Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Chemist fighting to keep PhD asks University of Texas to pay $95k in legal fees

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University of Texas

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.

This is the second time UT has threatened to revoke Suvi Orr‘s PhD, following a 2012 retraction for a paper that made up part of her dissertation, which the school alleged contained falsified data. UT revoked her degree in 2014, only to reinstate it after she sued. The school is now trying to revoke it again, but the scheduled hearing on March 4 was postponed. Last week, her lawyer filed a motion for final summary judgment requesting that UT stop the proceedings and repay $95,099 in lawyer fees and expenses. The new motion makes a few requests:

Plaintiff S.O. prays that, after an oral hearing, the Court grant this final summary judgment entering the requested Declarations I-IX and a permanent injunction giving effect to this judgment. More specifically, she seeks a permanent injunction against the University from conducting informal disciplinary proceedings to revoke her degree. S.O. further requests that the Court enter an award of attorneys’ fees and expenses in the amount of $95,099 paid to date, as well as $50,000 for attorneys’ fees and expenses for any appeal of this action. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 37.009. Finally, she asks the Court to award Plaintiff such other and further relief to which she may be justly entitled.

Following a court hearing on February 17th,  a hearing scheduled at UT for March 4th was moved to a later date, yet to be determined. The lawsuit says that the hearing was comprised of three undergraduate students and two faculty members will deliberate — “none of whom are qualified to evaluate the scientific evidence being used against S.O.”

In the February 17th court hearing [PDF], the judge said:

I would expect to see at least an effort to try to find someone who is adequately and suitably available. Someone who has the sufficient education and experience in order to make a fair determination, to be able to look at this data and determine whether or not it was falsified or not, or whatever the question is that UT’s looking to answer. And that you — I appreciate the agreement that you-all have reached that it not be someone who’s not from that area, who could potentially have that conflict.

The judge added:

Is March 4th an absolute necessary date? If you don’t even have the selection of the hearing officer yet, perhaps you-all should talk about pushing that date until a date that is convenient for the hearing officer and certainly the movant.

Orr’s lawyer says there is no date scheduled yet.

Suvi’s former advisor, Stephen F. Martin, told us that he could not comment on the case because of the ongoing litigation.

The motion for final summary judgment includes an affidavit from Phillip Magnus, a chemistry professor at UT, who argues that Orr would not have engaged “in any intentional wrongdoing,” which goes against the conclusion reached by UT administrators that Orr committed misconduct. He says:

It is not logical based on [her] stellar track record as a scientist that she would engage in any intentional wrongdoing, nor would she have had any motivation to do so. [S.O.]’s research in the Martin group and 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.

The retraction note for the paper, in Organic Letters, only says the data were “not reproducible.”

The motion explains the background of the case, from Orr’s perspective: 

As part of her research, she attempted to synthetically create lundurine and reported the results in her dissertation. Years later, in 2012, a complaint was brought against her alleging she engaged in scientific misconduct. The University shut S.O. out of their investigation, even though over and again it promised to provide her access to the relevant witnesses and information. They have likewise denied her countless requests for documents to which she is legally entitled, such as her student laboratory notebooks, electronic data, and research results relevant to defend against their allegations…The University has also, without S.O.’s knowledge, added a bar on her student record that prevents her from, for example, obtaining an official transcript.

The motion alleges that Orr could have obtained her degree without the portion of her work that was allegedly affected by misconduct:

Of the literally thousands of tests and calculations S.O. performed, the allegations of misconduct are focused on the three results of Compounds P, Q, and R. The reality is that S.O. could have easily excluded the testing results from her dissertation, and it would not have had any effect on her work or her degree.

An article in the Austin American-Statesman last week includes a quote from a UT spokesperson:

“Federal privacy law prevents us from discussing any issues relating to our student’s academic records, and this lawsuit falls into that category,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said. “Also, as a general policy, we do not discuss pending litigation through the media. UT will make its arguments through the appropriate filings in the court.”

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Written by Shannon Palus

March 24th, 2016 at 11:30 am

Comments
  • Neuroskeptic March 24, 2016 at 11:49 am

    “It is not logical based on [her] stellar track record as a scientist that she would engage in any intentional wrongdoing”

    By that logic Obokata, Stapel, Macchiarini and many other “high fliers” must be innocent!

  • imohacsi March 25, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Asking for 95k in legal fees is working against her… It will just make UT no longer interested in a settlement and just proceed with the lawsuit.

  • Ken March 27, 2016 at 12:41 am

    One aspect of this may be that UT has specific processes for student academic integrity http://deanofstudents.utexas.edu/sjs/discprocess.php and that is that involves a peer process. It obviously was never designed to evaluate complex scientific evidence. If however they choose any other process they will probably be taken to court for breaking their own rules. So either they break their rules or look stupid.

    If it is fraud the question of why is interesting. It seems that she didn’t need it for her PhD and the publication was well after she was employed at Pfizer so presumably hadn’t been accepted. From Scopus this appears to be the only publication from her PhD. Since then she has had a number of publications at Pfizer.

    I’ve heard from one organic chemist who retired in the nineties that not being able to reproduce synthesis of compounds is not uncommon. When it is only yourself, then it may be your error but when it is confirmed by several chemists it appears that something is wrong.

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