Website gave staff unearned title of 'doctor'

March 9, 2007

'Clerical errors' at Sheffield University led to three of a department's staff being listed wrongly on its website as having a PhD. Phil Baty reports.

For many, the PhD is a prized symbol of serious scholarship. But the award and the status it confers has caused red faces at Sheffield University, where three senior staff in a department have been wrongly described as having doctorates that they do not possess.

In a case that this week has prompted a debate about the worth of a PhD, Sheffield blamed "clerical errors" for the fact that three of the ten members of the "teaching and learning directorate" of the School of Health and Related Research were wrongly listed on the university's website as "Dr".

The website's personal profile of team member Malcolm Whitfield, the school's director of health and policy management, refers to him as "Dr" and states: "His PhD was focused upon the economic viability of home care as an alternative to acute hospital admission for elderly people."

Mr Whitfield has never been awarded a PhD.

He thanked The Times Higher for drawing his attention to the anomalies, which were raised by a whistleblower.

He said in a statement last week: "This is the first time I was aware of these entries and will have them changed immediately. I am not sure who made this mistake as I do not personally have access rights to edit or post items on these web pages.

"I have in fact submitted a PhD to Jagiellonian University (in Poland), which I am expecting to be completed in the next few months. But it is absolutely true that at present this entry is both incorrect and misleading. I will have it addressed immediately."

The two other staff wrongly listed as "Dr" on the school's main contact page were Carolyn Murray, a postgraduate co-ordinator, and Janette Turner, an MSc course director.

Ms Turner said she was not responsible for the site's content, which was looked after by someone "under the misapprehension that I have that title".

She said that her personal profile and publications record show that she has never laid claim to the title.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said the matter reflected badly on Sheffield.

"To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: to make one clerical error may be regarded as a misfortune; to make three looks like downright carelessness," he said.

"In terms of academic prestige, the PhD is an important signal of scholarship, and universities have a responsibility to take great care in presenting the qualifications of their staff."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said that in general the PhD was becoming seriously devalued by being awarded "too cheaply".

"Every idiot can get one now. It is awarded for good timekeeping, not for originality of research, because universities do not like to fail them any more," he said.

"It is ironic that just as it is becoming devalued, people ascribe more and more significance to the PhD as a highly prized piece of paper. I view the PhD with complete indifference as an indicator of status and authority."

Sheffield says in a statement: "The 'doctor' references on the website were due to clerical errors, which have now been rectified. There has been no intention by the university to deceive.

"The (school's) web pages are currently being updated to maintain consistency between entries. It seems that during this process an inputting error was made."

It said that all the personal profiles of the staff involved listed their qualifications, and none claimed a PhD.

"The website entries were corrected as soon as we were notified of the error.

"The university is currently checking all other pages to ensure all entries on the School of Health and Related Research web pages are up to date and factually correct."

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