Research misconduct cases fair game for Fair Work Commission

A Federal Court ruling sets out why the Fair Work Commission can make assessments on research misconduct.

Monash U investigated plagiarism allegations against biologist Padma Murthi, who went to the Fair Work Commission. She complained that the process, under the university’s research code, breached the Monash U enterprise agreement.

The university responded by going to the Federal Court arguing that this had nothing to do with the FWC because the university’s enterprise agreement covers only the process and outcomes of an investigation not conclusions, which are for experts “operating in line” with the national research misconduct code.

To which Justice Anthony Wheelahan responds, the FWC has the authority to make findings on whether plagiarism had occurred “as a step along the way” to make an order as to the operation of the university agreement.

“While the University is indeed invested with the responsibility to investigate allegations in line with the Research Code, nothing in (Enterprise Agreement) clauses 58–62 has the effect that the Commission is precluded from looking at the merits of such allegations for its own purpose, which is to deal with a dispute,” he states.

 And even if the FWC cannot determine whether plagiarism occurred, the merits of an allegation that it had, “could be material” to arguments whether or not the enterprise agreement was breached.

“Dr Murthi’s complaint includes that her reputation has been besmirched by a wrong finding. … One can readily understand why Dr Murthi would seek, as part of her remedy, the vindication of the Commission formally expressing its own view that she has not engaged in plagiarism,” Justice Wheelahan adds.

This is not great for university managements that prefer managing their own inquiries and making their own judgements on research misconduct matters.

Which is what they do now. The Australian Research Integrity Committee does not investigate evidence in misconduct cases but examines how institutions conduct them. Its most stringent response is to ask a university to have another go at an inquiry.

The possibility of the FWC assessing research misconduct matters won’t satisfy campaigners for an independent research integrity agency but it could create an appeals mechanism for aggrieved researchers.



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