Indefensible Secrecy at Newcastle University

In December, Quadrant published a letter from Professor Alex Zelinsky, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Newcastle, which was written “in relation” to my November article about his university and the Massacre Map plagiarisms (“The Academic Cover-Up of Massacre Map Defects”). Professor Zelinsky wrote that “there has been no ‘University cover-up’”—I disagree. Major breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (the Code) have occurred and yet his attitude, and presumably that of the University Council, is that

The University stands by the Massacre Map and Emeritus Professor Ryan’s work, which has been nationally and internationally lauded.

Professor Zelinsky thanked me for “bringing [my] additional corrections [of the Massacre Map] forward for consideration”. They were not corrections for consideration but allegations of new Code breaches supported with evidence, as I wrote:

In some cases plagiarism has been replaced by plagiarism; supposed new sources have been added to massacre narratives that are completely unconnected with the main topic; changes have been made in an attempt to turn plagiarisms into quotations; footnotes have been fabricated—this alone seems an inexplicable travesty of ordinary academic standards; transcriptions from sources are sometimes mangled, and the writing of historians, including this one, misrepresented.

The Newcastle cover-up is aided by the secrecy which obscures any discussion of the handling of a complaint I made regarding the Massacre Map. Professor Zelinsky writes, “Universities must be places of open inquiry and robust challenge. This is how ideas in society are contested and knowledge is advanced.” I agree. Will the university now act and allow that “open inquiry and robust challenge” he publicly defends by withdrawing the secrecy?

The fog of confusion this secrecy creates seems to have blinded even the Vice-Chancellor, who made this inaccurate statement: “As Mr Connor has noted, his previous comments were both investigated and acted upon by the University.” The language is misleading. My “comments” were the basis of a formal complaint that was never investigated, it was subjected to a secretive preliminary assessment and then dismissed in more secrecy by the University of Newcastle.

After publishing two Quadrant essays dealing with the Massacre Map research project in October and November 2020, I lodged a complaint with the university which was considered under their own “Research Breach Investigation Procedure”. The matter was considered by a specially appointed Advisory Group which authorised the Preliminary Assessment of a “potential breach” of the Code to be conducted by an Assessment Officer. I was asked if I wished to add anything further and I responded drawing particular attention to a massacre text which plagiarised an author who was himself plagiarising a third writer. This was ignored—the original plagiarised material is still present in the rewritten Map text.

Barry Spurr on Newcastle University: You Wouldn’t Read About It

A Preliminary Assessment is a process of evidence assembling and information gathering which allows the respondents to reply. In this case, as I was informed by the Designated Officer, Professor Jennifer Milam, “an independent external expert was engaged to review the matter”. At the end of this process the Assessment Officer produces an Assessment Report which relates how the assessment was carried out, details of evidence gathering and also “a determination of the seriousness of the potential breach/es; and the recommended actions, including any corrective actions at this point”. As I explained in my previous article, the rules were changed during this process. In the original guidelines the report would have been returned to the Advisory Group to decide on what happened next but in the new rules only the Designated Officer is concerned in deciding on the future process.

In theory it all seems very fair and straightforward and offers a clear comprehensible blueprint for all those involved including the university officers, the respondents and the complainant.

When the Assessment Report is completed it is submitted to the Designated Officer who selects a procedure from a list of four numbered determinations and associated actions. For months, as the assessment continued, I had been wondering which determination would be selected. I thought, given the seriousness of the plagiarisms and further breaches of the Code, that it would be the third determination and the complaint would continue to the next stage, the Investigation of a Potential Breach by an Investigation Panel. This did not happen, and the university refuses to tell me which of the following four determinations they took. I simply cannot understand why this is secret:

1/ [Determination] The complaint is not related to a breach of the Code, and should be dismissed. [Action/s] If required the DO will ensure efforts are made to restore the reputation(s) of the Respondent(s).

2/ [Determination] The complaint relates to less than serious breach/es of the Code and can be resolved locally, with or without corrective action/s. [Action/s] DO to refer the complaint to the appropriate local Manager for resolution. The local Manager is then required to implement corrective actions, if applicable.

3/ [Determination] The complaint relates to serious potential breach/es of the Code that occurred under the auspices of the University and must be referred for investigation. [Action/s] DO to refer the complaint for investigation, as described in clauses 31–47.

4/ [Determination] The complaint is not related to a breach of the Code, but may be referred to other University processes (for example, the complaint is considered a breach of the University’s Code of Conduct, or is vexatious). [Action/s] DO to refer the complaint to the appropriate University unit/s for further action.

After the assessment had run for six months (the plagiarised texts I listed could have been copied and examined in a leisurely two or three working days) I was advised by Professor Milam that it had “concluded”—but what was the result? This is what she wrote: “Appropriate actions have now been taken in line with the University’s Responsible Conduct of Research Policy and a resolution is in the process of being actioned.”

