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More on the UT-Austin Retraction Case

I mentioned an unusual retraction from Organic Letters here last year, and here’s some follow-up to the story:

Nearly six years after Suvi Orr received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Texas, the university told her it has decided to do something that institutions of higher learning almost never do: revoke
the degree. Orr, in turn, has sued UT in an effort to hold onto the doctorate that launched her career in the pharmaceutical industry.
Her lawsuit in state district court in Travis County contends that revocation is unwarranted and that the university violated her rights by not letting her defend herself before the dissertation committee that condemned her research long after she graduated. In addition, she says, the committee relied heavily on her former professor, who, she claims, was motivated to “cast the blame elsewhere.”

What a mess. More details as things develop. . .

18 comments on “More on the UT-Austin Retraction Case”

  1. Captain Ned says:

    Not that I’ve got any great insight about ex-post-facto (and ex parte) yanking of previously-issued advanced degrees, but doing so without getting everyone involved into the same room and having an adult discussion seems way too hasty.

  2. Hap says:

    It does seem kind of sketchy not to allow an open defense of a revocation that long after granting the degree. If a university had enough reason to revoke its degree (the student had falsified their research – I would assume that having messed it up would not be sufficient), then presumably it would have enough evidence to survive a hearing. It would also seem to be hard to defend oneself from an accusation of misconduct – the likely records of misconduct have been in a group closet for six years from graduation since the retraction (out of one’s sight and possession), so that they could potentially be manipulated if someone had a desire to do so.

  3. Justin says:

    This has got to be about more than an unreproducible RCM. And if her degree was granted just because of the RCM, then this is the reason why students/PDs/Profs falsify data – even as wrong as it is.

  4. Gene says:

    Initially parsed the title as “More on the UT-Autism Retraction Case” and thought it was something to get Jenny McCarthy’s panties in a wad.
    Need more coffee.

  5. TotSynthVet says:

    Can’t be as bad as trying to close that last ring of codeine by a published procedure…

  6. ptm says:

    If they have clear evidence of premeditated scientific fraud they are absolutely right to revoke her degree. They should also sue her for lost resources.
    I hope this will send a laud and clear message to all other potential fraudsters.
    I have zero sympathy for them.

  7. tangent says:

    I have zero sympathy for at least one party in this story, but I don’t know which yet.
    Do departments routinely do this kind of revocation without letting the student offer a defense? I’f that’s accurately represented, that sounds like lawsuit fuel all right.
    What was the advisor’s ambition level around the time of the apparent fraud? Were they going up for something important, or pretty comfortable?

  8. Anon says:

    @9. Agreed, except large emphasis on “If”. Rights of the accused is important.
    That said IF she falsified, I hope even Boston Market takes pass on her.

  9. LightPhoenix says:

    Usually, cases involving falsifying data are handled quietly and internally. That this case is so public suggests to me that there is more going on. In my opinion, the only reason the university would make this public is that there solid evidence large-scale fraud was going on. Otherwise, why make the university look bad? The only logical reason is that whatever prompted this is more damaging.

  10. Project Osprey says:

    Really though, if this is an issue of fraud should her supervisor not be taking a healthy slice of the flack?
    The supervisor would be the one setting the working atmosphere inside the group and they have a responsibility to know what going on.

  11. Sili says:

    And what happens to the incompetent dissertation committee that allowed the work through in the first place?

  12. ThirdWind says:

    Seems to me all involved painted themselves into this archetype situation:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clever_Hans
    (Which in my experience defines the dysfunctional workplaces we so frequently debate in this blog).

  13. Lu says:

    14. Project Osprey on March 29, 2014 4:44 PM writes…
    Really though, if this is an issue of fraud should her supervisor not be taking a healthy slice of the flack?

    I agree. If she is to surrender her degree the supervisor also needs to pay back part of the salary for not doing the work they was supposed to be doing.

  14. Pink Floyd's Time solo is solid says:

    I don’t understand, the key step in my Ph.D’s total synthesis was a Julia olefination between a crazy beta-cyano-(Z)-enal and a sulfone, I was shaking and sweating like there’s no tomorrow when I was adding the NaHDMS over that f***ing sulfone I took a year and a half to prepare.
    If that reaction went wrong, how could I fake the rest of the synthesis and get my Ph.D?
    I guess I am not smart enough to know the answer…

  15. Egghead says:

    There is a lot to the story we don’t know yet. What we do know is the University has enough evidence against her work to revoke her degree. The University has been very vocal and public about it. Maybe JB needs to elaborate and tell us more about the character of this person. I would love to talk to members of the Martin group while she was “working” towards her PhD. I bet they could shed some light on this.

  16. a nonny mouse says:

    @14 @18 I’m a former Martin member and let me say Steve was always very thorough in checking through our chemistry. However if someone truly wants to commit fraud and they are thorough/careful, I think they could sneak it by anybody. I really can’t imagine in any capacity Martin was party to fraud–why would he? He is already a well-established professor and has been adequately funded. That being said, we simply don’t know all the facts so it’s better to reserve judgement for now.

  17. simpl says:

    The main reason for withdrawing degrees in Germany is plagiarism, and it is mostly done to discredit politicians.
    I feel it is wrong to revoke them, no matter how much they were prepared in bad faith. The viewpoint may change, but it reflects badly on those who granted the degrees. What would be the point of revoking Mendel’s professorship, because he fiddled data in a publication? It would be like revoking a superbowl title, and fining a referee when some bad decision is spotted and analysed on TV after the event.
    In particular, it would reduce inclination to go after breakthrough fields if a change in theory could result in the post-hoc withdrawal of earned recognition. Ignore the results, criticise the motives and the institution, yes, but a degree title given is for ever, and withdrawal a sign of spinelessness.

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