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I am currently at a community college so I am not privy to the inner workings of the big university world but I am curious how this works.

Recently it has become headline news that a student from a prestigious Ivy League school apparently completed their PhD back in 2000 with a dissertation that contains significant amounts of plagiarism. The university has supposedly initiated a review (though they are officially taking the standard "no comment" position and also the more extreme position of not even confirming if they are conducting any investigation).

Note: Here is a link to the news article for those interested in the details but I do not want to make this Question all about the politics involved, I am interested the academia processes.

At first glance I was rather stunned that a school as prestigious as this one could have possibly accepted such extremely poor work and provided a PhD based on it but I guess even the best of us can make errors. What I want to know now is how such "fixing past mistakes" issues are typically handled.

Specifically I would like to know the following (based on your experience at your institutions):

(1) Would such a review process be limited to the dissertation itself or would all the work of the student be reviewed?

(2) Would such a review involve questioning the academic advisor/research supervisor? What about the thesis committee?

  • (2a) On a sidenote: Would the thesis committee for a doctorate degree be obligated to check the research in detail or are they allowed to rely on the research supervisor for that task?

(3) Would such a review look at the theses of other PhD graduates who were under the same supervisor?

(4) What happens if such a review finds a doctorate is academically or ethically flawed? What, if any, penalties can be invoked against the student?

(5) If the outcome is to void the degree would the student be offered a chance to comment/defend or would the degree be revoked without warning?

(6) How long would such a review typically take to complete?

Because this Question is prompted by a high-profile incident I am not sure if any of the process used by Columbia University in this particular case will be "typical". For instance I can easily envision that some eager beaver investigative reporter will pull copies of all the theses with the same supervisor and look for more instances of plagiarism. If I can predict this I am just as sure that Columbia will do the same and want to get ahead of any exposé by both expediting the initial review and being comprehensive to prevent any further "unexpected" embarrassments.

That said, I would like to know what is/has been typical in such review processes before today.

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    Similar things happened in Germany in the last few years several times (i.e. people starting to check years old dissertations of politicians for plagiarism, accusing them anonymously). As far as I remember, all cases have been handled by the universities (not courts involved) based on their rules and so, for many of your question the answer is: It depends on the university regulations and on the case. – Dirk Jan 13 '17 at 14:02
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    I think something that is very surprising to many of us, is that the higher you go in a hierarchy, the more things start to be based on trust and there is no where near as much verification and checks and balances as you might think. Million-dollar deals are often sealed with a handshake, a thesis can be accepted with little more than a ceremonial nod and OK from a supervisor that hasn't even read the work that carefully, and scientific studies (in most fields) have very little checking to ensure that everything isn't completely made up. It's kind of amazing scandals aren't more common. – BrianH Jan 13 '17 at 15:25
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    Not an answer of course, but you might be interested in reading about the engineering dissertations plagiarism scandal at Ohio University that occurred a few years ago. – Dave L Renfro Jan 13 '17 at 21:10
  • @BrianDHall Yes, that is very surprising. I remember when I first entered college asking about advanced degrees and someone explained to me that to get a Masters you had to "master" and demonstrate expertise on the subject matter but to get a Doctorate you had to add something totally new to the body of knowledge for that subject. It was of course an oversimplification of the degrees but it left me with a sense of awe towards doctoral students for having the audacity to even try and create "new knowledge". (continued next comment...) – O.M.Y. Jan 15 '17 at 12:18
  • (... continued from previous comment) How sad to discover that those who are privileged to nurture such audacity do not take their responsibilities seriously. PhD's are a rarity (in the overall scheme of academia) and one would think -- and hope -- that the doctoral supervisors, advisors, mentors, and reviewers would be honored to be entrusted with upholding the integrity of their department and their college. In my mind it is a sad and hollow victory to help a student achieve a degree (any degree) that they did not earn. – O.M.Y. Jan 15 '17 at 12:18
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The scenario of an investigation for suspected plagiarism in a PhD thesis is so rare and unusual that I'm pretty sure there is no "typical" recipe for how it would unfold. However, I'm familiar with one such case that happened some years ago at my institution, and I'll take that case as my definition of what "typically" happens.

