PhD dilemma

30-Jan-19, 06:28
Avatar for Dream_Box
posted about 3 weeks ago
Hi, I'm supposed to be starting my 3rd year PhD in science, turns out my entire PhD project (which is based off the fantastic results of a previous PhD student) was a farce, I pulled the previous students raw data from the machines and verified that she had made up most of the significant results (in published works and thesis chapters). I've shown this to my supervisor but they want me to keep trying the same things, i can only conclude that they want to sweep it under the rug, it's also possible they really just don't want to believe it.

I've been offered a scholarship to "start again" but I'm a little bit broken by the whole experience, my romanticism towards science is dead. I always thought science would be the superior truth but science is done by people and is subject to their desires and agendas, and at the frontier/fringe of understanding it is so easy to trick and deceive in order to get ahead.

Wondering if anyone else has gone through or know anyone who had gone through my experience. And what they ended up doing with their lives...

at a cross road and very depressed. not even sure if i can get a masters out of this, probably not a reference. feel like a total failure.

Been teaching myself some skills relevant to the economy (computer programming) and have been offered an opportunity to study at the masters level with some financial aid (very, very lucky).
30-Jan-19, 12:02
edited about 22 seconds later
by rewt
Avatar for rewt
posted about 3 weeks ago
Wow that is shocking! I don't think I have heard as bad of case as this. The fact no-one checked is scary but it isn't surprisng in academia. This is a wide-known problem and I have significant problems repeating other people's work. This is not your fault and you have done admirably to get this far.

Though you do have year of funding left. You have some time to get results on a new project and get a masters's. You will probably get an extension if you ask due to this issue, so you have several months of some financial reassurance. I would take a break and re-focus on want you want in life.
30-Jan-19, 12:14
by eng77
Avatar for eng77
posted about 3 weeks ago
I am really sorry for what you going through. Sincerely sorry because I was in a situation somehow close. I was doing a PhD based on fantastic results done by a previous PhD student. He achieved good results but the way they were presented made them look like a Noble prize candidates. The supervisor insisted that I should build on this work to get a bigger system and publications and eventually a PhD. The first problem was, the results are not that fantastic as they were presented. The second, the "innovative" work was already done and the supervisor asked me to do "normal non creative" work to add to this "innovative" work to build a brilliant system.
To make long story short, after five years, I left without a PhD and with disappointment and shame.
Now you spent two years. Do not wait one more year to discover it won't work. My problem was also that supervisor was not accepting the fact that we can do other research or the fact that previous research is not as great as he thinks.
Start fresh. Go for the scholarship. A real Master is better than a fake PhD (if any). No one would stop you after Master from pursuing another PhD.
30-Jan-19, 16:51
edited about 26 seconds later
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 3 weeks ago
This is a horrible experience to have gone through but there is a lesson here for anyone who finds themselves in a situation where they are relying on the results of others to base their entire PhD on.
Never ever trust anyone.
Check and re-check the raw data.
Re-run some of the experiments to be absolutely certain of the credibility of your starting data because failure to do this can be catastrophic.
At the start of my PhD I was asked to add to data run by another student. I had a quick look at it, saw a couple of spine chilling things and decided to ditch the entire lot rather than take a risk.

I'm afraid I have no idea what to advise here other than to take a bit of time off to consider starting again. On the positive side, you've been given the opportunity to start again. I would seriously consider accepting it.
06-Feb-19, 09:51
by tru
Avatar for tru
posted about 2 weeks ago
Do the masters but maybe considering reporting the fraud data to the university and the journal that they have submitted the data too. Make sure you have all the evidence to back up your claims. Otherwise, just let go and move on with your life.
09-Feb-19, 17:45
edited about 27 seconds later
Avatar for Mackem_Beefy
posted about 1 week ago
Rare I drop by these days, but this one caught my eye.

Odd instances where a "representative SEM micrograph / photograph" is used instead of an actual one because you messed up a photo (features the same as expected as long as you have observed outcomes to be the same and you know others are not being deceived) is one thing.

However, outright data fabrication is wrong beyond belief. You have done right by reporting the fabrication. It is typical of academia to cover up a cock-up or fabrication and boy I know some tales. I'll detail a few I know about in a separate post following.

I note you have been offered a scholarship to start again, however, you justifiably feel disillusioned. Would they allow you to take time out for say six months to a year to rest up and think things through? My take is I remember how much I wanted to do a PhD and if offered the chance to start again, then I personally would have taken it provided I got a reasonable break.

But i understand also you feel all your work has been for nothing. Being asked to do the same things that don't work because your predecessor fabricated the data is a bit rough too. However, might you not be able to argue that because the results you are getting are different, you are disproving your predecessor's data and showing her outcomes to be incorrect?

Could you not argue that the differences you are finding are themselves a positive result?

I'd be wary about just taking an MPhil or MRes off dubious data as you might be perpetuation the fraud. But showing the data to be wrong could been seen in itself as a new finding.

That said, you know the intricacies better than I do and you will know better if my thoughts might help you.

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)
09-Feb-19, 17:57
edited about 8 seconds later
Avatar for Mackem_Beefy
posted about 1 week ago
Briefly, the cases I know of where cheating occurred more to show it has happened from time to time over the years:

A: BASIC FABRICATION: These told to me by a Computing lecturer and again by a fellow alumni from my old University. I'll not name the Universities concerned though one was an English south coast institution, the other in the north east of England.

In the first, a student could not get his experimental rig working, thus calculated what data it should produce and presented the data in his thesis. The rig was found not to work years after the student was awarded his PhD.

In the second, student created a novel computing program for which he was awarded a PhD. Years later, someone tried to use the program to examine a different set of outcomes, just to find that the data output as consistently identical to that in the PhD thesis. Further examination showed the program not to be working, with a loop of code being embedded in the program that was set to produce the exact values in the thesis and no other.

In both versions, the University concerned decided not to revoke the PhD to avoid the bad publicity that would result.
09-Feb-19, 18:02
edited about 23 minutes later
Avatar for Mackem_Beefy
posted about 1 week ago
B: THE POISONER: This I believe occurred at a German University and tell here as it's a classic of how far some people will go. The tale goes that a veterinary sciences student claimed a major breakthrough, however, whenever his supervisor requested the experimental microscopic slides the student made an excuse not to show them. The supervisor persisted and mysteriously became ill. Even upon becoming ill, he insisted upon seeing the slides.

The student submitted his thesis and was awarded his PhD. However, the supervisor upon recovering from illness still insisted upon seeing the slides and his insistence eventually showed the student had fabricated the data.

The supervisor's mysterious illness was eventually shown to be a substance slipped into his tea, though the student's guilt could not be proven. The University concerned decided upon the following actions:

1) The student was allowed to keep his PhD, provided he had no further association with the University; and

2) Instead of supporting the supervisor, the University effectively "sacked" him (i.e. decided not to renew his contract).

The supervisor found employment with a different University where he chose to keep a low profile. From the exercise, he gained the very strong impression that the given University was more concerned with its image than the integrity of the work it produced or the wellbeing of its own staff.


I seem to remember reading about this latter incident in a UK newspaper (Guardian, Independant???), but when I tried to look this story up a few years ago it had disappeared.

One more to follow and a beauty, if only to cheer people up. :-)

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)
09-Feb-19, 18:25
edited about 6 seconds later
Avatar for Mackem_Beefy
posted about 1 week ago

This isn't a fabrication story as such, but should raise a smile. :-)

A failing student was propping up the bar in his local pub nursing a pint or three after a major bollocking by his course tutor. He'd been told that he had to buck his ideas up or he'd be thrown off the course.

A policeman who was also a pub regular asked what was the matter and on hearing the student's woes piped up that a senior academic in the student's faculty had got himself in a lot of trouble. The student naturally became curious and bought the off-duty copper more and more beer (very generous grant / loan by the sounds of it) until the copper finally gave up the line that he couldn't say anything because of his police job.