On the day I received her letter I was confused and wrote asking for a copy of the Assessment Report. There was no answer. When I wrote again I requested a clarification of what had happened. I asked to see the Assessment Report to gauge how my complaint was handled, and I asked to know the result of my complaint: “As well as a copy of the Report I would like to request further clarification. Could you please tell me which Determination and Action/s (from Table 2, of clause 29 of the Research Breach Investigation Procedure) you selected after the Preliminary Assessment was finalised? And have the actions been completed?”

I sought commonsense clarity but when Professor Milam finally replied her cold words seemed crafted for dissimulation (emphasis added):

In accordance with the Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research section 5.4, the correspondence that you received was written with consideration to the extent to which you may be affected by the outcome of the Preliminary Assessment. Accordingly, I have previously provided sufficient information relating to the outcome and will not provide further details nor a copy of the Preliminary Assessment Report. Additionally, privacy and confidentiality obligations prevent us from disclosing the document to you.

This is the complete section of the Guide she used to exclude me:

5.4 Engagement with complainants
It is important to engage effectively with complainants as this can reveal additional information relevant to the matter and also provides complainants with confidence that their complaint is being/has been considered appropriately.

Consideration should be given to the extent to which a complainant may be affected by an outcome of a Code investigation and whether a complainant has direct interests at stake. This will help institutions determine the appropriate level of involvement of, and communication with, a complainant throughout the preliminary assessment and investigation.

Complainants who may be directly affected by the outcome of a Code investigation (for example, someone who is involved in a dispute with the respondent) should be provided with as much detail as possible to provide assurance that their complaint is being/has been considered appropriately.

In contrast, for complainants who have only a general concern in the matter, it may be sufficient to provide minimal details to convey the outcome. These complainants will generally not have direct interests at stake and will not be directly affected by the outcome (for example, someone conducting peer review on a paper).

I have absolutely no confidence that the University of Newcastle handled my complaint “appropriately” and I can see no reason for secrecy. I had written two articles on the plagiarisms and failures of the Massacre Map which made claims and offered evidence. Every breach of the Code made by the Massacre Map researchers which I identified was clearly illustrated with supporting evidence. In this matter I was the complainant, the whistle-blower. My claims and evidence were the basis of the complaint and I had also, at the invitation of the university, provided additional information when the assessment was beginning.

Now, to keep the assessment outcome secret, I was treated as someone with only “a general concern in the matter” and thus to be excluded, even though the university’s own Research Breach Investigation Procedure states that at the conclusion of the assessment the Designated Officer will “communicate the outcome to all relevant parties”. 

When Quadrant Online published my November article, which looked at changes made to the Map after the termination of my complaint, a reader (mgldunn) made a careful suggestion for justifying the university’s secrecy in regard to the Preliminary Assessment:

…suppose, for the sake of argument, the preliminary assessment agreed with at least some of your complaints. The report, if publicly disclosed, might then damage somebody’s reputation or career prospects. Deserved or not, issues of procedural fairness, perhaps even of defamation, could arise. Perhaps this may partly explain non-disclosure.

One reputation is already damaged by the secrecy—mine. If the Preliminary Assessment did accept even some of the evidence I had put forward the matter should have flowed on to an investigation. The problems I have indicated are serious breaches of the Code in a research project which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars and won major cultural awards. Criticism does not damage certain careers (Bruce Pascoe?). When it comes from the wrong sort of people it is ignored and the whistle-blower is insulted. In January 2021 a scholarly article by three Australian academics was published in the Journal of Genocide Research and my Quadrant articles on the Massacre Map were cited:

Unsurprisingly, Ryan’s team and the Colonial Frontiers Massacre Map, along with The Guardian team and ‘The Killing Times’ project, have recently come under criticism by right-wing idealogues [sic] who suggest the research underpinning both maps is fundamentally flawed.”

The plural ideologues led to a supporting footnote which held only me; the evidence I gave of “flawed” research was ignored. Perhaps they can’t spell plagiarism either?

Professor Zelinsky’s letter supports “robust challenge”. How can this take place if even the result of my complaint is being kept secret by the university? By keeping the matter secret the University of Newcastle is encouraging speculation—so here is my speculation.

The Determination I had expected would be chosen from the list above was number 3, for on the evidence supplied the Massacre Map is, on several levels, a “serious breach/es of the Code” and it should have emerged from the Preliminary Assessment to be treated as a “Potential Breach” for consideration by an Investigation Panel. Though Professor Milam would not tell me the result it is clear that she had not chosen this option.

Likewise, Determination 4 seemed not to have been applied as it concerns university members and not outsiders like myself.

Determination 2 classifies the matter as a “less than serious breach/es of the Code” and involves the local manager in carrying out “corrective actions, if applicable”. If this was applied then cover-up seems the only possible description—the matters I complained of are serious Code breaches. If this was chosen, then the “corrective actions” have seen the deletion of narratives I criticised for editing evidence, claiming to have done research which was not carried out and mishandling sources. The changes made to the Map also included rewriting and editing plagiarised texts to hide the original plagiarisms—shamefully, these changes have been passed off as simple “errata”.

