Create PhD databases to flush out fraudsters, universities told

Lack of publicly available data on doctoral degree holders is allowing people to add fake credentials to their resumés, says research fraud expert

October 26, 2023
Oxford United fan with a replica Cup Trophy to illustrate Create PhD databases to flush out fraudsters, universities told
Source: Getty Images

Universities have been urged to create publicly accessible PhD databases to allow people to check whether individuals have the doctoral degrees they claim amid concerns over a rise in the number of fake CVs.

The call from Dorothy Bishop, emeritus professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, follows her frustrated attempts to check the credentials of someone claiming to have DPhils from her institution.

Professor Bishop, a leading academic fraud sleuth, was surprised to find that only “employers, prospective employers, other educational institutions, funding bodies or recognised voluntary organisations” could request verification of a doctorate and that the “student's permission…should be acquired prior to making any verification request”.

Checking the online university Gazette, which lists notifications of viva examinations, could be attempted only by those within the university, and this information was likely to be incomplete, she added.

Efforts to check the PhD credentials of someone else claiming to hold a doctorate from a different UK university also proved difficult, said Professor Bishop, who explained that data protection rules were cited as a reason for not releasing information.

While doctoral graduates are often required by their universities to deposit copies of their theses at their libraries, or the British Library’s EThOS service, which holds more than 600,000 theses, such databases are not comprehensive given a number of exceptions around commercial confidentiality, nor do they hold most dissertations published before the service’s launch in 2009.

“My own preference would be for all universities to have a database similar to that at Macquarie University in Australia, where you can just type in someone’s name and it responds with the date and type of degree they obtained,” said Professor Bishop, who added that this could “include all types of graduate and postgraduate degree”.

Similar verification portals also existed at Canadian universities, such as Toronto’s York University, noted Professor Bishop, while France’s national database has details for all doctoral theses published since 1985.

Such systems were unlikely to cost huge amounts because “presumably the database already exists” and people were already employed to field validation requests, said Professor Bishop. “Legal issues regarding data protection could be bypassed by requiring new graduates to give signed consent to their inclusion in the register,” she added.

Oxford, which says that it is mandatory for students completing doctoral degrees to deposit electronic copies with its research archive, was approached for comment.

Professor Bishop’s call follows several recent exposés by the Fake PhD Investigations blog, which has highlighted how fraudulent claims to PhDs have been used by people to get ahead in business, politics and academia. That anonymous blog claims that 45 per cent of doctoral students do not finish their doctoral studies, though a lack of a PhD degree is often glossed over on a resumé.

Professor Bishop said she agreed there were some acceptable reasons for not wanting your PhD information made public – such as living in an oppressive country that targets intellectuals, or the risk of being targeted by stalkers and fraudsters – but she said these cases were likely to be fairly rare.

Claiming that privacy rules were “protecting fraudsters”, she said: “This is a real problem, and my view is that the perils of not being able to verify credentials are far greater than any harms from making this information public.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

Surely all UK theses are listed at the British Library EThoS service? That is where I check a UK PhD. I presume that this is Professor Bishop's: Comprehension of grammar: normal and abnormal development Bishop, Dorothy V. M.
(In response to previous comment: Yes, that's mine!) Here's another case that has just surfaced