Two conservation scientists have been cleared of research misconduct by the University of Tasmania after a review sparked by complaints from logging industry representatives.
The Institute of Foresters of Australia and the Australian Forest Products Association wrote to the university in October and November demanding an investigation after a research paper that found logging made forests more flammable had to be retracted.
One of the researchers, Dr Jennifer Sanger, described the process as a “witch-hunt” and said the way the university had handled the process would discourage other academics from speaking out about their research.
IFA had also demanded the university apologise “over the standard of the university’s review process”.
The study, published in the journal Fire, examined a fire in the Huon Valley in 2019 and concluded that forests left unlogged were generally less flammable.
But the study used publicly available geographic data from the Tasmanian government to differentiate plantations from other forests, and it was found some of the data was incorrectly categorised. That led to the authors requesting the journal retract the paper.
The retraction was seized upon by the forestry industry and politicians to claim there was a scientific consensus that logging did not make forests more flammable – a claim some experts said was not correct.
The AFPA’s complaint to the university, seen by the Guardian, also suggested Sanger had a conflict of interest because of links to the Bob Brown Foundation. This accusation was also dismissed.
In a report of the results of the review the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, Prof Anthony Koutoulis, wrote that Sanger was not associated with the Bob Brown Foundation “at the time the research was conducted or the time the article was published”.
On Friday Koutoulis said science played a “crucial role in ensuring we seek answers to important questions based on the best possible information”.
“When errors are detected, they must be corrected, which is what the authors of the paper in question did,” he said. “They withdrew the paper and apologised.
“We subsequently reviewed the circumstances surrounding the publication of the article, and considered complaints which were made in relation to it.
“That process found the issues related to this paper did not constitute research misconduct. There was no finding of gross and persistent negligence, which there would need to be for it to constitute research misconduct.”
The review had found “areas in which we need to improve our own processes and our university undertakes to do that”.
“We will provide further guidance and training in areas including ensuring accuracy of data, the expectations on supervisors, the standards and expectations to correct the public record and disclosures of conflicts of interest,” he said.
While the university has cleared the academics, Koutoulis wrote in the final review that issues related to academic oversight of research had been highlighted.
The university was asking its school of geography to roll out a training program on “research integrity” that would look at the rigour needed to review data and research methods; standards required of senior researchers when supervising less senior researchers and students; standards to correct the public record; and disclosures of conflicts of interest “particularly in relation to voluntary/non-financial affiliations”.
IFA president Bob Gordon said: “These findings vindicate our concerns and we thank the university for acknowledging that there were serious issues with this research that needed to be addressed.
“We particularly welcome the fact that the university will now mandate a training program on research integrity for academics at the school as a result of our complaint.”
AFPA deputy chief executive Victor Violante commended the university for the investigation and the proposed training program.
Singer’s affiliation with the university ended in November. She has also just completed six months of full-time work at the Bob Brown Foundation – an environmental campaign group founded by the former Greens leader.
She said the investigation had meant the past few months “has been like hell … very stressful”.
In her view, the complaints were “vexatious” and should have been dismissed at an earlier stage.
“This was a witch-hunt and I’m disappointed that professional bodies attacked us like that,” she said. “I’m disappointed that the university did not side with us.
“Other researchers will see what we have been through and I worry that will stop researchers talking about their research.”
At the time of the retraction, the journal’s editor said the researchers had shown integrity “of the highest standard” by requesting their own paper be withdrawn.
The university had investigated four accusations levelled at Sanger in relation to the methods used to carry out the research, her contribution to it, an allegation of conflict of interest and a failure to correct the record.
The university found there had been no breaches of its code or guidelines.
The other senior researcher involved, Prof Jamie Kirkpatrick, who is an elected member of the university’s governing council, said he was happy the review was completed.
“I will be working to rectify deficiencies in process within the university in relation to handling outside complaints,” he said.