Until Quadrant received Professor Zelinsky’s letter I had dismissed the idea that Determination 1 had been applied to the case: “The complaint is not related to a breach of the Code, and should be dismissed.” That is an impossible conclusion. If the external expert did not confirm my evidences of plagiarism then his/her assessment should itself be investigated. However, it is the action which goes with that determination which now suggests this was the final decision taken: “If required the DO will ensure efforts are made to restore the reputation(s) of the Respondent(s).” Surely this was the purpose of Professor Zelinsky’s letter, which is both a vindication of the Massacre Map and an effort to restore a reputation: “The University stands by the Massacre Map and Emeritus Professor Ryan’s work, which has been nationally and internationally lauded.”

By taking responsibility for the Massacre Map, the University of Newcastle is admitting to the mismanagement of an improperly conducted research project. The whole mess, if subjected to an open examination, would reveal problem after problem and also raise questions of supervision and accountability for the Australian Research Council funding which seems to have been expended in the Western District not on archival research but on plagiarising two library books.

10 thoughts on “Indefensible Secrecy at Newcastle University

  • nfw says:

    How very Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and China of the university. As the University is not fully self-funded and relies on government funding you would think an Australian citizen and taxpayer would have a legitimate interest in the university’s activities. But obviously not for the fascists and revisionists who think it’s their own property. I’m not sure about the “massacre map” but what about the one with the huge settlements, the technology park and the space station?

  • Adam J says:

    What exactly is an independent expert and how do we know that they were either? Given the inbred Leftist nature of Australian universities that of course is also meaningless.
    Unfortunately we saw in the Peter Ridd case that the High Court thinks that being a professor at a university doesn’t qualify one to speak as an expert about university mismanagement. That is another reason we will be dismissed – we aren’t experts. Evidence doesn’t matter. Your credentials do, and no-one can get credentials regarding Australian history without being a Leftist.
    Independent, as confirmed by numerous court judgements, simply means working for a different department or boss. It’s ‘independent of a person’ not ‘independent from the government or organisation.’ If you hire someone ‘independent of you’ and they research the issue and come to the same conclusion then it is an independent conclusion. Getting your pay from the same account and maintaining good relations with the people you work with every day doesn’t come into the matter.
    We can safely assume the expert was not as the university claims.

  • ianl says:

    >”Professor Zelinsky writes, “Universities must be places of open inquiry and robust challenge. This is how ideas in society are contested and knowledge is advanced.”” [from the article above]

    As it is with political and bureaucratic power, so it seems to be with University power: “open inquiry and robust challenge” is an empty phrase designed only to garner naive support, or at least aquiescence.

    Powerlust does not tolerate impertinent questions.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Your report made me feel that the decay of society in recent decades includes new approaches to disciplinary actions, from the type of people to agreed to do away with some police forces in the USA because BLM thought processes prevailed.
    It is so sad to see old standards like truth and honesty being white anted by people lacking a moral comprehension of rights and wrongs as recorded in history. Geoff S

  • pgang says:

    You think they completed an investigation? Seems unlikely. If work had been done, then at least some sort of result would be evident.

  • pgang says:

    By the way, the Newcastle uni library charges $100 per year to the taxpayers who fund it, for the privelage of borrowing books. Apparently the free sharing of knowledge and ideas isn’t free after all.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Michael, this is a typical university administrative practice of shoving under the carpet any complaint by passing it over to ‘designated expert/s’ who reference various convoluted procedures providing a secretive outcome which ‘cannot be made public’ for reasons of the privacy of individuals.

    Your rights and those of the interested readers of Quadrant and other non-compliant media simply do not exist within this self-serving protective process. Sir Humphrey would be proud of it.

    It’s rather like the ABC investigating themselves.

  • simonbenson65 says:

    For a long time, we’ve all abandoned the idea that an Australian university is a place of “open inquiry and robust challenge”. They are just closed shops for anyone with a left wing/ woke agenda. Pascoe is Exhibit A. Zelinski & Co are now just Exhibit B.

  • Peter Rutherford says:

    It seems universities are about declining research standards, collusion with like-minded journalists to promote questionable research findings and closing ranks when challenged.

    A freedom of information request was lodged with the ANU last year, seeking emails between a world-renowned ecologist and two journalists. The request yielded 28 emails. Every single sentence in every email was redacted. We hope the Information Commissioner has a broader view of what constitutes public interest.

    When defending a leading academic from media criticism last year, Nobel laureate and ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt publicly stated “ANU researchers’ ideas needed to be subject to robust scrutiny.” He also said “In this age of misinformation, it is also vital that we have a press that upholds the free exchange of ideas, respectful debate, and most importantly, an unbiased reporting of fact, observations and knowledge.”

    On 30 November 2021, an ANU law professor and a consultancy firm released one of the most flawed economic reports I have ever seen. The only positive thing is that AAP wrote and distributed an article to all the media outlets that had received the original story written from the ANU release. https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/7544808/timber-industry-slams-analysis-on-forests/?cs=14264

    Two email engagements with the law professor, with ccs of the second email to the ANU chancellor and vice chancellor Schmidt remain unanswered. Professor Schmidt’s comments carry less weight with every passing day. Consequently, another FOI request has been lodged to find out who paid for the deeply flawed report to be written.

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