University attempts to rescind PhD awarded to alleged cheater

Mar 24 2016 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

at RetractionWatch:

After the University of Texas postponed a hearing to determine whether it should revoke a chemist’s PhD, her lawyer has filed a motion to stop the proceedings, and requested the school pay her $95,099 in lawyer fees and expenses.

We have discussed individuals convicted of scientific fraud in the course of doctoral studies before and wondered if a University could or would attempt to retract the doctoral award. Well, looks like this is one of those cases.

The Austin Statesman reports:

In Orr’s case, UT administrators moved to revoke her degree after finding that “scientific misconduct occurred in the production of your dissertation,” according to a letter to Orr from Judith Langlois, senior vice provost and dean of graduate studies.

The dissertation committee concluded that work related to “falsified and misreported data cannot be included in a dissertation and that the remaining work described in the dissertation is insufficient to support the award” of a Ph.D.,” Langlois wrote. Orr was invited to submit a new thesis summarizing other work to earn a master’s degree.

This is interesting because the justification is not that she is being punished for being a faker, otherwise why would they invite her to submit a master's thesis? The justification is that ignoring the allegedly falsified work leaves her short of a minimum qualification for the doctorate. Given the flexibility involved with doctoral committee requirements and the sheer scope of data usually involved in a thesis, my eyebrows are raising at this. Back to the RetractionWatch piece:

The motion for final summary judgment includes an affidavit from Phillip Magnus, a chemistry professor at UT, who argues that...

her dissertation consisted of two branches of work towards alkaloid natural products and a methodology project to generate novel structures. She characterized about 100 organic compounds in her dissertation. Even without completed syntheses of natural products, her research towards the natural products was significant, and provided her the training to become a skillful and passionate scientist. Being correct or incorrect is part of scientific research. Being correct, or synthesizing a particular molecule are not requirements for passing a course at the University, or obtaining a Ph D degree. Furthermore, the possibility of being wrong is not a justifiable reason to rescind a former student’s degree.

Yeah, this certainly points at a usual sticking point between the RetractionWatch types and me.

It is ESSENTIAL to differentiate between merely being wrong or mistaken (or even sloppy) and intentional fraud.

The Austin Statesman piece goes on to detail how the supervising PI and a subsequent postdoc wanted to build on Dr. Orr's work and she told them to re-do certain work. They didn't, published a paper (with her as author) and it was subsequently retracted for a chemical step being non-reproducible. Was her warning due to knowing she'd faked some results? Or was it due to her gut feeling that it just wasn't as nailed down as some other results and she'd like to see it replicated before publishing? Did her own subsequent work cast doubt on her prior (valid but perhaps mistaken) work? Etc.

23 responses so far

  • Grumble says:

    So, UT revokes the degree, the student sues and UT relents and un-revokes the degree. Then UT convenes misconduct proceedings to try again to revoke her degree. So the student sues again, and UT's response to the lawsuit is that the student has only a right to due process (which the misconduct proceedings provide), and can sue only once the misconduct proceedings are finished.

    Yet they tried this before and were told by a judge to stop, presumably because the evidence against the student was so flimsy that the judge felt compelled to step in. How many times should UT be allowed to harass the student with misconduct proceedings?

  • AcademicLurker says:

    UT is spending a surprising amount of time and $$ trying to revoke this person's degree considering that she (as far as I know) doesn't seem to have been caught red handed committing fraud.

  • The Other Dave says:

    So UT should be OK with becoming known as the sort of institution that is OK with granting degrees to scientific fraudsters?

    I don't care what other significant work she did as part of her PhD work. The end does not justify the means. She doesn't deserve a PhD for the same reason that Josef Mengele's work should not be honored. the methods were unethical.

    Given the interconnectedness of honors, awards, and accomplishments, you don't think some of her (possibly) legitimate accomplishments were obtained in part due to a boost that her fraud might have brought?

