RMIT University Research Integrity Office is investigating a former researcher and medical practitioner who failed to disclose his personal links to a spa facility from which he drew participants for research into the use of hot springs.
Among the authors of a 2017 paper which set out “to assess the characteristics, motivations and experiences of visitors to Australia’s largest commercial hot spring” is Dr Marc Cohen, and Cohen’s then honours student, James Clark-Kennedy, who was first author.
Among the paper’s conclusions – based on a six-week survey conducted in 2015 – was the identification of “significant benefits … for back pain, arthritis, stress/anxiety, depression and insomnia”.
These benefits were so compelling, the authors wrote, as to “(warrant) consideration from Australian health practitioners and insurers as a form of complementary therapy”.
The research was entirely drawn from people who used the Peninsula Hot Springs facility that Cohen was associated with. Its website says: “The ‘Indulgence or Therapy’ research is a first for Victoria. RMIT received more than 4000 responses to an online survey with results published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research in March 2017.”
There were no associated randomised controlled independent trials.
At the time the research was conducted, Cohen was a Professor of Complementary Medicine and Program Leader Master of Wellness at RMIT University; he remained in this role until 2018.
At the same time, Cohen was inking a deal with Peninsula Hot Springs’ founder Charles Davidson and three other investors to purchase a hot springs day spa in New Zealand.
Peninsula Hot Springs holds a controlling interest in Maruia Hot Springs.
Cohen reported he was a director of Maruia Hot Springs “for a short period”.
The NZ register reports that Cohen ceased to be a director of Maruia Hot Springs in July 2022.
He acknowledged remaining a “minority shareholder”. The register records that his shareholding is through Senco Pty Ltd, a company of which he is the sole director, according to the Australian Securities & Investments Commission.
However, the association between Cohen and Davidson stretches back more than two decades.
A screenshot of Cohen’s LinkedIn profile taken on 4 May 2023 also describes him as holding the role of medical director of Peninsula Hot Springs from January 2002 to the present.
In it, he states: “As Medical Director, I help direct the Medical, Research, Science and Educational activities across the PHS Group’s many properties, which currently include Peninsula Hot Springs, Maruia Hot Springs, Metung Hot Spri(ngs) …”
The LinkedIn profile has since been updated, and now states Cohen commenced as medical director of Peninsula Hot Springs in August 2022.
In May, when asked by Cosmos Weekly for clarification, Cohen said he had been involved with Peninsula Hot Springs since its inception, in terms of “giving informal advice and going there”.
“So, I’ve sort of been in that role for a long time, but it was only last year when I started formally in a paid position there,” he explains.
Cohen denied that there was an undeclared conflict of interest in his research because “I wasn’t paid, it was informal”.
“I’ve always loved hot springs, and been involved with that, so to have a hot springs down the road that I could do research with was always great,” he adds.
“But, in terms of doing a survey, I never thought that that would be a conflict, no.”
In a statement provided in June, Cohen explained that he had reviewed and changed his LinkedIn profile after first being contacted by Cosmos Weekly.
“I am proud to have been involved with (Peninsula Hot Springs) since before it began trading and to have seen it develop to become a multi-award winning business, yet realise now that I was incorrect to include this on my LinkedIn profile as it appears to have caused some confusion,” he stated.
He continued to deny that his connections with Peninsula Hot Springs or Maruia Hot Springs represented conflicts of interest, but said that if they “could be perceived by others as (conflicts) then it needs to be addressed”.
Cohen advised that he had been approached by the editor of the journal in which his research had appeared after “they had been made aware that the conflict of interest statement for our article may have been incomplete”.
“If these issues are considered a conflict then it appears that the conflict of interest statement may indeed be incomplete,” he wrote in response.
“A suggested revised conflict of interest statement that is correct at the time of publication is as follows:
“Marc Cohen is a shareholder of Maruia Hot Springs in New Zealand of which Peninsula Hot Springs is the majority owner, and on occasion provides informal, unpaid advice to the owners of Peninsula Hot Springs.”
According to an RMIT spokesperson, Cohen did not make any declarations of conflicts of interest in relation to conducting this research through the formal university policy and processes pertaining to the declaration and management of conflicts of interest by academic staff.
The spokesperson says that the institution “takes very seriously the integrity of research”.
“The fact that Dr Cohen is no longer employed by RMIT does not preclude RMIT from investigating a potential breach of research integrity,” the spokesperson said.
“RMIT’s Research Integrity Office is investigating the matter, in keeping with the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research and our institutional research policy.
“Where and if a breach or breaches of research integrity are found, RMIT will pursue corrective and/or disciplinary actions as appropriate, including correcting the public record or retracting a publication.”