Fraud and Australian academics

Published in Thought and Action (The NEA Higher Education Journal), Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 1989, pp. 95-102. This is the text as submitted. The published version was edited extensively.

Brian Martin

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In the past several years, the Australian academic community has been rocked by a series of highly publicized cases of alleged fraud. These have revealed several deficiencies in academic and scientific institutions.

Michael Harvey Briggs, Professor of Human Biology at Deakin University in Victoria, did extensive research on the effects of oral contraceptives, especially in developing countries. His work was recognized to the extent of attracting one million dollars in research funds from pharmaceutical companies.

In the early 1980s, the chairperson of the Deakin University Ethics Committee, Dr Jim Rossiter, heard rumors about problems with Briggs' research. He wrote to Briggs in 1983, querying the recruitment of women and the analyses of specimens in research reported in papers published by Briggs, collaborating with his wife Maxine, in 1979 and 1980. Not being satisfied with Briggs' reply, Rossiter made a formal complaint to Professor Fred Jevons, Deakin's Vice-Chancellor (equivalent to the president of a United States university).

Jevons set up a preliminary committee to assess whether charges should be laid. But Briggs opposed this and sought an injunction from the Victorian state Supreme Court. In an extraordinary sequence of events, the inquiry was halted on the instruction of the university Visitor. (The Visitor, an archaic institution in many British Commonwealth universities, is an appointed individual who has an ultimate but, today, an extremely rarely exercised power to intervene in university matters).

The Visitor for Deakin University was Sir Brian Murray, Governor of the state of Victoria, a largely honorary position similar to that of the Queen of England. Murray ruled that Jevons had failed to establish that there was a prima facie case before initiating an inquiry. (Jevons denied this, but there is no way to challenge a Visitor's decision.)

Later in 1985, a new inquiry was instituted upon receipt of a further formal complaint by Rossiter and two other scientists which included new material. Shortly afterwards, Briggs resigned and the Deakin inquiry was thereupon terminated. While the allegations about his work continued, Briggs lived in in isolation in Spain and died in 1986 of natural causes.

Just before Briggs died, Deakin set up an inquiry into all aspects of the case, obviously designed to clear the reputations of Briggs' co-workers and to help rehabilitate Deakin University's own reputation. In 1987 this investigating committee reported that data in some of his publications was fabricated at least in part, while exonerating his collaborators at Deakin.[1]

Dr Ronald Wild was Professor of Sociology and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne. A productive and influential scholar, Wild had many students and had been president of the Sociological Association of Australia and New Zealand. In 1985, his latest book, a textbook entitled An Introduction to Sociological Perspectives, was published by Allen and Unwin. Soon after, several academics noticed that extensive passages in the book were nearly identical with materials published elsewhere, with little or no attribution. Wild's book drew most heavily on a British introductory sociology text, but also on various other sources.

Under increasing pressure concerning the apparent plagiarism, Allen and Unwin withdrew the book. The Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University set up an inquiry into the allegations. In mid 1986 Wild resigned. Because of this, the inquiry into the plagiarism, not yet complete, was disbanded.[2]

Wild quickly obtained a high-paying academic job in the far northwest of Australia. The director of the Hedland College of Technical and Further Education was reported as saying that Wild's appointment had been approved in full awareness of the allegations of plagiarism, and that he was selected for his "academic experience and his leadership."[3]

In December 1987, allegations were published that medical researcher Dr William McBride had manipulated and invented scientific data.[4] McBride achieved fame in the early 1960s by pointing out the link between the use of the drug thalidomide by pregnant women and limb deformities in their children. He established and headed Foundation 41, a Sydney-based medical research foundation concerned with the causes of birth defects.

In 1980, McBride instructed Foundation 41 junior researchers Phillip Vardy and Jill French to carry out tests of the effect of scopolamine on rabbit embryos. Scopolomine is closely related to one of the ingredients of the morning sickness drug Bendectin. In 1982 Vardy and French were surprised to discover that, without their knowledge, they had been included as co-authors with McBride of a paper published in the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences. Furthermore, it appeared that their original data had been altered and augmented to show a significant effect on the embryos. A series of drafts of the papers revealed changes in McBride's handwriting.

