Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Copenhagen revokes degree of controversial neuroscientist Milena Penkowa

with 6 comments

The University of Copenhagen has stripped Milena Penkowa of her doctoral degree, after determining she had covered up problems with her research.

According to a release issued today by the university, Penkowa falsified documents to allay suspicions that she had not performed some animal experiments as she’d reported.

This development is the latest in a long story: In 2015, the Copenhagen City Court ruled that Penkowa had forged experiments as part of her thesis, and handed her a nine-month suspended sentence. Penkowa appealed that ruling, and last year, another court dismissed the most serious charges.

But there was enough evidence for the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty’s Academic Council to vote unanimously last week to revoke her degree:

Milena Penkowa submitted her doctoral dissertation in 2003, where part of the animal testing included in the dissertation had not been carried out. On the grounds of suspicion of this issue, the assessment committee did not accept the dissertation. To cover up these circumstances, Milena Penkowa falsified key documents. This was established in the Danish Eastern High Court’s judgment dated 8 September 2016. Had it been aware of this issue, the Faculty would have refused to hear the second doctoral dissertation for which Milena Penkowa was awarded the doctoral degree.

According to the CPH Post, Penkowa submitted a second thesis in 2006 after questions were raised about her 2003 thesis (which she ended up retracting, so never led to a degree). A university spokesperson told us it was waiting to see if the state prosecutor was planning to pursue the case before revoking her 2006 degree; once it was clear the case wasn’t going to be pursued, the university had to undergo a lengthy “internal process,” he said:

When we do this, it is actually a serious matter, and it takes some time.

The spokesperson added that, based on his understanding, the decision stems solely from the problems with her first thesis, and not on the merits of her 2006 thesis:

As I understand it, the case it built on the fact that she wouldn’t have been able to submit her second thesis if the faculty had known there was manipulated data in the first thesis.

Penkowa’s website (which still lists multiple degrees) says she currently conducts dog therapy and is available for speaking engagements. In 2013, we reported that she had spoken at a museum exhibition by a group affiliated with Scientology.

Penkowa has experienced other career setbacks: Along with losing a professorship position, she has earned six retractions (as well as multiple corrections). In 2013, she and her co-author Bente Klarlund Pedersen received an official stamp of scientific dishonesty from the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD, or UVVU in Danish).  Like Penkowa, Klarlund Pedersen has appealed some of her rulings, and was able to have some of those findings reversed by the UVVU; she was ultimately cleared of them by a Danish court in 2015.)

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Written by Alison McCook

September 12th, 2017 at 3:03 pm

Comments
  • Looking Closer September 12, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    hmmmmm…….

    Regarding professors who have committed research misconduct – do they have their PhDs revoked? I have no knowledge of a single occurrence of a professor losing his/her PhD due to research misconduct.

    What light does this shed on those who awarded the researcher her PhD?

    I would suggest, despite the alleged research misconduct, to revoke the PhD is, at best, unfair, unless all PhDs of those who have been found guilty of research misconduct are revoked.

    • peer_pub September 12, 2017 at 4:22 pm

      This is the fact that reflects how ridiculous the current system is. Typically, the students are squeezed and pushed by their PI without any administrative intervene. In most cases, the students have no choice at all. Unfortunately, if any issue arises, the administration immediately gets involved via blaming the students……… It seems like the schools prefer to penalize than prevention in terms of the academic misconduct.

    • GradStudent September 12, 2017 at 4:52 pm

      It isn’t very unusual for universities to revoke PhDs of scientists who have committed provable fraud or have been dishonest in their findings. A very famous example of this is the Schön scandal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schon_scandal
      In Schön’s case however, it wasn’t clear if he had been dishonest in his PhD dissertation. I believe that University of Konstanz made that decision based on the wide-ranging impact of his dishonesty as a scientist after graduation. You could argue if that was “fair”, but the fact is that it has been since upheld by three court rulings when Schön challenged it.

      In the case of Penkowa, the university revoked her degree based on dishonest/fraudulent data discovered in her dissertation, which seems fair.

    • Debora Weber-Wulff September 13, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      There is no “fairness”, as we can never determine all who have committed academic misconduct. But it should be a sanction that is possible. It has been widely used in academia in Germany in the past years. In 66 cases of plagiarized dissertations or second theses (habilitation) out of the 189 currently published on the VroniPlag Wiki site, the degree has been revoked (http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/VroniPlag_Wiki:Aberkennungen, in German). There have been many court cases, and only when the university has made errors in the process has the revocation been reversed by the courts. The universities are free to then persue the revocation in a correct manner.

      The Federal Administrative Court of Germany decided on June 21, 2017 that the University of Bonn was correct in revoking two doctorates, one which had 20 years previously been investigated for plagiarism and the doctorate not withdrawn at the time, and one by a person who had been running a business bribing professors to accept ghostwritten doctoral theses. This person served 3 1/2 years in prison, and after that the University of Bonn withdrew his doctorate on account of severe academic misconduct.

      • peer_pub September 14, 2017 at 5:35 pm

        It is irrelevant to fairness or not. Everyone knows how helpless a student could be when he meets an evil adviser who is not uncommon in the present system. Is it pivotal for the universities to do something to save their lives before it is too late?????

  • Klavs Hansen September 12, 2017 at 8:37 pm

    The degree that has been revoked is not the PhD degree, its the second, later stage doctorate you can get in Danish universities. It used to be a prerequisite for a full professorship but has gone out of fashion, except at the medical faculties. Theses of this kind are usually produced by scientists with a PhD degree and working independently, although anybody can submit one of these for consideration. The situation of PhD students has therefore no relevance for a discussion of the fairness or lack thereof in this situation.

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