian’s case or anything else related to the matter. We did receive the following prepared statement from Mark Blows, UQ’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research:
UQ contacted the journal in April this year following an investigation. The investigation process concluded in October 2017. The corresponding author, Dr Hari Subramanian, left UQ when his contract expired in December 2017. Dr Subramanian did not accept the outcome of the investigation.
UQ does not identify complainants, but there is no suggestion the complaint that led to the investigation was made by animal rights activists or anyone motivated by animal rights concerns.
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