Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Scientist found to have falsified data in thesis sues to keep her PhD

with 30 comments

org lettersIn August 2012, the authors of “Novel Approach to the Lundurine Alkaloids: Synthesis of the Tetracyclic Core,” a paper in Organic Letters, retracted it:

The authors retract this Organic Letters communication on the basis that the RCM of 24 to give 25 (Scheme 6) is not reproducible; thus, the reduction of 25 to give 26 (Scheme 7) is also not reproducible.

The case was covered in some detail by The Heterocyclist blog, and also by Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline, who called it “an odd retraction.” Lowe recently picked up the story with an update: The first author, Suvi Orr, is suing the University of Texas-Austin, where she earned her PhD and did the work, to stop them from taking away her degree.

The Austin American-Statesman reported last month:

Nearly six years after Suvi Orr received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Texas, the university told her it has decided to do something that institutions of higher learning almost never do: revoke the degree.

Orr, in turn, has sued UT in an effort to hold onto the doctorate that launched her career in the pharmaceutical industry.

Her lawsuit in state district court in Travis County contends that revocation is unwarranted and that the university violated her rights by not letting her defend herself before the dissertation committee that condemned her research long after she graduated. In addition, she says, the committee relied heavily on her former professor, who, she claims, was motivated to “cast the blame elsewhere.”

A letter included in the filing explains why the university wanted to take back her degree:

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.

Orr’s thesis is available here.

The case is a stark contrast to one we reported on earlier this week, in which a scientist acknowledged errors on PubPeer and told us she’d be losing her PhD and faculty position.

We’ve tried to reach Orr, who now works at Pfizer, for comment, and will update with anything we learn.

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 22nd, 2014 at 9:30 am

Comments
  • JATdS April 22, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Such a stark contrast to Eriko Suzuki’s case.

  • Michael Wise April 22, 2014 at 10:10 am

    While clearly this is playing out against a background of two different personalities, the issue I highlight here is the same one I highlighted in the Suzuki case; there needs to be a careful, dispassionate, fair process which looks at all the evidence, talks to all the affected parties, and judges how much of the thesis is tainted and whether what remains is worthy of the degree – or as I put it earlier, looking at the doughnut as well as the hole. In this case, it may well be a failure of due process, and in the Suzuki case there may so far have been no process at all.

  • CR April 22, 2014 at 10:46 am

    I still think both are cases in which the universities are trying to save their face by punishing the first, politically-weaker, author. Only in that in one case the author accepted her scapegoat condition and in the other the author did not. I feel PhD students should be considered students nonetheless, and that if there are any serious issues in their dissertations the first responsible (next to be investigated) must be the advisor. In cases where the advisor does not have any other instances of the same irregularity on other papers, then the student can be considered faulty.

    • Stewart April 22, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      CR wrote: “In cases where the advisor does not have any other instances of the same irregularity on other papers, then the student can be considered faulty.”

      Whether the “advisor” (do you “mean” PI?) has other similar instances or not is irrelevant, surely. If you do mean PI, presumably you agree that PIs own the data from their grants. The buck stops with ownership. The PI is responsible for all data leaving their lab in any form.

      I wonder how many professors, Deans, Heads of departments have their positions whilst knowing, in the back of their minds, that they have let falsified data pass them by. This does not bode well for scientific integrity and our search for discovery based on honest science.

      We must not forget, of course, there are many honest professors, Deans and heads of departments.

      Suzuki needs to go (then again, she now acknowledges she made mistakes and has owned up to them – many more senior investigators have not). Where is her PI?

      • johnalanpascoe April 23, 2014 at 3:54 am

        Whether an advisor is also a PI will differ from country to country and perhaps institution to institution. In my case (Dutch university) I have an associate professor as a daily supervisor and ‘co-promotor’ and a full professor as ‘promotor’, who is ultimately responsible for declaring my thesis ready to be defended. [The actual degree is awarded after defending the thesis to a duly constituted committee.]
        However the grant that funds my PhD position was awarded to me personally, not to my professor. Then again many of my colleagues are funded based on industry co-operations set-up between the university and industry before a suitable PhD candidate was found.

        All of which is to say that advisor = PI = data owner is not necessarily correct.

        • Stewart April 23, 2014 at 10:56 am

          johnalanpascoe

          It is EXTREMELY rare for PhD students to write their own grant and get awarded their own funds. The vast majority apply for prefunded places. Therefore PI = data owner in 99.9% of cases is, factually, correct.

