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False PhD Degree

April 20, 2014

At the time of this incident, I was a Soil Science research technician.  I also had developed some expertise in computer programming.  A professor asked me to review a Fortran program.  I soon found a common coding error, one that would make the result 100 times too large.  At that, the professor told me that he had already noticed the error, but wanted confirmation from me.  He also told me the rest of the story.

He had a student, a graduate student who was working on a PhD project.  This research involved the interaction between iron, phosphorus, and lime in soil solution.  The student used hundreds of soil samples, with different levels of these three constituents, measuring pH and eH with glass and platinum electrodes.  Next he had to do a calculation for each sample, a calculation that was very complicated when done by hand.  Consequently, he hired a Computer Science student to write the computer program that did the calculation.  Using this program, the PhD student found a previously-unknown interaction between the constituents.  He wrote his PhD thesis on this research and also published a paper in a scientific journal.  He graduated with his PhD degree and left the province.

The professor took on a new graduate student to continue the project.  As preparation, this new student read the thesis and the paper.  Then he did some of the calculations in reverse.  They we difficult in the forward direction, but easy in reverse.  The results he got did not agree with the measurements.  That discrepancy pointed to the faulty computer program, subsequently verified by the professor and me.

After I’d heard the story, I asked the professor what was going to happen next.  After all, both the PhD thesis and the paper were incorrect.  First of all, he said, we can’t take back the PhD degree.  That had to stand.  He said he might write a letter to the scientific journal, stating that the results cited in the paper were incorrect.  He hadn’t decided on that at the time.  Meanwhile, the new graduate student was looking for a new research project.

Who was at fault in all of this?  The PhD student should have done some of the calculations by hand, even if they were difficult.  Instead, he seems to have trusted the Computer Science student to write a correct program.  The Computer Science student should have verified that the program produced correct results;  that is part of the process.  Finally, the people who reviewed the paper for the journal should have checked the calculations, particularly since other research studies had found negative results.  There were so many people involved, but all of them neglected to check.  I still find it astonishing that such an error could slip through.


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