By David Tuller, DrPH
I recently reported that seven papers from Professor Esther Crawley, Bristol University’s methodologically and ethically challenged pediatrician and grant magnet, do not appear to have been corrected, as requested almost three years ago by a report of an investigation into her work. The investigation was commissioned by Bristol along with the UK’s Health Research Authority, which overseas ethics concerns.
I had alerted the agency to the fact that Professor Crawley had cited a single letter from a local research ethics committee to unilaterally exempt 11 completely unrelated studies from ethical review. Needless to say, every experienced research knows—or should know—that this is not kosher and violates all sorts of ethical reporting standards. The Bristol-HRA report held Professor Crawley blameless—a serious error, in my opinion—but nevertheless requested corrections to the ethics statements in all 11 papers.
As readers of the Science for ME forum recently noted, only four of the corrections seem to have been made. I subsequently contacted both Bristol and the HRA about this issue. HRA responded quickly, noting that they would look into the matter. Bristol? Not so much. The university seems to be outsourcing further investigation to the HRA. Below is the note I received from Jane Bridgwater, Bristol’s director of legal services, and my response to her.
Dear Dr Tuller,
thank you for your email. The University will respond directly to any enquiries from the HRA on this matter.
Jane M Bridgwater,
Director of Legal Services and Deputy Secretary
University of Bristol
And my response to her:
Dear Ms Bridgwater–
Thanks for getting back to me. Given the situation, it is clear there has been a lapse of responsibility on the part of those at Bristol who presumably should have pursued these corrections. As you know, the request for corrections arose from an investigation commissioned by Bristol itself, in conjunction with the Health Research Authority. Since I alerted the HRA leadership to the irregularities in the ethics statements of the relevant papers, I have a particular interest in ensuring that the recommendations of the joint Bristol-HRA review are actually implemented.
It sounds as if Bristol’s department of legal services is waiting for “enquiries from the HRA” rather than examining on its own what happened. The university does not need direction or permission from the HRA in order to pursue a fact-finding effort–which should include asking the lead investigator directly why the corrections do not seem to have been made almost three years after they were requested by the Bristol-HRA review.
Bristol’s minimalist response to this matter is perhaps par for the course at a university whose administration filed multiple complaints with Berkeley’s chancellor about my “behaviour.” That “behaviour” consisted of engaging in legitimate criticism of the flawed work of a prominent Bristol faculty member. Berkeley determined that Bristol’s complaints were completely without merit, and declined to take any action.
Indeed, Berkeley considered the Bristol-HRA review to be full vindication of my position. After the review was released, Teresa Allen, the HRA’s then-chief executive, sent the Berkeley chancellor a gracious letter thanking me for bringing my concerns about these violations of ethical standards to the agency’s attention. Rather than impeding my work, Bristol’s unwarranted and offensive complaints served only to raise questions at Berkeley about your university’s purported commitment to academic excellence and integrity.
This corrections issue should obviously have been dealt with years ago. It should not require intervention from me or from the HRA in order for Bristol to get its own house in order and clean up the mess created by a faculty member. This is not how major academic and research institutions are supposed to behave.
David Tuller, DrPH
Senior Fellow in Public Health and Journalism
Center for Global Public Health
School of Public Health
University of California, Berkeley