          The cases where supervisor = PI, the PI should check the original data of the student. If they don’t, then why do they have students?

          Even for self funded students (including the ones that write their own grants), you will find, do not own the data they generate, the University does. Therefore the University representative “advisor” or “supervisor” has a duty to check the ORIGINAL data.

          Sloppiness is not an excuse

  • Dan Zabetakis April 22, 2014 at 11:51 am

    “, and that if there are any serious issues in their dissertations the first responsible (next to be investigated) must be the advisor.”

    I agree with CR. The adviser is principally responsible for the conduct of the student. The student was in the school specifically to learn the scientific process, and the school awarded the degree after close supervision and detailed review by a panel of multiple experts.

    The standard for revoking a PhD must be set very high. They would need to show how it was that the student (without any practical power or influence) was able to circumvent the total, detailed control of the adviser, and to fraudulently overcome the critical evaluation by the committee members.

    For myself, once the adviser has been fired and the dean of the graduate school has resigned, I would be willing to consider the role of the student.

    • QAQ April 22, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      Here, I believe that the dissertation committee must have no role.

      While, it’s possible that the the PI was legitimately and maliciously duped, he was the corresponding author on the publication. He therefore accepted primary responsibility for its content. If PI’s don’t want the responsibility (or haven’t earned it and are unable to really take responsibility for the work…) they shouldn’t list themselves for correspondence. If you put that asterisk up, you really gotta own it. Period.

      Therefore, with the committee including the person who publicly accepted responsibility for the tainted piece of work, there is an INSANE amount of conflict of interest here. We’re talking the equivalent of if John Mitchell had prosecuted Nixon. He should be excluded entirely from all discussions.

      Of course, the rest of the committee members did sign off, and this makes them in some ways compromised as well. Personally, I think that this should be handled by a review as objective as possible by new members including some outside of UT. Whether one should be allowed to resubmit something new to be reconsidered… I guess that depends on whether there was outright fraud or just mistakes. In the case of fraud, I see no reason why one should be allowed to resubmit, and in that case… I would assume that any outside committee would probably come to the conclusion of “rejection” regardless of how much “untainted stuff” was in the dissertation.

      • Dan Zabetakis April 22, 2014 at 2:32 pm

        “If you put that asterisk up, you really gotta own it. Period.”

        I see what you did there.

        • Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva April 24, 2014 at 2:25 pm

          I think that has got to be one of the most profound and succinct statements I have read in recent times related to the responsibilities of the corresponding author, which I touched upon here: http://www.globalsciencebooks.info/JournalsSup/images/2013/AAJPSB_7(SI1)/AAJPSB_7(SI1)16-20o.pdf. I wish I knew QAQ’s real name, because I want to quote this statement in a future paper of mine, and would like to refer to this individual better than QAQ (quack?). QAQ, please contact me, if possible, so that I can reference you appropriately and accurately!

          • QAQ May 1, 2014 at 2:58 am

            Thank you for the kind compliment. I’m very glad that you find it useful and I very much respect your work. I’m still a too early career to feel absolutely comfortable coming forward and being acknowledged by real name: I like that I can disclose my honest opinion here and debate comfortably without having to fear reprisal… not from you (or most of the regulars here) but perhaps from those whose actions I didn’t exactly favor.

            I grant you full permission to use and attribute any quote of mine to either Anonymous or Q.A.Q. or unknown. It’s certainly not supposed to be “quack!” It’s really just a couple of letters on the keyboard that happened to be close together that I thought were unlikely to be used by anyone else. It might sound like quack, but until you pointed it out, it never crossed my mind. Just easy to remember and difficult to associate with a specific person.

            If you would like to discuss this further, let me know if there is a website that I can find an e-mail address for you, and I will contact you.

    • Miguel Roig April 22, 2014 at 1:17 pm

      The extent to which an adviser should be held responsible for a student’s transgressions in a dissertation should really depend on the specific role played by the adviser in that student’s dissertation. Based on discussions that I have had with colleagues from various disciplines, it seems that that role can differ widely across disciplines and even within disciplines. For example, in some programs there is the expectation that the student is supposed to generate -and does come up with- an original contribution independent of anyone else’s research. It seems to me that in those cases, the brunt of responsibility lies with the student. In other cases, the student is simply expected to follow up an original line of research, but one that is derived from a supervisor’s work and does so under that supervisor’s direct oversight. In those cases, the supervisor obviously bears some degree of responsibility. In yet other programs supervisors are assigned after most of the doctoral work is carried out and published and the assigned supervisor may be totally independent of the dissertation work. In sum, the nature and scope of the doctoral student-supervisor relationship can vary widely. Of course, these types of details would come up early in most misconduct investigations.

