A university is revoking a student’s PhD — but not because of misconduct

Earlier this month, Tokushima University in Japan announced it was revoking a student’s PhD degree — but for a somewhat unusual reason.

The student didn’t appear to commit misconduct. Rather, the authors discovered a series of errors that invalidated the paper’s central conclusion.

The case has us wondering about how universities should respond when they discover some of a PhD student’s research is no longer valid — especially when there is no suspicion of misconduct.

Based on our Google translation of the more detailed description of what happened, the university concluded the problem was the result of the authors’ “simple mistakes:”

… the probability of deliberately mistakenly calculating the data is low, and it was judged that there was no fraud with regard to this paper withdrawal.

However, since the 2016 Scientific Reports paper served as the basis for the student’s PhD, the university determined it had to withdraw the degree. The report is in Japanese, and doesn’t appear to name the student, but a digital archive shows first author Masatoshi Inoshita’s PhD degree (which bears the same title as the paper) was cancelled June 29.

“A significant causal association between C-reactive protein levels and schizophrenia” has been cited 14 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

It’s rare for a university to strip a student of his or her degree, but it does happen — usually, as we’ve seen, after the university discovers the student committed some form of misconduct. So to take it away for mistakes, not misconduct, seems particularly unusual.

Do you think this approach is appropriate? Tell us, below.

Hat tip: Lemon-stoism, author of world fluctuation watch

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9 thoughts on “A university is revoking a student’s PhD — but not because of misconduct”

    1. Yes. And perhaps any or all of his supervisor(s) and the members of the examining committee should also suffer some consequences, however minimal, for (apparently) failing in their duties.

  1. Students work under the dictates of faculty to obtain a degree. If the student did not deliberately deceive the faculty involved in supervising the degree, the faculty approved the degree requirements and awarded the degree. To punish the student for materials approved by faculty in awarding the degree seems as incompetent as approving the problematic materials in the first place. This seems to be faculty saving face by punishing someone in a position of less power.

  2. In the country I work in in Asia (not Japan), a publication of the results of a doctoral research program is one of the main requirements for graduation. No published research paper- no graduation.

    Hence if the paper is subsequently retracted – for what ever reason – the degree would have to be revoked. The paper (and not so much the thesis) is the graduation criteria.

    Its a different system from many Western countries where there is no publication requirement for graduation.

  3. I agree with Steven McKinney. A pure case of University partiality and favouritism. Sacrificing the junior is not right. Such poor decisions never ever let the underlying problem go away. Sooner or later the problem shall resurface. At that time, revoking a Junior’s Ph.D may not seem a quicker fix to fo for. If the production of original work in papers was the requirement for acquiring a Ph.D in Tokushima University, then a simple amendment of the paper should suffice, except some seniors do have the parochial interest in the revocation. Are other Ph.Ds producing similar results as Masatoshi Inoshita’s error paper going to be also revoked? Are any promotions acquired by the oblivious seniors based on the results of Masatoshi Inoshita’s error paper going to be undone? If not, then Masatoshi Inoshita should not lose his Ph.D. Everyone of any calibre is fallible. If the seniors could not pick the error up when it was most important, then the junior must not have to suffer for committing it. What punishment is fitting to the junior is equally, if not more, fitting to the seniors, and what consideration is fitting to the seniors is equally, if not more, fitting to the junior.

  4. Universities can be rather risk adverse and often do not tell the whole story.

    For example (1) the student may have made a number of errors that could have been avoided by following the protocols outlined by the supervision team. I’ve experience or observed such behaviour. The student(s) are not necessarily guilty of fraud. They’re often just guilty of being sloppy or lazy. If this is the source of the error then everyone on the team must be frustrated, and the student really should lose their degree as this is similar to not completing their project.

    or (2) The burden of proof to claim purposeful data manipulation is high and cases can be complex. The university may know that if the student forced/challenged further investigation other problems might become apparent… my money says the student is walking quietly away, grateful for only losing their PhD….

  5. If the thesis was examined in the university’s prescribed manner and the thesis reviewers accepted it, then that should be the end of it (barring the subsequent discovery of misconduct).

    We all make honest mistakes, and the version of a study found in one’s thesis is frequently not the same one that later ends up in publication. For example, peer reviewers for the journal may find errors that your thesis examiners did not.

    This is highly unfair treatment of the student.

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