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Letters to the Editor: On retractions in the scientific community

Re: “The double standard of retractions”

Letters to the Editor: On retractions in the scientific community

For several years, along with many other neuroendocrine cancer patients, I have been attempting to persuade the University Health Network (UHN) and U of T to rescind their extreme punishment of Dr. Shereen Ezzat and Dr. Sylvia Asa over minor problems in a handful of hundreds of their publications. While UHN paid expensive lawyvers to defense its decision, our patient community has felt abandoned by UHN and U of T. Research in our rare and complex cancer has been terminated at UHN. Since the doctors’ teaching privileges have also been terminated, local and international doctors can no longer experience their professional expertise. Neuroendocrine cancer is now thought to be the fastest growing cancer in the world. Because of the devastating results of its decision about such minor research problems, we are left with no other conclusion than that UHN and U of T had other reasons to demand retractions, shut down their labs, and fire Asa.

— Robert Haughian, neuroendocrine cancer patient

The great value of this article is to make clear the wide range of what may cause an essay to be ‘retracted,’ from the truly dishonest and plagiaristic to the trivial and easily rectified. It seems clear that the work of Asa and Ezzat falls in the latter category, but UHN’s relentless punishment of them does give substance to other commentators’ suspicions that UHN had its own reasons for wanting them gone. Not only does the entire episode seem shameful, but it also compromises the ability of two fine doctors to continue the full care of the many patients whose lives literally depend of them.

— Frederick Asals, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

Journalism standards at the University of Toronto Varsity newspaper need some attention in this day and age of misinformation campaigns using social media. The article discusses the termination of Dr. Shereen Ezzat’s position within the University Health Network (UHN), yet Dr. Ezzat is still listed as a member of the Medical and Community Care program in the Endocrine Clinic of the Princess Margaret Hospital, an institution within the UHN. The article interviews Dr. Sylvia Asa with regards to retractions listed in the Retraction Watch database, yet publishes no interview material with anyone from Retraction Watch, nor anyone involved with the internal investigation committee. A letter to the editor by Robert Haughian discusses the UHN paying “expensive lawyers,” yet it was Drs. Asa and Ezzat who initially hired a lawyer and submitted court challenges to this academic investigation.  The UHN had no choice at that point but to engage lawyers of their own. Robert Haughian states that “research in our rare and complex cancer has been terminated at UHN,” yet the UHN’s website discusses this issue directly, clearly stating that “the NETs program continues to be an integral component of UHN’s service offerings.”  Why was no one from the Princess Margaret Hospital interviewed and quoted in coverage of this saga? A disingenuous petition drive has also been started and addressed at the UHN web page linked above.

Nowhere in The Varsity’s coverage of this saga is any discussion of harms that can happen to patients based on inappropriate research. Effective treatment strategies are delayed and inappropriate treatment suggestions offered in journal articles whose primary evidence is not scientifically solid. To continually offer defence to scientific researchers with year after year of problematic publications well-documented in a public and court-reviewed document readily available at the UHN website linked above is a disservice to patients facing such challenging diseases.

— Steven McKinney

Editor’s Note (January 9): This collection of letters has been updated to include Steven McKinney’s correspondence.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union moves to control media access to meetings

Motion claims that student media are “abusing” position, “misrepresenting reality”

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union moves to control media access to meetings

Claiming that “student media have been abusing their positions as disseminators and aggregators of information,” the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) Board of Directors voted unanimously on December 12 on a first step to passing a motion to control student media accreditation and access to meetings.

The item was moved by Director of Political Science Raymond Dang and was carried from a previous meeting held on November 27. At the December meeting, the board voted to refer the item to its governance committee for further amendments.

Dang wrote in his motion that student media have been “misrepresenting the reality of the situation,” and that “recent days have shown the entire campus can be misled on important topics relating to their lives.”

During the discussion, Dang said that “it was very disappointing to see a lot of the reporting not just by existing student organizations but start-up student organizations this semester reporting falsely on what the Board of Directors have done.”

However, since Dang would not “repeat any sort of false information or misleading information that was said or not said elsewhere,” it is unclear what coverage Dang was referring to.

The Varsity most recently covered the SCSU’s November Board of Directors meeting, in which Dang moved a controversial motion to give $4,500 to the UTSC Women’s and Trans Centre, despite students voting against giving the funding at SCSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).

The Varsity and The Underground have also reported on the string of food quality issues that have occurred at SCSU-affiliated outlets this semester.

Dang wrote in his motion that “students rely on their fellow student journalists to accurately report the truth and hold power to account,” and called for student publications to submit requests to be recognized so that they can cover the SCSU.

The union’s bylaws already recognize student publications as “The Varsity, The Underground, Fusion Radio or any other student media either print or online.” Bylaw changes must be ratified at a meeting of members, such as the AGM.

Under Dang’s proposed policy, an ad hoc committee that would consist of the vice-president operations, vice-president external, and three directors to be chosen by the Board of Directors would make decisions on media access.

The SCSU would also adopt the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics standards as “guiding principles.” The guidelines touch on subjects such as independence, transparency, and accountability.

Since the motion was originally moved at the November meeting, the dates proposed in the text have already passed. As such, it is unclear when the committee will meet and by what date student publications will be required to submit applications, although Dang motioned for the governance committee to discuss the item at its first possible meeting.

According to the motion as it stands, changes will come into effect on January 1 if immediate action is taken, and will be enforced throughout the remainder of the academic year. All student media must apparently apply or reapply for accreditation for the union to either reaffirm or deny access.

