Can a PhD be revoked? [Everything you need to know]

Getting a PhD is a long and difficult process. However, just because you have completed a PhD, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be revoked for a wide range of reasons.

Although it is incredibly rare, a PhD can be revoked due to the publication of fraudulent data, chronic plagiarism, misrepresenting findings, as well as breaking nondisclosure agreements.

PhD students should not be worried about their PhD being revoked they follow all the guidelines provided by the University and follow principles of intellectual honesty and integrity throughout their PhD and while writing up their thesis.

When you sign up for a PhD you have a responsibility to conduct research in line with the academic honesty expected of you as member of an academic institution.

This means never fabricating data, plagiarising others work without citing the original authors, and following all the agreements between industry partners and other collaborators.

All universities have a research misconduct policy which will outline the steps taken should allegations of research misconduct be presented to the Dean of research. It will outline the enquiry and investigation process and what the outcome could be.

This includes having academic credentials revoked – including a PhD.

Common reasons for having your PhD revoked

During my research, I found that there were only a handful of reasons that PhD is become revoked. Luckily, you need to be knowingly deceptive to have your PhD revoked.

It is not something that just happens during the course of a normal research investigation. Therefore, PhD students should not be scared about having their PhD revoked.

The most likely reason for a PhD thesis to be revoked was plagiarism.

can Phds be revoked

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is when large blocks of text are lifted directly from another publication without citation or acknowledgement of the original author.

Surprisingly, many PhD theses that are revoked for plagiarism have huge amounts of text plagiarised. In the examples I found, 200 pages and two thirds of a PhD thesis were plagiarised directly from books and other sources.

Clearly, this is not part of a normal academic investigation.

Ensuring that you understand exactly how to cite your references and that you include citations to the original source for every piece of data you republish or conclusions you reuse you will not get caught out.

Universities are starting to require PhD theses to be run through copy scape and other plagiarism detection software to ensure that the thesis is original.

Falsification of data

One of the hardest things to detect is falsification of data.

It isn’t until someone else looks at the data and tries to reproduce your work that you can be found out.

I know of one academic who photoshopped particular DNA results to secure grant funding.

Falsification of data includes changing the numbers to fit a perceived narrative, cherry picking the data to support a conclusion, or outright manipulation of figures to present a misleading narrative about the research.

Serious errors

PhD theses can also be retracted and degrees the revoked when serious errors are identified by other experts in the field.

There are many high-level examples of medical papers becoming retracted because the authors have reported conclusions on experiments that were flawed.

Following rigourous academic hypothesis generation and experimental design will ensure that you have accounted for all of the experimental variables which could change the outcome of your experiments.

Of course, it is very easy to overstate the impact of your work and being clear with your readers on the limitations of your work is one way to ensure that your PhD does not misrepresent your findings and result in serious errors being presented to the field.

Examples of PhDs that have been revoked

There are a number of high-profile PhD’s that have been revoked. Even though it is very rare for a PhD to be revoked universities have got this as a tool they can use to maintain the integrity and directly denounce the perpetrator of dishonest research practice.

GraduateReason for revocation
James McCrocklinFraud and false representation
Pal SchmittPartial copying of nearly 200 pages
Karl-Theodor zu GuttenbergSerious errors in paper
Shamim “Chippy” ShaikPlagiarised more than two thirds of thesis
Rajendra KadamFalsification of data
Jodi WhitakerIrregularities in dataset of peer-reviewed article

One of the earliest cases of a doctoral dissertation becoming withdrawn was in 1969. James McCrocklin earned a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 1959 and his dissertation was revoked and no longer recognised in 1969 due to fraud and false representation.

In 2015, cabinet members of the German government had their dissertations revoked because they had plagiarised between 50 and 75% of the text. It was found that 75% of the tax was plagiarised on five pages.

In 2016, University of Colorado took the step of revoking a PhD of a pharmaceutical research. They found 22 instances of falsification.

In 2017, one of the United State President-elect Donald Trump’s appointees had plagiarised parts of her dissertation.

University of Texas at Austin Unable to revoke a PhD

Interestingly, the University of Texas at Austin tried to revoke the PhD of a graduate based on unreliable data. However, a judge declared that the University could not revoke her PhD outside of the law.

If the University wants to take a degree away from a former student, it must file a suit in court so that the accused can defend their research and argue against having their PhD revoked.

The data was questioned when a peer-reviewed article was submitted to a journal three years after awarding the PhD and a postdoc fellow began to question the data.

There were arguments in this case that the accused was being used to protect more senior faculty members who had actually manipulated the data.

Why people are likely to falsify, plagiarise, and misrepresent data in their PhD dissertation

Being awarded a PhD is a tough and rewarding experience.

You have to generate new and novel knowledge on the edge of human understanding.

There are times when will fail more times than you succeed and PhD students need to have a strong resolve and high level of persistence to get through the many years of failures and setbacks that are inevitable during a PhD.

Therefore, it is only natural that some people cheat.

Many people want the highly respected title of Dr but few are capable of persisting through the tough years of PhD research. Plagiarising, falsifying data and outright lying is one way of making the PhD process much easier for those that don’t want to work for their degree.

However, the academic process of research and investigation will eventually find the issues with a PhD that has been completed dishonestly.

There are increasing numbers of people who are searching for terrible research publications – especially of high-profile politicians.

Cheating on your PhD thesis means that you will spend a lifetime wondering if you will be called out.

Wrapping up

This article has covered everything you need to know about the reasons a PhD can be revoked and provided examples of the sorts of activities required for a PhD to be withdrawn.

Revoking a PhD is incredibly rare but happens when a university needs to restore its academic integrity and publicly denounce poor academic work.