      • Dan Zabetakis April 22, 2014 at 2:41 pm

        “It seems to me that in those cases, the brunt of responsibility lies with the student.”

        Not at all. If your name is on the paper you are responsible for the whole of the work. It’s no good crying “I wasn’t involved” when someone else finds errors or misconduct in your papers.

        And a PI is always responsible for what goes on in their lab, top to bottom and front to back.

        If you are PI and there is misconduct in your lab, and you are not the one to expose it, then you need to consider your position.

        • Miguel Roig April 22, 2014 at 3:19 pm

          I totally agree with the position that an author, particularly a corresponding author, should be held responsible for the contents of the work that bears his/her name. However, as per my comment above, not all student dissertation work that ends up being published lists its supervisor as author, let alone as corresponding author. To clarify, my original comment was made in response to the notion that supervisors should always be the first responsible parties in misconduct investigations involving doctoral dissertations. Their degree of responsibility should depend on the nature of that individual’s supervisory role and, as mentioned earlier, that role seems to differ within a discipline..

  • Devra Marcus April 22, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Do you have an opinion on what behaviors warrant uncontested withdrawal of advanced degrees ? Devra

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  • StrongDreams April 22, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    As described, this sounds like a total failure of due process. The student has the right to confront witnesses and present evidence in her defense. (If you are looking for a more substantial defense like “my professor made me do it” or “everyone in the lab did it, I was badly trained,” the place for that defense would be in the University hearing. Courts are generally reluctant to interfere with academic decisions by declaring that the outcome was wrong, but regularly rule on process issues, which I expect is why she went with the due process claim at this stage.)

    • CR April 23, 2014 at 6:23 am

      ““my professor made me do it” or “everyone in the lab did it, I was badly trained,” the place for that defense would be in the University hearing.” — ideally yes, that saying that inside the University quarters can be even life-threatening in some places, I know from personal experience.

  • Ken April 22, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    The problem with a lot of chemistry etc is that you have to rely on the fact that if someone says that they took certain steps and it produced this result and they have some documentation to back it up, and the steps look reasonable then nobody is going to question it. Especially the PI as they probably suggested the steps. If they don’t keep the samples then there is little that can be done to prove or disprove that something happened.

  • johnalanpascoe April 23, 2014 at 3:57 am

    I note that the University found that ”“scientific misconduct occurred in the production of your dissertation,” but not that Orr was the one that committed it (nor did they find that she didn’t).

  • Daron Standley April 23, 2014 at 5:31 am

    At the expense of sounding like a cold hearted curmudgeon, I am going to say this: if a person cheats on his phd thesis (and here I am *not* implying that Suvi Orr or Eriko Suzuki did), I think the PhD should be revoked. Here’s why:

    The thesis represents the culmination of a person’s graduate work. The degree and the thesis can not be separated. Furthermore, at least in the sciences, honesty is the most fundamental quality required to graduate. It’s more important than having great results.

    Now, if we are talking about a mistake it’s a whole different thing. I make mistakes just like anyone does. Perhaps a very significant mistake should require a retraction of published work; but not, in my opinion, loss of a degree. Here, I side with the people who say the student’s advisor(s) share a significant amount of responsibility for letting the mistake go unnoticed…

    So, in my opinion, it comes down to the question of “mistake” or “dishonesty”. Hard to prove, but if the investigation committee is diverse, I think it can be handed internally. If their opinion is very divided, obviously things become much more difficult.

  • Nils April 23, 2014 at 6:09 am
    • someone_somwehere April 24, 2014 at 9:33 pm

      Note the footnote on this comics: the idea for it was contributed by someone from the UT !

      (Galveston branch though)

  • Michael Wise April 23, 2014 at 7:59 am

    Folks, lots of conjecture, rather a shortage of facts. What is missing is due process. I’m not saying that either or neither person should lose her PhD. What I am saying is that a properly constituted third party has to evaluate all the evidence. In particular, the students must be offered the chance to put their side of the story (which appears not to have happened in either case).