During the board meeting, The Varsity was asked not to live tweet or photograph the events over concerns of online harassment of board members.

The chair of the meeting, Hildah Otieno, emphasized that this ban was not about media protocol but about protecting board members from intimidation.  

The Varsity tweeted once thereafter to post the text of the media accreditation policy motion. Upon discovery of the live tweet from the meeting, Otieno asked the reporter to remove the tweet, which The Varsity did not.

The SCSU currently has a Media Communications Policy, which outlines the media’s access to public meetings and spaces provided by the union. However, there is no policy regarding live tweeting under their bylaws and governing documents.

This incident comes shortly after two Varsity reporters were also barred from taking photos and live tweeting at a University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union meeting held on December 3. The reporters were subsequently asked to leave the meeting after continuing to live tweet at the direction of their editors.

The Varsity has reached out to the SCSU for comment.

Proposed smoking ban will not affect federated colleges

USMC, Trinity, Victoria in process of creating own policies

Proposed smoking ban will not affect federated colleges

U of T’s proposed smoke-free policy — which will ban most forms of smoking effective January 1 — will not apply to the three federated colleges of University of St. Michael’s College (USMC), the University of Trinity College, and Victoria University, though they are all in the process of creating similar smoking bans.

U of T’s policy also will not apply to U of T-affiliated Toronto School of Theology (TST)’s Knox College, Regis College, St. Augustine’s Seminary, and Wycliffe College. These institutions are independent of the University of Toronto Act, meaning that they have their own governance processes.

USMC

USMC is currently undergoing a consultation process on a smoking ban before a recommendation is made to the university’s Collegium, its governing body, in the spring.

According to President David Sylvester, USMC has consulted senior administration, St. Michael’s College Student Union leaders, staff, and faculty thus far. They are also finalizing a community survey.

“We’re not going to invite U of T into our consultation; we weren’t part of theirs… It really is up to us to talk about this and consult with our community,” said Sylvester in an interview with The Varsity.

A smoke-free policy would cover all of USMC’s grounds, including St. Basil’s Collegiate Church. Loretto College Women’s Residence is a separate property, so a separate policy would have to be implemented.

“Whatever policy we develop would include all of our buildings, all of our lands. Of course, like U of T and the other [federated colleges], we’re intersected with public streets, so it complicates matters,” said Sylvester.

Sylvester added that USMC will review U of T’s policy to ensure that its own will not miss important considerations, such as accommodations, and guaranteed that it would allow smoking for ceremonial and medicinal purposes.

Victoria University

According to Victoria University’s Bursar and Chief Administrative Officer Ray deSouza, the administration is consulting with students, faculty, and staff but “there is no time line at this point.” The final policy would eventually have to go to the Board of Regents for a final resolution. 

In an email to The Varsity, Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) President Jayde Jones wrote that VUSAC has not been involved in drafting or consultations regarding the policy, although representatives have had discussions with Victoria University administration.

“It is important to recognize that students living with addiction are disproportionately members of marginalized communities… In light of this, we are advocating for Vic to develop permanent, accessible, safe, and comfortable smoking spaces on campus,” wrote Jones.

Jones said that Dean of Students Kelley Castle told student representatives that smoking cessation programs would be made available on Victoria University’s campus. deSouza added that smoking accommodations for Indigenous ceremony and medicinal purposes would be permitted.

University of Trinity College

Trinity College’s Director of Communications Young Um confirmed that a smoke-free policy at Trinity College is under consideration, and that the college “will be working through [its] own governance process at the Senate and Board of Trustees.”

Um did not comment on whether Trinity has consulted with U of T over its policy or what the expected timeline for the policy’s possible implementation is.

The Board of Trustees is composed of 28 members of the college and is responsible for approving policy recommendations made by the Senate. The Senate is concerned with the establishment of academic policy.

TST colleges

The TST is a U of T-affiliated consortium of theological colleges, including USMC, the University of Trinity College, and Emmanuel College. Each college under the TST has its own governance structure and would be responsible for implementing its own smoke-free policy.

Knox College, located near Convocation Hall at UTSG, and St. Augustine’s Seminary, located in Scarborough, both have existing smoke-free policies.

Senior management at Wycliffe College wrote to The Varsity, “As with most of our policies, [Wycliffe] will follow the University of Toronto’s lead in implementing a Smoke Free Policy.” Implementation would go through Wycliffe’s own governance process, including its Health and Safety Committee.

Regis College is also likely to follow U of T’s policy, although the urgency of implementing such a policy is unclear. In an email to The Varsity, Regis College President Thomas Worcester wrote, “Smoking of tobacco is a really non-issue at Regis, and seems likely a matter from the last century! The battle to eliminate smoking from campus has been largely won, and a while ago.”

Enforcement

Speaking at the Business Board meeting on November 26, Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat said that enforcement of U of T’s smoke-free policy would primarily focus on educating the community about the risks of smoking and secondhand smoke.

In a statement to The Varsity, U of T spokesperson Elizabeth Church wrote, “Training is planned for campus police with a view to educating our community across our three campuses. We will work with our college partners when the details of their policies are in place.”

At USMC, Sylvester likewise emphasized that enforcement of a policy would focus on education. However, legal issues that may arise in enforcement of the policy would still fall to Campus Police rather than MCOR, the private security firm that USMC employs.

Since no draft of a policy at Victoria University has yet been released, Jones said it is unclear whether VUSAC’s concerns, including enforcement, will be addressed.

The TST did not respond to a request for comment.

Editor’s Note (December 19, 7:20 pm): The article has been updated to remove a statement Jones made incorrectly about a planned timeline at Victoria.