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Police investigate UK PhD student over masturbation study

Image: Mikey [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

University of Manchester has suspended doctoral student as it assists police with enquiries

Greater Manchester Police have launched an investigation into a PhD student who used masturbation to erotic comics depicting young boys as a research method.

Karl Andersson, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, sparked a public outcry after publishing a controversial article on “using masturbation as an ethnographic method in research on shota subculture in Japan” in the Sage journal Qualitative Research.

Shota refers to comics and illustrations that, as the study described it, “feature young boy characters in a cute or, most often, sexually explicit way”. Some critics of the study have questioned the ethics as well as legality of viewing such materials in the UK, though it is not yet clear where the research was conducted.

Following the uproar, the article was first removed and then retracted by the journal. The University of Manchester has launched its own investigation into the matter.

A spokesperson for Greater Manchester Police confirmed that they had also opened an investigation. “We are working closely with the University of Manchester, who are assisting us with our enquiries to establish what, if any, offences have been committed,” they said. No arrests have been made.

The University of Manchester said it was assisting police with the investigation to establish if offences had been committed “in the UK or elsewhere”. The university added that it had suspended Andersson as a precautionary measure pending the outcome of its full investigation.

In a statement published on 22 August, the university said it had now completed the initial phase of the investigation.

“We are examining all aspects of the student’s work and academic supervision, the origin of the article, his prior background, the associated university processes for admission to our PGR programme and research conduct, and other questions that have been raised,” the institution said.

According to the university’s initial findings, some of the research described in the paper was conducted as part of Andersson’s Master’s degree course at Free University of Berlin. However, it adds that “there is contradictory information regarding when the period of self-immersive research activity took place”.

It adds that the basis for the article published in the journal was a paper for the course, ‘Topics in interdisciplinary queer studies: Autoethnography’ at the University of Stavanger, Norway.

Research Professional News has approached the University of Stavanger for comment. The Free University of Berlin declined to comment.

The University of Manchester added that the described research methodology and data collection for the study were not submitted to the institution for ethics approval and that the paper was not part of his supervised PhD programme of study.

Although Andersson was registered for a PhD at the university, it said the research design which he proposed for conducting the research for his PhD was rejected by the University Research Ethics Committee on 17 June 2022.

After the paper stirred controversy online, numerous people flagged up previous controversial work by Andersson, including his time running a magazine that published sexualised images of young boys.

The university said it was not aware of the background information on the student and that the case has “highlighted that we must ensure our PhD student recruitment processes are sufficiently robust to appropriately scrutinise the legal, ethical and safeguarding issues of the proposed research and applicants’ prior related activities where relevant”.

Research Professional News has approached Andersson for comment.