In 2014, school officials revoked Suvi Orr‘s degree after finding it was based, in part, on falsified data. Some of the data were also included in a paper in Organic Letters that was retracted in 2011 after some steps in the chemical synthesis the authors described were not reproducible. Orr, currently working at Pfizer, sued UT, and the school reinstated her degree.
Now, the school is trying to remove it again, according to the lawsuit, filed last week. The lawsuit says the school has scheduled a “hearing” on March 4, during which three undergraduate students and two faculty members will deliberate — “none of whom are qualified to evaluate the scientific evidence being used against S.O.,” the suit says.
Orr has requested a temporary injunction to halt the proceedings, and a hearing has been scheduled for next week, according to the Austin-American Statesman.
The suit argues the school does not have the right to strip Orr’s degree from her:
…S.O. has a constitutionally protected property and liberty interest in her PhD. The University should not be permitted to so cavalierly attempt to take it away. S.O’s scientific career—and her livelihood—hinge on how a panel of undergraduate students review and interpret highly complex scientific data at the doctoral and postdoctoral level in organic chemistry…The Court must grant the requested relief so that S.O. is not stripped of her constitutionally protected property and liberty interests without the due course of law, due process and equal protection of the law.
Orr’s lawyer, David Sergi, told us,
Our focus is on accountability and transparency. We think there is a lack of accountability for the dissertation advisers.
The University has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to sacrifice the good name, reputation, and integrity of S.O. for the sake of Prof. Martin. Rather than have Prof. Martin admit his own errors and shortcomings as a graduate advisor, research chemist, and author, the University has embarked on years of secret investigations as it attempts to revoke S.O.’s PhD for what may be a subjective error in scientific judgment.
The lawsuit provides background on the retraction:
A paper was published in which Prof. Martin was the leading author, and the post-doc and S.O. were coauthors of the journal article. S.O. intended and expected that the post-doc would fully characterize the compounds as part of reproducing her work. Unbeknownst to S.O., the post-doc instead made markings, scanned, and submitted experimental data containing S.O.’s file names and some incorrect (and inaccurate) pages as part of the journal article. On relevant issues related to Compounds P, Q, and R, he reached the same or similar conclusions as S.O. that are discussed in his post-doctoral final report. Nonetheless, the article was ultimately retracted, and the decision to retract was apparently made by Prof. Martin without input from his co-authors (S.O. and the post-doc).
The suit alleges that Martin steered Orr wrong:
A test that can be used to fully confirm–not just propose—a molecule’s identity is a small molecule X-ray. It is considered the most reliable of the testing methods. Prof. Martin, however, considered the H-NMR data (and the other three tests) to be sufficient to identify molecules. Some other graduate advisors required an X-ray testing for complex molecules because H-NMR data and interpretation has more room for errors and can be inconclusive. Under Prof. Martin’s protocol, S.O. was required to identify molecules by the four tests described above. Prof. Martin recommended X-ray testing if the molecule could be crystallized but he gave little guidance on how to crystallize molecules.
After analysis and discussion, Prof. Martin agreed with S.O.’s conclusions as presented in her dissertation. Without his endorsement, she would not have been allowed to appear before the dissertation committee.
It argues that the problems with the paper were all “part of a scientific process:”
At worst, S.O.’s alleged misinterpretations demonstrate the inexperience of a graduate student who was still learning her craft. The alleged misinterpretations are nothing but part of a scientific process. In scientific process, there are only theories, not facts. A theory can of course be proven wrong. In this case, it is still up to debate what the actual identities of Compounds P, Q, and R are.
A spokesperson for UT told the Austin-American Statesman:
The university is prohibited by federal privacy law from discussing an individual student’s academic performance or issues related to it. The university will respond to these claims through the proper legal channels in the courts.
We reached out to Martin for comment, and will update this post with anything else we learn.
Update 2/10/16 12:30 PM eastern: This morning, the defendants filed a response. It reads, in part:
If the disciplinary panel finds that S.O. committed academic misconduct, a sanction may be imposed, ranging from a written warning to the revocation of S.O.’s Ph.D. Any finding of wrongdoing and sanction of S.O. is subject to appeal by either party to the President of UT Austin, whose decision is final. UT Austin first informed S.O. of its disciplinary process and procedures on February 27, 2014.
As discussed below, S.O. fails to plead a valid constitutional claim of deprivation of due course of law and equal protection. Indeed, S.O.’s requested relief seeks to avoid due process. S.O.’s wish to avoid an academic misconduct hearing does not, itself, create a right to relief at this stage. Instead, S.O.’s only remedy is to raise any legal concerns once UT Austin has fully completed its administrative process concerning the allegations of misconduct against her.
Here is a PDF of the whole thing.
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