Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Updated: Ohio State revokes PhD of co-author of now-retracted paper on shooter video games

with 9 comments

Jodi Whitaker, via University of Arizona

[This post, which at 1200 UTC 8/25/17 originally reported on the then-upcoming vote, has been updated at 1800 UTC 8/25/17 to include the results of the vote.]

A researcher who co-authored a paper about video games that was retracted earlier this year has had her PhD from The Ohio State University revoked.

As WOSU reported this afternoon, the vote today of the university’s Board of Trustees was unanimous. The scheduled vote on whether to revoke Jodi Whitaker’s degree was first reported yesterday by The Columbus Dispatch.

While a graduate student at Ohio State, Whitaker was co-author of a paper that claimed to find that first-person shooter video games improved marksmanship. As we’ve reported, the paper, published online in 2012, was retracted earlier this year, two years after a university committee was alerted to irregularities in the data by two outside researchers.

The controversy over the paper became heated at times. Whitaker’s PhD supervisor, Brad Bushman, was cleared by Ohio State of misconduct, but claimed at one point that the paper’s critics — Patrick Markey, a psychology professor at Villanova University and Malte Elson, a behavioral psychology postdoc at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany — were engaging in a smear campaign. But Bushman agreed to the retraction. (He also agreed to the retraction of another paper not co-authored by Whitaker earlier this year following questions by Joe Hilgard, a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania.)

The Dispatch explains Ohio State’s process for revoking a degree:

Typically, a university committee investigates allegations of academic misconduct. That committee can then recommend to the executive vice president and provost that a degree be revoked, and if the provost concurs, the recommendation goes to the board of trustees.

OSU spokespeople told the Dispatch and Retraction Watch yesterday:

Student education records, including records related to academic misconduct and information about the misconduct that could lead to the identification of individual students, are protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and cannot be shared by the university.

Brad Bushman is a professor of communication in good standing at Ohio State.  In the case of the retracted 2014 study (“Boom, Headshot!”: Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy. Communication Research, Vol 41(7):879-891) the university determined that there was no evidence that Bushman participated in, or was aware of, inappropriate data manipulation. Therefore, the university found that the allegations brought against Bushman did not have sufficient substance to warrant an investigation and they were dismissed.

[See update at end.]

In a joint statement to Retraction Watch today, Markey and Elson questioned Ohio State’s findings:

Throughout the investigation and retraction process, our goals have always been to correct the scientific record. We are deeply saddened to hear that this might lead to the end of a fellow scientist’s career.

There were two authors on the problematic “Boom, Headshot!” study. That the female, junior researcher is found culpable for those problems while the male, senior researcher is not, seems questionable.  During the investigation pertaining to the article in question, we discovered two different data files on the senior author’s computer between which the codes for variables were altered.  These alterations occurred in a manner which supported the original study’s hypotheses. Additionally, the authors of the original study were unable to provide the raw data in order to confirm which data file was correct.

Ultimately, we will never know exactly what error produced the discrepancies between these files. However, we believe that all researchers involved in a particular project are responsible for the outcome of the said project. This is especially true in cases when a senior author is the mentor of a junior researcher.  We are pleased that the outcome of this investigation has been to retract a manuscript containing potentially erroneous findings, but are disheartened by the decision, by all parties involved, to lay the blame for these errors at the feet of a single member of a multi-person research team.

Whitaker, now an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona, has not responded to a request for comment.

Jake Harwood, the chair of Arizona’s communication department, told Retraction Watch yesterday that the university is aware of the situation, and of the retraction earlier this year. Asked whether revocation of Whitaker’s PhD would affect her employment at the university, he said he could not comment on personnel issues.

It is unclear how often PhDs are revoked, but it seems rare. In one case we’ve been covering, the University of Texas, Austin, has been blocked — at least for now — from taking away the PhD of a chemist who the university said falsified data.

Update, 1400 UTC, 8/28/17: Bushman provided us with a copy of the letter in which OSU said he had been exonerated of misconduct. Read it here.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

August 25th, 2017 at 8:00 am

Comments
  • Marco August 25, 2017 at 11:22 am

    You also covered the case of Nasrullah Memon, who did get his PhD revoked
    http://retractionwatch.com/2016/11/08/danish-university-revokes-phd-of-anti-terrorism-researcher/

  • Sam August 25, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    How did Elson et Markey obtain access to the PI’s analysis files…?

    • Malte Elson August 27, 2017 at 4:13 pm

      During the investigation, OSU sequestered a number of files from the senior author’s computer, which were then sent to us on a flash drive (unsolicited).

  • herr doktor bimler August 25, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    the university determined that there was no evidence that Bushman participated in, or was aware of, inappropriate data manipulation. Therefore, the university found that the allegations brought against Bushman did not have sufficient substance to warrant an investigation and they were dismissed.

    Is there actual positive evidence that Whitaker did participate in data manipulation? Or is this more a proof-by-exclusion process — “Natural justice (and faculty position) prevents us from censuring Bushman in the absence of overwhelming proof, which all the proof we need to identify Whitaker as the guilty party.”

    Ohio State have a track record for internal inquiries that conclude “No evidence of misconduct”, and are then reopened when the evidence comes to wider attention.

  • Cancer doc UK August 26, 2017 at 8:40 am

    This is a clear example why we need an INDEPENDENT body to investigate alleged research misconduct. By “we” I mean every country performing research.

    By “independent” I mean non researchers, non-funders, non-associates.

    Until that day comes I believe the public and charity donors have reason to distrust researchers. Therefore, why should public or charity money be used for research?

    I would advocate retraction watch is, therefore, performing one of the greatest services to modern science. It is in the public interest for all science to be transparent, open and accessible. This, of course, includes, raw data.

  • Mimi Jacobi August 26, 2017 at 11:51 am

    Re: Cancer doc’s comment

    By “independent” I mean non researchers, non-funders, non-associates.
    Until that day comes I believe the public and charity donors have reason to distrust researchers. Therefore, why should public or charity money be used for research?
    [snip] This, of course, includes, raw data.

    This is a dangerously naive attitude. First, why is “non-” every occupation you cited, more trustworthy? Seriously, lawyers? Try satisfying them when you submit an application for approval for the ethical use of human embryonic stem cells. Second, why would they want to, and how would they know how to, analyze “raw data” without being scientists? FYI, scientists are not data-generating machines. Even technicians aren’t. Such assessment by one’s peers is known as peer review. If all the peers are untrustworthy, then what is the point of publishing? What’s the point of retracting? Why is there publicly funded science at all? After all, the private sector is so much more objective.

    Your reasoning is ridiculous.

    • Cancer doc UK August 27, 2017 at 5:49 am

      Not all peers are non-trustworthy. Universities are large organisations with their own interests at heart and largely run by administrators, not researchers.

      I would add administrators may also not understand the science, or science-fraud, but are policy bound to protect their employers reputation.

  • herr doktor bimler August 26, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Student education records, including records related to academic misconduct and information about the misconduct that could lead to the identification of individual students, are protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and cannot be shared by the university.

    That’s cute… the university administrators are citing rules designed to protect students and their identities, to justify the secrecy and absence of evidence when they strip the qualification of an identified student.

    • Narad August 27, 2017 at 8:29 am

      Well, Whitaker presumably can disclose the information, but if I were her, I’d probably be looking for an attorney.

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