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.
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.