Monday, February 25, 2019

The newest chapter in the UT-Austin case

Via Chemical and Engineering News, an article from Bethany Halford on the Suvi Orr/Stephen Martin retraction/thesis revocation case: 
The University of Texas at Austin does not have the authority to revoke a student’s degree, according to a Feb. 11 ruling by Judge Karin Crump in Travis County, Texas district court. The judgment is the latest turn in the university’s years-long effort to strip Suvi Orr of her doctorate in chemistry. 
Orr began her graduate studies in organic synthesis in Stephen Martin’s lab in 2003. In 2008 she successfully defended her thesis. But six years later, UT Austin sent a certified letter to Orr saying the school was invalidating her thesis based on research misconduct. The university cited a 2011 Organic Letters paper that was retracted in 2012 (DOI: 10.1021/ol302236g) because two steps in the synthesis could not be reproduced 
Orr, now a senior principal scientist at Pfizer, denies any wrongdoing. “The allegations were all related to the 2011 Organic Letters paper,” she says. “It was drafted and put together by Professor Martin and a postdoc who was at UT at the time. I did not write it.” Her attorneys, Anita Kawaja and David Sergi, say UT Austin’s claim of misconduct revolves around three nuclear magnetic resonance spectra. 
“She discussed all this data with Professor Martin, and he reviewed it with her,” Kawaja says. With his input as her mentor, she reported it in her dissertation. “The three datapoints at issue are entirely irrelevant to Dr. Orr’s dissertation,” Kawaja adds. “She could have taken that data out of her dissertation and it wouldn’t have affected the conclusion. She still would have been qualified to receive her degree.” It wasn’t until 2011 that Martin approached Orr about publishing the work. Kawaja said Orr agreed to do so only because Martin reassured her that the data had been reproduced. 
Martin declined to comment.
I haven't followed this case closely enough to intelligently comment on it. I suppose all I can say is that it seems pretty unusual for a professor to press forward with revocation of a Ph.D. thesis - can anyone else point to another instance where this was the course of action decided upon? 

19 comments:

  1. When will this start making sense? It like long past "put up or shut up" time for Martin and UT-Austin. If there was a problem, it ought to have been disclosed long ago - trying to get rid of Orr's degree without recourse seems no better than claiming she and her work was dishonest (the attempt to revoke her degree has the lack of virtue of being coy about what should be explicit if it were true and of being at all if it were false).

    Assuming a worst case scenario and there were problems with Orr's work (falsification of spectra), it wouldn't seem to matter that the spectra were irrelevant because the falsification itself would be the problem. On the other hand, even that case, has anyone paid any consequences for the variety of manipulated spectra found from Organic Letters, for example?

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    1. I looked up once the spectrum in question. Didn't seem like falsification. Just incredibly $hitty spectrum that's not even remotely acceptable to prove anything (imho) but it was there for all to see from day 1.

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  2. I agree with Hap - there's got to be some kind of a statute of limitations on this stuff. A person who's been out of grad school for several years would have a hard time defending themselves against a charge of research misconduct, trying to dig up old data saved on floppy disks. Even if you still have all of your electronic files, they're probably created with obsolete software and would be difficult to open on a modern computer. I once worked for a company that was asked to produce some old data during an audit, so they pulled some old computers out of the basement only to find that they no longer worked. The auditor was not pleased.

    I've been out of grad school for many years, and I still have recurring nightmares that my advisor somehow forced me to go back and do more experiments. Orr's story sounds like my nightmare coming true!

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    1. I'm not so worried about the time lapse as having (at least) seven years to have come up with good reasons to take Orr's PhD (with data that was there from when she graduated) and not being able to do so. Arbitrary and capricious seem to be appropriate words (the other words I'd use are...not). Although the idea that your degree can be disappeared long afterwards with little oversight seems like nightmare material. Maybe they're trying to make examples of bad government for political arguments?

      If Martin and Texas had had this persistence while Orr was there, maybe they wouldn't have had to retract the paper in the first place. On the other hand, they are making a convincing argument to not get a PhD in chemistry at Texas or with Martin (if he's still taking grad students). Maybe their target audience will get the message.

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  3. Why do I keep hearing horror stories from UT-Austin? There's another well-known organic chemist there with a very volatile, abusive personality. Then there was some intra-departmental feud in the 90's involving nitrogen triiodide on toilet seats. I know some of this stuff is just par for the course across institutions, but UT's name seems to keep coming up in ways that surprise me.

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    1. Not to mention a different organic/polymer chemist who had to retract a whole bunch of publications (including a Science paper!) for some pretty obvious research misconduct... who subsequently fled across the Pacific.

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    2. Don't forget the perjury charge.

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    3. Hah I actually did forget about that! What a mess

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    4. And don't forget the dismissal of a male inorganic/materials prof for sexual misconduct with his grad students.

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    5. to Anon 9:40

      What, a professor actually got fired for that? In chemistry?

      All this "women in STEM" stuff reeks of hypocrisy, knowing that incidents like this are almost always swept under the rug by the perpetrator's faculty colleagues. Every academic I know is super-feminist in public, but evidently not in private.

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    6. https://www.statesman.com/news/20171229/computer-chief-chemistry-prof-quit-ut-amid-sexual-misconduct-inquiries

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    7. The mass exodus of tenured professors (across all disciplines) from 2013 (ish) to 2016 (ish) speaks for itself. UT's ranking plummeted in that time.

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  4. The obvious other case that comes to mind is Bengu Sezen, who had her degree revoked by Columbia. Hard to argue with that decision.

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    1. "Bengu Sezen. Now, that's a name I've not heard in a long time... a long time."

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  5. Martin and UT have to be careful. If they can't prove she did knowingly falsified this data, and they continue to pursue it, she'll have a really great opportunity to turn around and sue them, which I'm sure her lawyers are probably already working on. They are dragging her professional name through the mud. Imagine walking down the hallways at Pfizer SD wondering how many folks are looking at you, thinking that you falsified data on your dissertation. That's gotta be rough.

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  6. KT you and me both, I have a dream every now and then that I need to go back and take a P. Chem class or else they'll take my PhD away (which I got 8 years ago)

    I can't imagine trying to pull up old data, it was bad enough trying to get a paper for 5 year old data together, I can't imagine what 10+ years would be like.

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  7. Professor Martin is a very demanding mentor of his students, but in my experience he is also very good and fair to them. This is not a matter of a crazed professor seeking a scapegoat or vendetta. This is most certainly a matter of serious academic integrity. It's unfortunate that for legal reasons UT is not more forthcoming with information, which has resulted in speculation regarding the legitimacy of the claims and unwarranted negativity toward Professor Martin.

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    1. The fact that some students had good experiences with Dr. Martin does not mean he is not behaving badly in this case.

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    2. The courts (who have the ability to judge the evidence) haven't really seen it that way, and if they aren't competent to do so, then keeping it from the people who could is unhelpful if there is a legitimate issue of academic integrity. The references to the patent and the article SI don't clearly look like falsification to lots of people (as in the posts at In The Pipeline on this case), and if it's not, it doesn't seem to merit the penalty of revocation of a PhD. If there's evidence for concern, it ought to have been made clear long before now.

      In the absence of verifiable evidence, trying to pull someone's degree for (seven?) years with no public recourse or oversight looks like a vendetta. Even in the presence of lots of students with good experiences, the possibility of someone with almost total control over your career doing this to you is a discouragement from working for them.

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