25

Suppose a person got PhD degree by properly submitting his/her thesis on a particular topic. Assume that neither the student nor the doctoral review committee including supervisor knows that the proposal is not a novel.

Later at some point of time if it comes to know that the student got PhD without any novelty. Then does the PhD degree get withdrawn?

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    "Novelty" is in the eye of the beholder. If your committee signed off, you are good. – Jon Custer Jan 31 at 17:39
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    It is not even unheard of for PhD theses to be found out to be wrong but they retain their degrees anyway (as long as they did not attain a wrong result by e.g. faking experimental results). – xuq01 Jan 31 at 19:37
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    If some work was legitimately deemed novel at some point, it is understood that this was in the context of reasonably available information at that time. – copper.hat Jan 31 at 20:52
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    @JonCuster Strictly speaking the comittee, at least at some institutions, gives a non-binding recommendation. They don't decide the outcome of the doctorate. Practically speaking their recommendation is usually rubber-stamped, of course. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 1 at 9:20
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    Useful results being discovered simultaneously, or re-discovered after some time, happens all the time in research; it isn't remotely unusual, and it certainly isn't a problem. If the student's useful, field-advancing work was performed independently and the committee was satisfied with it, there is no issue here whatsoever. The only way this could possibly be a problem would be if academic dishonesty were involved - if the student knew about the other/previous work and did not disclose it. – user73076 Feb 1 at 14:30
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It would be very rare for such a thing to happen. However, it might depend on the circumstances behind it. If it was nothing more than a misjudgment by the candidate and the committee or some missed (but relatively obscure) information that wasn't included, probably nothing would happen. People would just say "oh well..." and let it go.

However, if some misconduct occurred, such as hiding information or plagiarizing other work, then it could result in withdrawal. But then, it wouldn't be for lack of novelty, but for the misconduct.

Novelty is a judgement call in any case. Looked at in hindsight something may appear to be not-novel when, at the time, it was. Even at the same moment, different people might judge it differently.

If you are the candidate in question, I recommend that you rest easy. Likewise if you were the advisor.

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    +1, but what if the committee failed to notice something which the candidate should have, and others easily notice? – einpoklum Feb 1 at 21:55
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    @einpoklum I still think revoking the degree would not be contemplated as it is now a shared mistake. Mistakes happen. There is more to the degree than this. – Buffy Feb 2 at 0:10
  • Right. If you vandalized or stole books from the library, or orchestrated fake DMCA take-down notices in order to prevent the committee or your advisor from finding prior research, that's a problem. If someone later finds an coded footnote in a recently-rediscovered medieval manuscript evincing a prior finding, that's just life. – Robert Columbia Feb 9 at 18:24
  • @RobertColumbia, I doubt the library stuff would be enough. Just the usual legal consequences. – Buffy Feb 9 at 18:52
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No. While perhaps the committee erred by approving such a thesis, the decision would not be overturned. The same is true for novel work that is later found to have errors. Withdrawing a PhD is very rare, and typically only done in response to academic misconduct (or public relations problems...).

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    Errors are not the same as non-novelty. It depends on the context, and I don't believe a definite "No" is correct. – einpoklum Feb 1 at 21:54
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    Don't think I claimed that they were the same, just that neither would normally in itself be cause for degree revocation. And of course there could always be some weird edge case, but I think revoking a good-faith PhD approved by a committee is so extremely rare that we can go with the the non-wishy-washy answer. – cag51 Feb 2 at 2:38
14

No. Retracting degrees after the fact is a grave undertaking. If there is no question of acting in bad faith it would be pretty unthinkable. Even if there was question of foul play, in practice it's very unlikely anything would happen.

Clearly for something severe enough this might be on the table but lacking novelty: no.

It's worth considering how difficult/unreasonable it would be to, ten years after the fact say, reassemble all of the relevant parties and revisit such a claim. And that's all it is, a claim. Especially with something nuanced like novelty, until the parties involved have made their cases and some fairly serious thought put in: it's just conjecture, upon which none would strip a degree. If it was simple, it wouldn't have been gotten wrong at the time.

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    Good point about the unreasonableness of a later investigation. Occasionally, I've wondered on sleepless nights whether I could possibly have somehow cheated on ordinary undergraduate coursework 20 years ago, and then reflected that not only is what remains of my memory of specific classes very unreliable, but that the entire text of said assignments or exams are probably lost forever to the world. Many were handwritten and some were on disks that have since been erased or developed read errors. Even I couldn't figure out the whole truth, so the idea of my alma mater doing so is absurd. – Robert Columbia Feb 9 at 18:30
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No. A PhD is basically an apprenticeship in research in some field, and the thing that gets you your PhD is the demonstration that you have acquired the skills needed to be an independent (journeyman) researcher in that field. Ideas are constantly being reinvented again and again in many fields, so it often happens that you later discover that someone else has published the same idea. If your examiners were satisfied that you were sufficiently diligent in your literature review, then that is demonstrating that skill. We all miss something occiasionally.

