Data bank bid to stop PhD fraud

May 17, 1996

A German academic is campaigning for a central register for PhD titles following revelations that professionals are buying fraudulent degrees for up to Pounds 44,000 each.

Manuel Theisen, a business studies and tax law professor, has devoted more than ten years to investigating the title-broking business. He claims at least 12 professional operators are offering phoney degrees. "We aren't talking peanuts. This has become an industry making millions a year," says Professor Theisen of the University of Mannheim. He has written books and academic papers on the subject and prosecuted some phoney title-brokers.

Germany is particularly susceptible to the fraudulent degree business because of the high value placed on academic titles and the economic advantages they can bring, says Professor Theisen. He estimates that 1.5 per cent of the 20,000 PhDs awarded in Germany each year are "more or less illegally bought".

A new spate of fradulent degree cases, uncovered recently by news weekly Der Spiegel, came to light after a title-broker died last August leaving behind computer data with the names and addresses of some 800 customers and the prices they each paid for various degree titles. They included medics, naturopaths or engineers who paid up to Pounds 20,000 for forged certificates from real universities and from non-existent institutions.

Some frauds involve academics who are paid to hand out titles. Brokers, who mostly advertise in the business sections of serious German newspapers, offer a full service; consultancy advice on choosing a PhD topic and university, ghostwriters to produce written research and a PhD supervisor who in return for a fee will not ask too many difficult questions.

In 1994, a journalist from Stern news weekly answered an advertisment for PhD advice, claiming a Dr title would be good for his medical business. In return for DM20,000 (Pounds 8,700) an "advisor" offered him a thesis supervisor - a medical professor at an institute in Bad Salzuflen with "good contacts to the University of Dresden". For another DM20,000 a team of experts was to produce a thesis. The total fee can be up to DM100,000, although prices vary according to the reputation of the universities being forged and the resonance of the title, said Professor Theisen.

Falsely claiming an academic title is a criminal offence in Germany carrying fines or prison sentences of up to a year.

Professor Theisen claims the problem could easily be solved with a central register, a databank of all PhD holders to which prospective employers or customers could refer. It would need the agreement of the education ministers of each of the 16 Lander.

However the Bonn-based German association of university rectors, HRK, claims such controls are the responsibility of individual university faculties which award the degrees and rejects the idea of a central register. Following some publicised fraud cases two years ago, the HRK sent guidelines to university faculties to avoid fraud from external PhD applicants.

HRK spokesman Werner Becker said his organisation already acts as a clearing house in doubtful cases. "We receive about two inquiries a month and can confirm whether or not universities exist." Anyone wishing to seek further information is referred to the university faculty in question, he added.

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