An assistant professor of communication at the UA has been stripped of her doctoral degree by Ohio State University — a rare and potentially career-damaging occurrence in higher education.
The OSU Board of Trustees voted Aug. 25 to revoke the advanced degree of Jodi Whitaker, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona. Whitaker received her doctoral degree in communication from the Ohio school in December 2013.
OSU took the action after a study that Whitaker co-authored was called into question by other researchers and ultimately retracted. The university, though, would not say why her degree was revoked, citing student-privacy laws.
Whitaker, who has degrees from Texas A&M and the University of Michigan, joined the UA faculty in 2014 and now teaches a class on the effects of mass media. In fiscal year 2017, her salary was $70,355, according to the UA salary database. As a result of having her doctorate revoked, Whitaker will no longer be allowed to list her Ph.D. from OSU on her curriculum vitae.
The UA is aware of the study’s retraction and the revocation of Whitaker’s degree. However, UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson said her employment status cannot be discussed because it is a personnel issue.
Whitaker did not respond to a request for comment.
]OSU officials told Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on scientific issues such as paper retractions, integrity and fraud, that degree revocations happen about once every two years at OSU, but that is including all levels of degrees, not just doctorates.
The exact reason for the revocation of Whitaker’s degree was not disclosed by the school. Jeff Grabmeier, senior director of research communication at OSU, said in an email that information is private under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
In 2015, two researchers who peer reviewed the study approached OSU with concerns the data in the paper Whitaker co-authored with Brad Bushman, her doctoral committee chairman, as a graduate student at OSU were manipulated to support the hypothesis that first-person shooter video games improve real-life shooting accuracy.
The paper was titled “Boom, Headshot!: Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy.”
Bushman is also a professor of communication and psychology and Margaret Hall and Robert Randall Rinehart Chair of Mass Communication at OSU.
The peer review
The paper was submitted to the academic journal Communication Research , where it was peer reviewed. The article was published online in 2012 and in print in 2014.
The process of peer review allows for researchers who are experts in the same field to review the work done by colleagues, give feedback and make recommendations before publication.
Once a research article is published, other researchers can review it again, cite it and use it for their research. Pre- and post-peer reviews are important steps in the scientific process that ensure integrity in research and provide incentive for researchers to avoid errors or fabrication.
Malte Elson, postdoctoral researcher at Ruhr University in Germany, and Patrick Markey, psychology professor at Villanova University, reviewed Whitaker’s paper after it was published.
“We discovered two different data files between which the codes for variables were altered,” Markey said in an email to The Lantern, OSU’s student paper.
When Markey and Elson approached OSU about their concerns, Whitaker and Bushman said they could not find the raw data to confirm which data file was the correct one.
“A Committee of Initial Inquiry at Ohio State University recommended retracting this article after being alerted to irregularities in some variables of the data set by Drs. Markey and Elson in January 2015,” according to a retraction notice issued by the editors of Communication Research.
Retractions of published studies are also rare in higher education, but are becoming more common.
“Last year, 1,000 out of 1.8 million papers published were retracted,” according to Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch and distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute, where he teaches medical journalism. He is also the vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. “That being said, in the year 2000 there were 30 or 40 (retractions) out of a million.”
Retractions also play a healthy role in keeping bad research out of circulation and contribute to integrity in science.
But, “No surgery is minor surgery,” Oransky said, stressing it is a big deal for the author of a published study to have it retracted.
One cleared, one not
Bushman was cleared of data manipulation by OSU.
“The university determined that there was no evidence that Bushman participated in, or was aware of, inappropriate data manipulation,” Ben Johnson, an OSU spokesman, told the Columbus Dispatch. “Therefore, the university found that the allegations brought against Bushman did not have sufficient substance to warrant an investigation and they were dismissed.”
Whitaker, however, was not cleared by the school.
Elson and Markey said in a statement to Retraction Watch that their goal of challenging the paper was to “correct the scientific record.”
“We are deeply saddened to hear that this might lead to the end of a fellow scientist’s (Whitaker’s) career,” they said. “There were two authors on the problematic ‘Boom, Headshot!’ study. That the female, junior researcher is found culpable for those problems while the male, senior researcher is not, seems questionable.”
Bushman’s research has consistently shown that violent media including video games can lead to aggression, even violence.
Elson’s and Markey’s respective research has consistently shown the opposite. In fact, Markey’s new book, co-authored by Christopher Ferguson, “Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong,” argues that violent video games can have positive effects on individuals and society.
Bushman claimed Elson and Markey were engaging in a smear campaign, but ultimately agreed to the retraction of his and Whitaker’s paper.
Bushman had one other paper retracted in 2016 from the journal Gifted Child Quarterly. He has also had to issue data corrections on papers from 2010 and 2007, according to Retraction Watch.
Bushman did not respond to requests for comment.
“The interesting thing here is often what happens is that someone’s Ph.D. thesis gets turned into a paper,” said Oransky. “If it turns out the thesis contained fraud or error, you’d retract the paper and the Ph.D.”