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    In most/all universities, part of the requirements for being awarded a Ph.D. is making a meaningful/significant research contribution; demonstration of skill is insufficient. -1. – einpoklum Feb 1 at 21:57
  • If a student is unable to do that, and gets as far as a viva, then the fault lies with the supervisor for assigning a project where those skills will not produce a meaningful/significant research contribution (a bit like a competent cabinet maker should be able to produce a good apprentice-piece, provided the specifications were within reasonable capacity). Besides, as I have already pointed out, things get reinvented all the time, and meaningful research contributions often get made more than once. – Dikran Marsupial Feb 5 at 7:52
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    1. Regardless of who that fault lies with - such a candidate cannot be recognized as a Ph.D. 2. A Ph.D. candidate does not simply get "assigned" projects; if that is an established custom, that's a failure of the academic institution as much as it is the supervisor. A Ph.D. candidate must make a conscious choice of direction(s) for his/her research, albeit influenced by the supervisor and research group or lab's needs. – einpoklum Feb 5 at 8:40
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    1. Agreed, but that is not what happened in this case. 2. This is something that I suspect varies from one country to another (and perhaps by subject). In the U.K. it was common for studentships to be tied to specific projects, especially if funded by the research councils (I was given a choice of two projects - in hindsight, I didn't pick the right one! ;o). The point remains that a finding having been previously published and not noticed by the student, supervisor or examiners does not nullify a PhD, and quite rightly so. – Dikran Marsupial Feb 5 at 8:57
  • I'll retract the -1 if you edit your answer to restrict its relevance to the context you describe in point #2 in your last comment. – einpoklum Feb 5 at 13:53
3

I have never heard of this. It would probably require something really serious like discovering academic misconduct, forging data or plagiarism or similar.

3

NO, this is the responsibility of the supervisory committee. In fact, I was told a year or two after the fact that part of my dissertation had been worked out and put in a technical report at Bell Labs. The thought of retracting my degree didn't cross anyone's mind. In fact, it was evidence of significance. If I had concealed the report from my committee, it would have killed my letters of recommendation from my committee members, and generally damaged my professional reputation severely. But as a former director of a graduate program, I can tell you that faculty members would have little appetite to pursue the case, because it would be a BIG time sink with an uncertain outcome, and it could damage the committee members' reputations as well. On the other hand, if the PhD were a public figure and incident were already damaging the department's reputation due to exposure in the press, I suppose there might be some pressure to devote some attention to the case. In the US, the PhD would probably sue, and the university's lawyers would fold rather than litigate, in my estimation.

-6

I know of a case where a person was awarded a Master's degree in math accidentally. He didn't pass his comprehensive exams and (I think) was short some course work. But someone in the graduate office screwed up and stamped a piece of paper with the wrong stamp. And the guy got a diploma. He didn't even know it until at least a year after.

But it was determined that he didn't cheat in anyway to cause this to happen, and he's got his degree. (Even though he couldn't integrate his way out of a wet paper bag.)

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    The story is interesting, but it does not apply to the case of "novelty of a PhD thesis" OP describes. – Ian Feb 1 at 6:44
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    @Ian I think it's relevant. It gets to the heart of the matter: Degrees aren't revoked just because academic merit is found to be missing after the fact. This is the reason the answer to OP's question is no. It's a pretty clear cut example of this. – drjpizzle Feb 1 at 9:58
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    @B.Goddard This is not a language-related problem. SE is generally not suited for tangential, anecdotal evidence. While your answer is generally interesting, it just does not fit the site. I just don't think OP can get any value from your answer. No offense. – Ian Feb 1 at 12:29
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    @drjpizzle I think there is a clear difference between OP's case and the one in this answer. Here, a degree was awarded erroneously because somebody in administration screwed up. There is no question here, that the title was undeserved. In OP's case, a group of people decided to the best of their knowledge that someone deserved a PhD. The question here is, if novelty is a critical factor or not and, additionally, if an unoriginal work is enough to revoke the degree after the fact. – Ian Feb 1 at 12:32
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    @B. Goddard: The connection is tenuous for two reasons: 1) Your anecdote is about a Masters degree, not a PhD degree 2) This question doesn't ask what happens when a PhD is awarded by mistake, it asks what happens if a PhD is awarded but the work is found not to be novel, an entirely different case. – reinierpost Feb 1 at 13:53

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