‘Ethics, what even are they?’: Academics respond to ‘unethical’ University of Sydney research methods

A study titled study ‘An Open Door? Experimental Measurement of Potential Bias in Informal Pathways to Academia’ has been suspended following a number of complaints.

A screenshot of the deceitful email.

University of Sydney Associate Professors Ben Goldsmith and Megan Mackenzie have come under fire for using deceptive methods to gain subjects for a research project.

The study, titled ‘An Open Door? Experimental Measurement of Potential Bias in Informal Pathways to Academia’, aims to gauge the impact of perceived ethnicity in informal pathways to academic careers.

A number of Australian academics received an email, pictured above, with the subject line “Meeting: Prospective Doctoral Student”, requesting a meeting to discuss potential opportunities to be involved with their research.

The emails were identical aside from the name and email address of the sender, which varied between Thomas Smith, James Chen Jin and Priyanka Kumar, with corresponding USyd email addresses. Some of the academics who were contacted posted screenshots on Twitter.

In a follow-up email, the authors of the study identified themselves as the senders of the original email and asked the participants to fill out a survey.

“Although the email was purportedly from a prospective research student, in reality this deceptive claim was a necessary element of the experimental design and the email was sent by us,” the email read.

A number of prominent academics took to Twitter to air their frustrations, arguing the deceptive nature of the emails and the lack of informed consent from the research participants was unethical.

“Embarrassing for @Sydney_Uni. Absolutely furious at time wasting and deceit. Research looks mediocre too,” tweeted Professor Dieter Hochuli, an ecologist at USyd.

“Ethics, what even are they?” added another user.

The email requested an in-person meeting on campus, and some academics had set aside time for the appointment.

“Rearranged schedule to accommodate/preempt meeting … Didn’t show … no surprise now,” tweeted Monash University Professor Stephen Turner.

One of the recipients, Monash University professor Michael Brown, told Honi that it looked like they had spammed “dozens, if not hundreds, of academics across Australia”. The large number of recipients meant the ruse was uncovered within the academic community before many had the chance to respond, compromising the results.

While acknowledging the importance of the study’s subject matter, Brown said the backlash was “entirely predictable”.

“Finding out that a query from a prospective PhD student was deceptive would obviously stoke a bit of anger amongst academics,” he said.

“I certainly have mixed feelings about it. I don’t want to say it’s a terrible research topic, it’s actually a really important research topic, but it seems things have gone terribly wrong in the execution.”

The research project has since been suspended, citing “a number of complaints” as the catalyst.

“The research, which was approved by the University of Sydney’s Human Research Ethics Committee, has been suspended while the University conducts a review in relation to the issues raised,” a University spokesperson told Honi.

“The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) has written to the complainants today and will continue to update them.”

All research projects by USyd staff and students or undertaken on USyd’s premises are subject to a research application review process, which is conducted by three Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs). The committees are tasked with “promoting ethical standards of research”, which includes protecting the welfare, rights, dignity and safety of human participants of research.