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TORONTO -The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) has been accused of political editing of research and academic misconduct by the authors of a report it commissioned.

A report titled “Student Services at Queen’s University: An Evaluation of the Supported Learning Groups Pilot Program” has had its contents publicly questioned by two of the three researchers listed as the report’s authors: Jennifer Massey and Sean Field. The third researcher, Jeff Burrow, chose not to get involved for personal reasons.

HEQCO was created in 2005 through the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Act. HEQCO has a mandate to “evaluate the postsecondary sector and provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities to enhance the access, quality and accountability of Ontario’s colleges and universities” and claims to be an “arm’s-length agency that brings evidence-based research to the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario”.

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) has contested HEQCO’s description of itself and its activities, saying in a statement issued on April 27 that “While HEQCO describes itself as an ‘arm’s-length’ agency, it is important to recognize that the Council is directly accountable to the Government of Ontario and has an explicit mandate to provide policy advice to the Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities. As such, it is not a think tank or an independent research institute – it is a crown agency. The term ‘arm’s-length’ appears nowhere in HEQCO’s authorizing Act, and the Government of Ontario can alter the composition and mandate of the Council at any time.”

Council members at HEQCO are appointed for two or three year terms by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and they provide an annual report to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, who then presents the report to the entire Legislative Assembly.

HEQCO initiates and conducts research studies, evaluations and reports, often in partnership with post-secondary institutions. Since becoming fully operational in 2007, their website says that they have “published, completed, or have in progress, over 120 publications stemming from research it has conducted or commissioned.”

In 2009, HEQCO contracted Queen’s University as a research partner to produce a report on the value of Supported Learning Groups (SLGs).

Massey was employed by Queen’s University at student affairs and conducted research in that capacity, and Field was sub-contracted by Queen’s as a research assistant for the project.

The study used a mixed method approach: “Quantitative data was compiled from student surveys, student records and SLG attendance files collected during the 2009-2010 academic year. Qualitative data was collected through focus groups conducted at the end of the 2009- 2010 academic year.” Five research questions or themes guided the inquiry: factors influencing SLG participation, SLG participation as related to academic performance, drop-out rates, engagement, and study skills.

SLGs are one example of Supplemental Instruction (SI) models that, according to the introduction of the report, have “grown considerably on…campuses in an a effort to enhance student engagement and retention in large undergraduate courses, as well as improve grades.”

“As budgets are squeezed and first-year class sizes increase,” the introduction reads, “SI has become an important component of the delivery of undergraduate education.”

According to Field, the report “went through several months of revisions, like most academic publications. HEQCO asked for changes and many of them were reasonable, so we made them. Then they asked for a bunch of changes that we said that we wouldn’t make, and we provided rationale for not making those revisions.”

Most at issue for Field was that “they wanted to cut the most critical paragraph of text in our literature review that contextualizes our research in relation to ongoing neoliberal education reforms, and they didn’t give a strong rationale for the cut.”

“They also wanted us to aggregate certain statistics.” Field said. “We refused on the basis that it would provide a less precise view of the results and we didn’t believe that was ethical.”

HEQCO’s executive director of communications Susan Bloch-Nevitte said, “In this and all research contracts, HEQCO provides feedback on draft reports, which the author is free to accept or reject. This is why regular communication with the author is so critical. We take no position pro or con on specific interventions. We are focused on evidence and we take our responsibility for research quality very seriously.”

“By June of 2011, we had submitted our final draft,” Field clarifies. “But they kept contacting us and asking us to make the same changes over and over. We said no and that we were done. Then we saw, to our surprise, that the report had been published, and all of the changes we had said no to had been made.”

On April 10, 2012, Jennifer Massey sent an email to HEQCO president & CEO Harvey Weingarten outlining her and Field’s concerns and requests. “We were not made aware of the intended publication date,” reads Massey’s email, and “substantial changes were made to the report without our knowledge or consent.”

“We are concerned because we believe these changes constitute a breach of academic and intellectual integrity by HEQCO,” her email continues. “The changes alter the text of the report such that the report no longer accurately reflects the opinions of the authors. Nowhere does the report indicate that the text was substantially altered without knowledge or consent of the authors after final submission, or by whom”.

The changes outlined and contested in Massey’s first email include:

-Change of the report’s title
-Removal of text critical of SI models
-Research tables deemed statistically weak and previously removed by the authors
were included

Massey’s email also requested that the report be removed from the HEQCO website, that the original final report be published, and that HEQCO disclose who made the changes and apologize.

HEQCO has placed responsibility for the edits squarely upon Queen’s University, refused to apologize, and offered only to remove Massey’s and Field’s name from their version of the report. Weingarten’s email reads, “HEQCO neither wrote nor inserted or deleted any portions of the final report. The HEQCO contract had been signed with Queen`s University, and because the original principal investigator had not satisfactorily fulfilled her contractual obligations, Queen’s University chose to proceed with final revisions, which we subsequently published.”

In an interview with Bloch-Nevitte on April 25, she said “Queen’s University undertook to complete the final revisions to produce a publication-ready final report.” She said, “there may have been changes made that are inappropriate in their view.”