Vardy and French confronted McBride about this but obtained no satisfactory answer. As a result both junior researchers later resigned. Seven other scientific staff of Foundation 41 wrote to its Research Advisory Committee about the allegations. Shortly afterwards McBride informed all seven that they were retrenched due to "lack of funds." Vardy and French sent a letter to the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences concerning the issue; it was never published.

McBride testified a number of times in the United States against Bendectin before it was withdrawn by the manufacturer Merrill Dow in 1983. The allegation of fraud only surfaced due to a lengthy investigation by science reporter Dr Norman Swan of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Due to the intense publicity, Foundation 41 set up an independent inquiry into the allegations; it commenced in July 1988.

The committee of inquiry reported in November 1988 that McBride had deliberately falsified material in the 1982 paper in the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences and that in this regard, "Dr McBride was lacking in scientific integrity."[5] McBride immediately resigned from all positions at Foundation 41. This series of events has been devastating for the Foundation, which relies for its funding mainly on contributions from the public.[6]

While the cases involving Briggs, Wild, and McBride have received considerable attention, what is perhaps the most vexed case of all continues after a decade at the University of Newcastle. At the beginning of 1977 Dr Alan Williams took up a professorship in the Department of Commerce at the University of Newcastle. In the second half of 1978 a senior lecturer in the same department, Dr Michael Spautz, raised questions about the methods and conclusions of Williams' Ph.D. thesis.

It should be noted that in the Australian academic system, a professor is roughly equivalent to a full professor in the United States, though more exclusive: typically some one out of seven academic positions are professorships. An Australian senior lecturer is roughly equivalent to a US associate professor, and an Australian lecturer to a US assistant professor. Professor Briggs at Deakin, Professor Wild at La Trobe, and Professor Williams at Newcastle represented the elite of Australian academia.

Williams received his Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia in 1975. It is reasonable to assume that the thesis played an important role in his appointment at the University of Newcastle, since he had only a few other publications, which themselves were based on the thesis. Spautz's challenge to the thesis thus was a very serious matter.

Some may wonder how Williams was appointed a professor with such a limited publication record. One explanation is that publication rates in the commerce area are much lower than in many other academic fields. Also, it has been suggested that the Commerce Department was desperate to make an appointment from among the available applicants, since otherwise money for the position might have been withdrawn.

Williams' thesis is a substantial work of some 750 pages, entitled "A study of the characteristics and performance of small business owner/managers in Western Australia." The thesis presents various statistics concerning small businesses, in particular reasons for their failure and success. Its key conclusion is that inability by entrepreneurs to psychologically cope with the stress of business life is a prime factor in causing business failures: "individuals who can adapt to and cope with the stress of managing a small firm are the best performers."

Spautz initially had two main criticisms of the thesis. First, he claimed that many of Williams' statistics were either unsubstantiated by evidence or else calculated using inappropriate methods. Second, Spautz claimed that Williams had confused cause and effect, and that in essence business failure may be the cause of emotional stress rather than its consequence.

Spautz first presented his criticisms to Williams in private. Spautz also wrote a couple of short and sober rebuttals of Williams' thesis work. But these were refused publication by the journals Rydge's and Real Estate Journal, in one case on the grounds that the paper was defamatory, and in the other on the grounds that readers would not remember Williams' article published some years earlier. Arguably, Spautz should have kept trying to find an academic outlet for his criticisms.

In the event, Spautz began circulating letters and memoranda to other members of the Department of Commerce and to university officials. In time he presented his criticisms to an ever widening group of staff at the university, especially via his hard-hitting memoranda.

Beginning in May 1979, Spautz attacked another aspect of the thesis: he accused Williams of plagiarism. In particular, he alleged that Williams quoted sources which had not been consulted without citing the secondary sources from which the quotes were taken.