  • Chip_MoMo (@Chip_Molly) April 23, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Interesting comments. Yet it seems to me everyone is missing the point. If a submitted piece of scholarly work is based in flawed or falsified data, then it has to be retracted from the scientific literature. If this piece of work results in the award of a PhD then the PhD should be revoked. Both student and PI can take / share the blame.

    • Stewart April 23, 2014 at 11:00 am

      But how can the PI be punished? A weak beer in the pub from the VC, instead of a glass of fine wine?

      We need political influence and specific science-fraud laws.

    • StrongDreams April 23, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      Not necessarily. A dissertation is a report of an overall education and research program. Depending on the errors, it might be acceptable and even desirable to allow a correction rather than a retraction. But more important, the very decision of whether or not to offer the opportunity to correct, or to withdraw, is a decision that can not be taken in a private hearing that does not include the student whose work product is under question. We (and especially the student) have no idea what might have been said outside her presence — the PI could have blamed her for the faults of someone else, for example, with no opportunity to present evidence or rebuttal.

    • QAQ April 23, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      One of the people voting to retract the PhD is also (potentially? partly? completely?) responsible for the misconduct *in this case.*

      Dissertations with “submitted piece[s] of scholarly work… based in flawed… data” quite often. If someone sends a piece of work with a mistake to their committee, are they forever banned from obtaining the degree? No. The normal process is that, if they did something incorrect but not highly unethical that would get them kicked out of the program, they are allowed to resubmit a corrected version.

      If the PhD contains flaws, it should be retracted or corrected. However, that *in and of itself* should not preclude the individual from submitting a new dissertation to considered.

      The most important point here is that dissertation committees shouldn’t have “backsies” privileges. You sign it, you live with it. If you failed to catch the bad stuff, someone else should be deciding what ends up happening later. I don’t think that people are saying that she should get to keep her PhD if she did make-up data and put that into the dissertation. I (and I think others) are saying that she deserves a fair trial that doesn’t include her PI as a juror. For analogy: jury of your peers does not usually include the head of the criminal organisation.

  • Dan Zabetakis April 23, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Daron, Michael, and Chip:

    I don’t agree with your assessments because in my view the review and certification of the validity of the degree has already been done, prior to the award. If you are going to revoke the degree after the fact, it can only be under a very high standard.

    Advisers and departments cannot be allowed to say “we didn’t closely supervise the student” at a later date. By awarding the degree they are certifying that they _did_ closely supervise the student and that the student completed the course of study and research. If there were papers published based on the research each author, personally and individually, have certified that they are fully responsible for the results.

    Graduate students do not have power in this relationship. They _must_ do what the PI and the committee require them to do. All of their research records are available for review. They can be expelled, disciplined or denied the degree without repercussion.

    If a degree is awarded and then someone else shows that there was fraud, first fire the adviser. Then demote the department head. Then ask the dean to resign. After that we can look and see if the student has done anything wrong.

  • ferniglab April 30, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    A PhD is training. so the trainer has a key role. Consequently, the advisor/supervisor HAS to shoulder some of the blame, even if blameless – they let it through in the first place. Dysfunction in the relation between student and supervisor will occur, if only transiently and it is up to the supervisor to figure out a way around this (usually by roping in a colleague on speaking terms with the student. In the end, if the supervisor spends time actually supervising, then ethics, the difficulties of obtaining clean data and the need for a “Plan B” that generates positive data when the supervisor’s “great hypothesis” turns out to be not so great after all are all part of the “teaching” programme. When there is an issue of supervision problems, then the only honest solution would be for the University to pay the student their current salary and invite them back to complete their thesis. In this case, while institutions may continue to close ranks to “protect” their reputation, the financial hit would ensure that the rules on students supervison were adhered to a little more closely.
    I do think a degree can and should be rescinded if there is clear misconduct on the part of the student, which was deliberately hidden from the supervisor. However, this is a pretty high bar. I also think that a University is in its rights to rescind a degree should the degree holder subsequently betray the badge of trust such a degree confers, a la Schoen.
    Indeed if degrees were rescinded more often in later life, in the same way that clinicians are barred from practice, then this might act as a deterrent to those who are happy to squeeze the life out of their students without putting anything back.

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