    And what Magnus said is complete bullshit. Sure it's OK to be wrong and still et a PhD. But it's not Ok to be wrong, lie about it, and get a PhD. There was an investigation, and they found that misconduct occurred. End of case. The world has enough PhDs competing for funding and jobs. We hem and haw around here all the time about whether the PhD pipeline should be throttled down. I am astounded that anyone would think that the lucky few allowed to join the scientific community should include someone who -- despite having talent and resources -- couldn't manage to get through her PhD without faking data. What about all the other people's time and money she's wasted? I don't think her 'significant' accomplishments make up for that.

    End rant.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    TOD: I'm not saying it's OK, I'm just noting that UT going to court twice over this, coming back for a second try after they lost, is pretty remarkable.

  • The Other Dave says:

    AcademicLurker: The school is simply trying to revoke the PhD. I think it's the PhD candidate that is the one taking it to court.

    And keep in mind the point about federal law requiring the school to remain tight-lipped. That student is a student, and anything the school says about the student's performance (Which is their academic record) is a violation of FERPA. So don't necessarily assume that there's no evidence. I'm sure that the school wouldn't be pursuing this unless there were a real problem.

    And note this part: "Orr was invited to submit a new thesis summarizing other work to earn a master’s degree."

    That's way more generous than I would have been. Normally, academic misconduct would be grounds for booting a person out of school without any degree.

  • Grumble says:

    "There was an investigation, and they found that misconduct occurred. End of case."

    No, the end of the case was when the first court threw out the misconduct finding (or at least the rescinding of the degree). That means we actually do not know whether the student committed misconduct, or was just part of a fucked up paper that was so wrong that the PI felt he had to rescind it (a unilateral decision on his part, by the way).

  • The Other Dave says:

    Grumble: The paper was wrong, no one argues that. But the student was also undeniably found guilty of misconduct after a university investigation.

    The original accusation of misconduct appears to have been brought by the student's graduate supervisor. Although we don't know the details, this accusation was apparently believed by the student's committee, and supported by the Provost: The dissertation committee concluded that work related to “falsified and misreported data cannot be included in a dissertation and that the remaining work described in the dissertation is insufficient to support the award” of a Ph.D.,”

    The student has, as far as I can tell, never denied that misconduct may have occurred. She mostly disputes the process by which she was found guilty and the process by which the decision to revoke her PhD is being made. The court cases are not about whether misconduct occurred. They are about the procedure that UT is using to handle things. UT backed off the first time because it agreed that better procedures would be good. But it never said that it might be wrong about revoking her degree. Now it's back to do it.

    You can read the relevant court filing here: http://law.justia.com/cases/texas/third-court-of-appeals/2015/03-14-00299-cv.html I'm no lawyer, but it seems pretty straightforward.

  • The Other Dave says:

    DM: Ah, yes. I love that defense: "Sure I f*cked up, but that's because my mentor didn't encourage me to be careful and the postdoc in the lab didn't carefully check my work after I left."

  • drugmonkey says:

    Actually the comments on that In the Pipeline piece are even more interesting. Make sure to read those.

  • drugmonkey says:

    TOD- is being sloppy or scientifically mistaken grounds for revocation of the PhD?

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The comments about how crazy the UT Austin Chemistry department was/is are especially interesting. Contact explosives?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Right?

  • The Other Dave says:

    "is being sloppy or scientifically mistaken grounds for revocation of the PhD?"

    Being sloppy is. Being mistaken is not. Scientific misconduct is.

    Remember that this is about scientific misconduct. The PI and a postdoc accused the grad student of misconduct. A university committee found the student guilty of misconduct. This was backed up by the Provost and University Vice President. Based on that, the university decided to revoke the student's Ph.D. The student sued, saying that proper procedures were not being followed. The university backed off to improve procedures, did so, and moved again to revoke the PhD. The student sued again, because procedures.

    It's funny how we're ready to burn every PI that might have misbehaved, even just because they *should have known* that something bad was happening in their lab. But an investigation concludes that a grad student faked some critical data? Oh, give her a Ph.D. anyway, because she otherwise worked hard.