In October 1979 a committee of three professors was set up by the University Council (the equivalent of a US board of trustees) to look into the dispute in the Department of Commerce. This committee did not seriously examine Spautz's allegations about Williams' thesis, but rather focused on Spautz's behavior in communicating his criticisms of the thesis to staff at the university. After receiving the judgment of the committee, whose report remained confidential, the Council directed Spautz to end his campaign against Williams.

Spautz interpreted the Council's instructions to him as an attempt to muzzle his right to comment on academic matters. Instead of keeping quiet, Spautz expanded his campaign by circulating memoranda which attacked not only Williams but also others including the Vice-Chancellor Professor Don George and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Mr Justice Michael Kirby.

In February 1980 the University Council set up another committee, this time of four Council members headed by Mr Justice Kirby. The "Kirby Committee" like the earlier committee focused on the behavior of Spautz. It found that Spautz had disobeyed the Council's instructions to stop making allegations against Williams. On 20 May 1980 the Kirby Committee reported to Council, and on that day Council resolved that Spautz be dismissed from his post three days hence.

The dismissal of a tenured member of university staff was especially serious in this case in that at no time was Spautz formally charged with misconduct and given a full and effective opportunity to defend himself against the charge.

What is most revealing is that there has been almost no public comment by academics about any aspect of the case. When I visited the University of Newcastle, my impression was that some academics were simply afraid to say anything publicly, or even privately, in case it should affect their careers. The one major statement was by the Executive of the University of Newcastle Staff Association (the faculty's union), which in a report took a very critical view of the Council's actions. But only the Executive spoke out; the Staff Association as a whole did nothing.

After his dismissal, Spautz began a legal action against the university for wrongful dismissal. In this legal action, Spautz acted on his own behalf, without support from the Staff Association or any other group. He also launched actions against top academics and administrators at the University of Newcastle, including Williams, George, and Kirby, for criminal defamation. Spautz's legal challenges have been financed by Legal Aid, a government-funded support service for suitable applicants.

Spautz has continued to produce numerous memoranda about all sorts of matters involving the case. He has also expanded the scope of his criticisms. He alleges that leading university officials and also members of the New South Wales state government have conspired to obstruct justice. Spautz has certainly defamed many individuals through his memoranda (for example by referring to various named individuals as bootlickers and conspirators to obstruct justice), but no one yet has brought an action for defamation against him. The standard pattern for the academics seems to be to keep as low a profile as possible about "internal disturbances."

Spautz has been pursuing his legal actions since 1980, but the courts move slowly. It seems that it will be some years yet before the cases are resolved. In one of the actions a magistrate ruled against Spautz in 1983, and awarded $5000 in costs against him. Spautz refused to pay as a matter of principle, and was jailed on a 200-day sentence as a consequence.

Later, a judge ruled that Spautz had been wrongly imprisoned, and he was released after 56 days in prison (some of it in maximum security). Apparently in Australia one can be imprisoned for not paying costs in an ordinary defamation action, but not in an action for criminal defamation. Spautz is taking legal action for wrongful imprisonment.[7] Williams continues as a professor in the Commerce Department.


These cases show several similarities. In each one there was an apparent failure of peer review: the possibilities of fraud were not picked up by the refereeing process prior to publication. Australian peer review is similar to peer review in the United States, which seems to be similarly inadequate to detect fraud.[8]

In each case it was hard to mobilize institutions to take action against prestigious figures. Formal procedures, even when invoked, were slow and often indecisive. At Deakin University the Visitor stopped an inquiry; at La Trobe University, Wild's resignation was used to justify terminating an inquiry; an inquiry into the allegations about McBride was only initiated after massive media publicity; and at the University of Newcastle the inquiries focused on Spautz, the accuser, rather than on Williams.

Given the difficulties in pursuing allegations of fraud, it can be inferred that there are many other cases which have not come to light. Certainly in the special category of plagiarism, which I have studied for some years, there are a number of Australian cases known to those who make inquiries in the right places. There are several reasons why no action has been taken on such cases. Most importantly, the individuals who discovered the fraud, usually co-workers of the suspected plagiarist, do not want to take the risk with their careers entailed by making formal complaints or seeking publicity. Their reluctance is understandable.