(1) Would such a review process be limited to the dissertation itself or would all the work of the student be reviewed?

It might, if the student's other work was available to be inspected (which I think is doubtful since the student will have already graduated), and if there was some concrete basis for suspecting plagiarism in that work, and (which IMO is the least likely condition to be satisfied) if the people involved in the investiation had enough time on their hands and were energetic enough to pursue such secondary investigation leads.

(2) Would such a review involve questioning the academic advisor/research supervisor? What about the thesis committee?

This would be highly embarrassing to the people you are mentioning, so I expect they would only be questioned if there was a strong basis for believing that the information they could provide would materially affect the outcome of the investigation. Thus, the advisor might be questioned to get some background information on what took place when the student was writing the dissertation; the thesis committee members, almost certainly not.

(2a) On a sidenote: Would the thesis committee for a doctorate degree be obligated to check the research in detail or are they allowed to rely on the research supervisor for that task?

See the comment by BrianDHall. The thesis committee never "checks the research in detail", and in all except a rare handful of cases, neither does the research supervisor.

(3) Would such a review look at the theses of other PhD graduates who were under the same supervisor?

This question suggests to me that you have watched one too many episodes of late-night TV crime shows. Unlike such shows, universities aren't populated by dogged investigators (with checkered pasts and colorful personalities, usually divorced and heavy drinkers) who work day and night, dedicating their lives to exposing all instances of wrongdoing and then bringing the perpetrators to justice.

In other words, the answer is no.

(4) What happens if such a review finds a doctorate is academically or ethically flawed? What, if any, penalties can be invoked against the student?

Given that the student has already graduated and is no longer a member of the campus community, the only punishment the university can actually impose is to revoke the degree. The only real question to debate would be whether the student would be allowed to come back and rewrite the dissertation if they wished to. Moreover, given the severity of the offense, and the risk posed to the university's reputation and credibility by PhD degrees it grants that are based on plagiarism, revoking the degree seems like a completely appopriate and logical response.

(5) If the outcome is to void the degree would the student be offered a chance to comment/defend or would the degree be revoked without warning?

Undoubtedly the student would be given a chance to defend themselves against such an accusation before any action such as revoking the degree is taken. They would likely be entitled to ask for the case to be reviewed by a committee, and to have a panel convened where they could present evidence in their defense. Given the high stakes involved, if they wished to contest the accusation they would likely hire an attorney.

(6) How long would such a review typically take to complete?

Probably a few months, but I assume it can vary a lot and take longer in some cases or be completed quite quickly in other cases.

  • Thanks for the information Dan. As for your comments on #2 about "embarrassing" people it seems that is exactly what happened in the Ohio U case mentioned by @DaveLRenfro. They apparently tried to avoid the initial embarrassment to faculty by discounting the original whistleblower's concerns. However this resulted in far more negative fallout when the matter was finally looked into and it was found that the problem was systemic and caused mostly by 2 individuals. It surely would be smarter to do at least a cursory review of the supervisor's work. – O.M.Y. Jan 15 '17 at 12:45
  • The answer to (3) is incorrect. It is possible, and has happened in Germany where at least one doctoral advisor has been sanctioned for having had so many plagiarized dissertations under his tutelage. – Debora Weber-Wulff Jan 20 '17 at 23:39
  • @DeboraWeber-Wulff It sounds like Germany takes this matter pretty seriously and that is nice to know. To be fair to Dan he does state that his answers are based on his limited experience with a single case. Sadly no one else provided an answer to help compare and contrast. Thank you for your added information. – O.M.Y. Jan 22 '17 at 5:59

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