The story the copper told was music to the student's ears. Apparently, the police had raided an illegal brothel and upon arresting the prostitutes and punters, had caught said senior academic with a number of female companions. The academic and prostitutes had been photographed at the scene immediately upon their arrest and carted off to the nearest police station. However, the University was keen on avoiding a scandal and the story goes that a substantial contribution was made to the "Police Pension Fund" to make the matter disappear. The University also agreed to "early retirement" of the academic on the grounds of ill health.

More beer led to photos falling into the hands of the student with his course tutor becoming "aware" the student possessed them. Mysteriously, the "failing" student's grades massively improved and he passed his course with flying colours. Moreover, the student stayed on at the University as a post-grad, sitting on said photos for further "safe keeping".


Yes, you may well have seen these elsewhere as I've posted them elsewhere in the past.

But it does show what goes on in Universities if you scratch under the surface. :-)

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)
09-Feb-19, 18:54
edited about 2 minutes later
Avatar for Mackem_Beefy
posted about 1 week ago
Just an add on here. The last story I was actually contacted about by a researcher at a certain north west England University who for some reason just divulged this information to me.

I checked some information and indeed a senior academic disappeared at the time he mentioned. The most bizarre of the above seems to be the most provable. Coincidence, perhaps, but certainly interesting.

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)
10-Feb-19, 18:14
by Cat123
Avatar for Cat123
posted about 1 week ago
Never trust that a previous student was correct. Both my Masters and PhD work followed on work of another student, fortunately in both cases I noticed errors early on - which surprisingly were not picked up by examiners. In the first case a key equation had been written incorrectly. I've noticed many issues with a past students' PhD work. I had looked up standard testing techniques and sample sizes required, the test rig should have been consistent with these but I found it was far from it, the student reported dimensions in their thesis which were still smaller than specified in the standards but maybe close enough to get away with, its a multidisciplinary area and its something their particular examiners may not have picked up on. Upon measurement of the apparatus this was significantly smaller than they stated in their thesis. I didn't use that test rig, I designed and developed my own. I've learnt to check everything. Their methodology was suspect, various incorrect assumptions had been made and some things just didn't seem plausible. I re-ran a test, I got very different results. They used inappropriate controls, the list goes on. Some of their thesis is just too vague to work out exactly what they did. They drafted just one paper which wasn't accepted for publication. I've just drafted the second and hoping for 4/5 publications including 2/3 conference papers. The previous student had a lot of support. I've done much of my work with very little supervision so far, there was perhaps some benefit to that in may case.
11-Feb-19, 00:39
Avatar for Mackem_Beefy
posted about 1 week ago
Good post @Cat123.

You can expect inconsistencies in previous theses and data, simply because a thesis is a sizeable chunk fo work. There will be typos and towards the end, the desire just to submit the thesis and have done can be overwhelming. This is especially the case if you're near the end of year four.

If you have decent supervisors, the aim is simply to get the data and thesis scripted to be as error-free and presentable as possible. In otherwords, you get to the point where the thesis is in a condition where it is least damaging and thus likely to get past external examiners without anymore than minor corrections. You can overwork a thesis, such that you end up introducing more probelms than you are trying to remove (i.e. over-perfectionism).

If there are no glaring errors and the thesis is well written, the examiners can only really judge the thesis on the information presented to them. If the candidate has cheated and faricated data to match expectations, I see how this might be easily missed (note my examples presented above).

But again you seem to have had a predecessor that perhaps pushed matters too far and you are right to be cautious and rigourous.

I'm not sure whether some people deliberately go out to cheat or the pressure to submit something, anything, overwhelems their common sense and judgement.

In many cases, a failed hypothesis is evidence of a finding in itself rather than a failure in the person or methodology. If some people kept this in mind and looked at why things went wrong rather than assume they've failed then decide to fabricate, those that follow would have fewer problems.

One possibility for suppresing such behaviour might be to include a clause in your PhD contract that if a succeeding researcher does find evidence of fraud within say five years of submission, the original researcher is compulsorally recalled for re-examination and if there are no satisfactory answers, the PhD stripped from them.

Ian (Mackem_Beefy)


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