In the cases discussed here, the fraud only came to light through diligent effort by a few people. For this effort there was little reward and obvious risks. Many of those who did try to present the allegations encountered difficulties. Dr Jim Rossiter, who persisted with the allegations about Briggs, received hundreds of threatening phone calls. Vardy and French at Foundation 41 suffered in their careers for raising the issue of McBride's fraud, and this may explain why they did not pursue the matter further. Spautz was sacked. Only in the Wild case, where the plagiarism was easy to detect and open for all to see, did the accusers escape penalty.

Inhibiting public comment in Australia are the extremely strict defamation laws.[9] Even so, the mass media, who have much more to lose financially, have had much more to say than academic journals. These cases show that the right to pursue investigations and make comment which may offend powerful figures within the scholarly community is precarious. The response to the dismissal of Spautz suggests that very few academics will choose to use their "academic freedom" in a way which poses any serious threat to the hierarchy of power in academia itself.

Recently, the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee has started developing guidelines for reducing the incidence of fraud.[10] It remains to be seen whether these will be implemented and have any effect. Perhaps of greater significance are the massive changes being pushed through by the federal government, encouraging amalgamations of higher education institutions and insisting on research and teaching oriented to the interests of industry and government. It seems likely that larger institutions and emphasis on group research will result in greater hierarchy and careerism, increasing the incentive for fraudulent and academically marginal work. The demand to serve the "national interest" will cause administrators to hesitate to do anything that may reflect on the status of their institutions. It will not be surprising if the difficulties of exposing fraud increase in this new atmosphere.

The one likely contrary pressure is the mass media which played such a crucial role in the Briggs, Wild and McBride cases. Since the 1960s, higher education in Australia has expanded dramatically, though it still caters for a much smaller fraction of the population than in the United States. As higher education becomes a big business itself, and is more explicitly tied to "national goals," it will come under greater scrutiny from outside groups, including the mass media. As long as fraud remains a "good story," the mass media will provide a possible means for challenging institutional reluctance in dealing with it. Unless academics can come up with a better system, they face the continuing prospect of hearing, along with the rest of the population, about the transgressions of their colleagues in news reports.


Terry Stokes provided much valuable advice in the writing of this article.

1 "When Published Results are Questioned", Search, Vol. 16, No. 3-4, April-May 1985, p. 65; Deborah Smith,"Scandal in Academe", National Times, 25-31 October 1985, pp. 3-4, 26-27; Christopher Dawson, "Briggs: Unanswered Questions", Australian, 1 April 1987, p. 14.

2 Anthony MacAdam, "The Professor is Accused of Cribbing", Bulletin, 1 October 1985, pp. 32-33.

3 Jane Howard, "Dr Ronald Wild Takes College Job in Far North-west", Australian, 16 July 1986, p. 13.

4 Norman Swan, "The Man Who Stopped Thalidomide Accused of Fraud", Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December 1987, pp. 1, 4; Bernard Lagan, Malcolm Brown and Wanda Jamrozik, "Dr McBride's Rise and Falter: From Fame to Controversy", Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1987, pp. 8-9.

5 Harry Gibbs, Robert Porter and Roger Short, Report of Committee of Inquiry concerning Dr. McBride (Sydney: Foundation 41, 1988).

6 Murray Hogarth, Bernard Lagan and John O'Neill, "The Foundation and Fall," Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 1988, pp. 81, 88; "The Skeleton in Foundation 41's Cupboard," 21 November 1988, p. 12; "McBride's Projects Failed to Win Govt Funds," 22 November 1988, p. 12.

7 Brian Martin, "Disruption and Due Process: The Dismissal of Dr Spautz from the University of Newcastle", Vestes, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1983, pp. 3-9; Brian Martin, "Plagiarism and Responsibility", Journal of Tertiary Educational Administration, Vol. 6, No. 2, October 1984, pp. 183-190.

8 William Broad and Nicholas Wade, Betrayers of the Truth (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982).

9 Robert Pullan, Guilty Secrets: Free Speech in Australia (Sydney: Methuen Australia, 1984).

10 Gavin Moodie, Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, GPO Box 1142, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia.