A court in Freiburg, Germany, has upheld the right of disgraced physicist Jan Hendrik Schőn to hold a doctoral degree, reversing a 2004 decision by his alma-mater, the University of Konstanz, to withdraw it. Schőn, who was a staff physicist at Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs in New Jersey, is notorious for having perpetrated a remarkable string of fabrications in the fields of organic and molecular electronics, several of which were published in Nature and Science between 2000 and 2002. The university withdrew his PhD not because of any misconduct in his 1997 thesis, but because of its view that misconduct findings reached by a Bell Labs-convened committee investigating the later work showed that Schőn was “unworthy” to hold the degree.
The university’s decision appeared to have a sound legal basis, because the German state of Baden-Württemberg’s university law says that, “a degree awarded by a university in Baden-Württemberg can be withdrawn… if the subject through his later behavior of the conduct of the degree proves himself unworthy. The decision to make the withdrawal will be decided by the university that awarded the degree.” The university took an academic interpretation of this concept of unworthiness, arguing that a PhD is akin to a license to work in the scientific community, which Schon’s later fabrications showed he was not qualified for. But the court disallowed this “science-related” interpretation of unworthiness, and took a narrower interpretation, according to which the concept applied to the commission of scurrilous criminal offenses. Among its reasons was the observation that if unworthiness referred to research misconduct, then only those holders of a PhD who went on to work in science could face a withdrawal; something that goes against the spirit of equality.
The court also decided that a PhD is not understood as a guarantee of the validity of published scientific results, so that a withdrawal does little more to protect the scientific community than has already been done, especially given that the results of the Bell Labs investigation were well-publicized.
The university emphasizes in a press release that the ruling has no bearing on the findings that Schőn committed research misconduct. It is considering an appeal.
Image: Jan Hendrik Schőn: Lucent Technologies