Field said, “The burden of responsibility lies with HEQCO as the publisher, although they’ve tried to lay the blame at the feet of Queen’s University. We don’t know who made the changes. We expected to receive an email or phone call from Queen’s to help clear things up but they’ve been absolutely silent, which is really bizarre. We copied them on all of our communications with HEQCO.”

Massey says that HEQCO has “responded to our grievance by pointing to timelines, contracts, and other parties” and that “these responses are neither sufficient nor satisfactory.” She says that HEQCO “provides a very selective narrative of events as they occurred, diverting attention away from the important issue that HEQCO, by their own admission, published a report knowing it contained material not authorized by the authors.”

“If there was a contractual problem prior to us expressing concern about the report, they certainly didn’t bring it up” says Field. “I’m confused as to why they didn’t contact us about it, as they were in contact with us about other things.”

Massey is more vocal: “The suggestion that the authors were unresponsive or unreachable is ridiculous. We had satisfactorily fulfilled our contractual obligations to HEQCO, and this is evident by the fact that the text of our final report submitted on June 6, 2011 corresponds with the published report. This confirms that the final report we submitted was acceptable for publication.”

Bloch-Nevitte says the situation “appears to be a misunderstanding and it is unfortunate that the researchers involved with this project didn’t contact HEQCO or Queen’s to clarify the facts before making public allegations.”

But Massey is resolute that “The disclaimer printed on page two of the report, poses that the opinions presented in the report are solely those of the authors, and HEQCO accepts this to be a false representation. They admit publishing a report with full knowledge that it contained changes made by people other than the authors. This constitutes a breach of academic and intellectual integrity by HEQCO”.

All HEQCO contracts require researchers to allow the following disclaimer to appear on the completed project: “Funding for this research was provided by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.”

Field said, “The way the disclaimer reads at the beginning of the report is misleading and false. HEQCO is presenting the report as if has the same weight as peer-reviewed research, which is not true. If HEQCO published the report and said that it was compiled by HEQCO with contributions by the following authors, then this wouldn’t be an issue. But that’s not what they did.”

OCUFA has taken issue with the disclaimer as well, publicly stating that, in this case, “the conclusions were manifestly not those of the authors, at least not those listed on the publication. As such, it was a false statement and should have been removed prior to publication.”

OCUFA also believes that, in general, “the disclaimer suggests that HEQCO has little control over the final product, and that the authors are responsible for the completed research. As noted above, this is flatly contradicted by the terms of the contract which assigns ownership, copyright, and moral rights for all research deliverables to HEQCO.” The statement continues, “Given the language in the contract, the disclaimer is misleading as to the nature of HEQCO research. It creates the impression that the research commissioned by HEQCO is disinterested academic research, rather than research conducted by a contractor hired by a government agency.”

OCUFA recommends that the disclaimer be substantially revised or removed from future research publications.

The statement also says, “HEQCO operates as a research and policy contractor for the provincial government, soliciting research from experts and practitioners in the higher education field. The research contract is thus very different from those used by granting councils, independent think tanks, or academic publishers. Rather, the HEQCO contract is properly seen as a consulting contract.”

“The complete waiver of moral rights to the completed work required in the HEQCO contract is unusual in academic research, but common in consulting contracts.” OCUFA have warned their members to be aware that “working with HEQCO requires the researcher to surrender all ownership of, and moral rights to, the final product.”

“If HEQCO recognizes the so-called misunderstanding” Massey says that, in this case, “then they have a responsibility to correct it. The resolution to this situation is straight forward.”

“Miscommunications happen all of the time” agrees Field. “But rarely does an organization act in the way that HEQCO did, acknowledging a miscommunication but deciding to publish what they want under the author’s names anyways.”

Field also voices a broader concern that sets off alarm bells regarding the legitimacy of research supporting a massive onslaught of cuts across the provincial public sectors.

“From what I understand” he said, “the Drummond Report drew heavily on HEQCO research, and Drummond’s recommendations are being used to reformulate public policy all across Ontario. The big question is: If this has happened to us, how many other researchers has it happened to? Academic integrity has not been upheld and yet these reports are being used to formulate policy. It’s a very serious issue.”

A press release issued by the Society of Graduate and Professional Students at Queen’s University (SGPS) unequivocally stated: “Political interference in academic research is deeply disturbing, endangering the credibility of the researchers involved, the institution that supports them, and HEQCO itself, while throwing the door wide open to ill-considered policy changes motivated by ideology rather than an objective evaluation of the facts.”

The SGPS has supported Field and Massey’s requests to HEQCO, as well as joined the Canadian Federation of Students in a call for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to “Establish a panel of academics to review HEQCO’s research practices, with an eye towards holding (HEQCO) to the same exacting academic standards, especially including peer review, prevailing within the system that HEQCO purports to serve”.

OCUFA has recommended that the Government of Ontario conduct an independent review of HEQCO’s research procedures. Until a research review is completed, OCUFA has advised its members “to exercise caution when working with HEQCO”.

“Arguing that no wrongdoing occurred because there was no contractual breach misses the point. It is wrong to change someone’s work without his or her permission, and even more wrong to publish that changed work under his or her name” reads OCUFA’s statement. “We are now left with a series of unsettling questions: has this occurred to other HEQCO research reports? What is the motivation behind the changes? How sure are we about the reliability of research published by HEQCO?”

This article originally appeared in George Brown College’s The Dialog.