    Seriously, WTF?! As long as we're OK with all these lawsuits over stuff we apparently wouldn't have gotten if more information were available at the time... I think I am going to sue the Nobel committee because I don't think they properly considered my candidacy. I want evidence that they seriously looked into the value of my research and sought opinions about me from colleagues. Until that case is settled, I am going to put 'Nobel Laureate' on my CV and expect to be treated accordingly.

  • dnadrinker says:

    TOD you are 100% right.

    I have a side hobby of reading court cases involving universities.

    All the tenure cases or student discipline cases that universities lose, it's almost always for the reason that they didn't follow their own procedures.

    Some professor catches a student cheating and issues an automatic F. Then the student gets a lawyer. It turns out that the class syllabus states something like, "all cases of academic misconduct will be referred to the dean of students". The court is going to rule for the student. It doesn't matter how much evidence of cheating there is, that isn't the issue.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Being sloppy is.

    nonsense. it may be grounds for the committee not to let you defend and to send you back for more work. but as grounds for retracting the PHD later? no way. Absolutely not.

    and do you really want some other committee being convened to override the doctoral committee's decision?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Remember that this is about scientific misconduct.

    The case may be about that but your comment @5:06 was not. It was about "fucking up" and care, or the lack thereof. Which is what I was asking you about. Is that justification for rescinding the PhD?

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's funny how we're ready to burn every PI that might have misbehaved, even just because they *should have known* that something bad was happening in their lab. But an investigation concludes that a grad student faked some critical data? Oh, give her a Ph.D. anyway, because she otherwise worked hard.

    Your first comment is not supportable. Certainly where my comments are involved.

    As far as the second goes, we don't know she faked it and we don't know how "critical" it was to whether or not she deserved a PhD. Again, with emphasis, being sloppy or wrong is not evidence of fraud. Being sloppy or wrong at some point in time during the doctoral studies is in my view perfectly normal and part of the learning process. And in my view, the PhD is not awarded for a particular accomplishment, be it the novel synthesis of a protein or the attainment of a Nature first-author paper. It is properly awarded because the committee has determined the person is appropriately trained to be a PhD level scientist in their subfield of familiarity.

  • The Other Dave says:

    DM: OK, let's stop quibbling over something about which neither of us have all the facts, and never will. This is more interesting:

    "...the PhD is not awarded for a particular accomplishment [...] It is properly awarded because the committee has determined the person is appropriately trained to be a PhD level scientist in their subfield of familiarity."

    How do you judge whether the person is "appropriately trained"? What evidence do you look for, if not any "particular accomplishment"?

    I am worried that lack of clear criteria might cause unconscious bias to creep in. We wouldn't want to penalize someone for seeming 'not quite like the sort of person we envision as a proper PhD graduate'? Right, old chap? Wink wink nudge nudge.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I would look for the processes outlined in the department in question. The dissertation phase work as agreed to by the committee. Work, learning, skill acquisition. Not any particular experimental outcome or journal attainment.

  • Ola says:

    The only thing this proves is that for every dumb person/institution out there, there's a lawyer willing to step up and take hefty fees for empowering them to think they have a case.

  • bad wolf says:

    As i said over at In The Pipeline, her supervisors at Pfizer, where she's worked for several years, might be in a better position to judge her fitness for PhD. A brief LinkedIn search suggested that while Orr got a top job straight out of grad school, Nichols (who wrote the debunking thesis) has kicked around at lower-level jobs since then.

    The 'evidence' as far as i can see in the two theses and Org Lett paper is nothing that can't be explained by honest mistakes and mis-interpretations of (validly obtained) data. I'm a little more concerned about kangaroo courts run by departments with big-shot professors and the idea that your degree is subject to indefinite recall.

    Never answered: what UT and Martin hope to accomplish by this. Quo bono?

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Retraction Watch is even undecided on this

    http://retractionwatch.com/2016/02/09/chemist-sues-university-of-texas-again-to-keep-phd/
    http://retractionwatch.com/2016/03/24/chemist-fighting-to-keep-phd-asks-university-of-texas-to-pay-95k-in-legal-fees/

    and you know which side of the dice they usually land on

    The degree is from 2001, and the PI came at her in 2011.

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