Utrecht University withdraws doctoral degree granted in 2008

The Board for the Conferral of Doctoral Degrees (BCDD) of Utrecht University has assessed that a doctoral thesis dating back to 2008 does not meet important principles of academic integrity, such as diligence and accuracy, reliability and verifiability, and replication. The cases of negligence are of such scale and culpability that the doctoral thesis does not suffice as a test of competence to enter the profession. This means that the doctoral degree was unjustifiably granted. The BCDD has therefore withdrawn the granted degree.

It involves a PhD defence by an external PhD Candidate in 2008. Complaints have been filed with Utrecht University about the articles that make up the doctoral thesis, which have been assessed by the Committee for Research Integrity (CRI) of the university. These include complaints about the used data. The Committee has validated the complaints. Based on this, the Executive Board of the university decided to present the case to the Board for the Conferral of Doctoral Degrees. This body is responsible for matters involving academic PhD defences, and is formed by the Deans of the faculties and the Rector Magnificus.

Articles retracted

Various chapters in the dissertation consist of articles which have been published in academic journals. At the time of the assessment by the CRI (in May of 2022), journal editorial boards were already aware of problems in five of these articles and have already taken action based on their own investigations: two articles have been retracted, two articles have received an Expression of Concern and one article has received an Editor’s Note of Concern. The journals in which the four remaining articles were published will be informed about the withdrawing of the degree.

Promotion bonus refunded

Rector Magnificus Henk Kummeling states that the issue has been thoroughly investigated and that the university wants to learn from this case. “First of all, UU has of course decided to return the Promotion bonus of 93,060 euros granted in 2008. We have also asked ourselves how this could have happened. Why did the supervisor and the Doctoral Examination Committee not notice this? And could something similar still happen today?”

Rules tightened since 2008

At the time it was possible for an external PhD Candidate to obtain a PhD at UU, based on data obtained elsewhere and on a series of articles in peer-reviewed journals, without much involvement of the (co-)promoter(s) in the writing of the articles. This is no longer the case. Registration of PhD candidates has to take place at least three years before completing the doctoral programme, so they will follow an Utrecht track with the corresponding quality monitoring and training. At the start of a doctoral programme, agreements are documented on education and supervision, the monitoring of the progress, and the composition of the supervision team, in which the so-called ‘four-eyes principle‘ is used. There is also a go/no-go moment one year after the start of a PhD trajectory where progress is evaluated.

Strict enforcement

Henk Kummeling says: “We don't want these kinds of flawed dissertations. Not in any field. That's why we as the Board for the Conferral of Doctoral Degrees have made this exceptional decision about the doctoral thesis from 2008. Furthermore, we as the Board for the Conferral of Doctoral Degrees, with all Deans, have assessed and declared how crucial it is to strictly enforce the current rules.”