Ph.D Scandal Rocks Germany

The quality of German Ph.D’s is being questioned after several high ranking politicians have been charged with plagiarizing their doctoral theses.

In February, Annette Schavan was forced to resign as the German Minister of Education when Heinrich Heine University revoked her Ph.D on grounds of plagiarism.  Schavan’s resignation followed that of Defense Minister Guttenberg, who was also found to have plagiarized his Ph.D thesis.  The President of Hungary, with a doctorate from the German University of Semmelweiss, was  also found guilty of plagiarism and forced to resign. These and other cases of less famous individuals have led the public to believe that plagiarism is widespread.  Lawyers now hire ‘plagiarism hunters’ to see if opposing expert witnesses can be discredited as cheaters.

Why so many problem Ph.D’s?

Market demand for Ph.D status symbol.  Ph.D’s are a real status symbol in Germany, with recipients listing themselves as “Dr.” on their mailboxes and in telephone directory listings.  Individuals planning to enter politics have been known to seek a Ph.D to enhance their chances of winning – 20% of the German Parliament hold Ph.D’s compared to 5% of U.S House of Representatives.  So great is the demand for this prestigious degree that German universities grant four times as many Ph.D’s per capita as do U.S. universities.

Little Quality Control in Universities.  Germany has a system of ‘external’ Ph.D’s with little quality control.  Unlike traditional Ph.D programs in Germany and the U.S., where candidates’ work is overseen by committees, in the ‘external’ system, the aspiring Ph.D only has to gain the approval of one professor.  These external students do not take classes or seminars – they just sit at home and write their thesis.  If it is approved by their professor, they get a Ph.D.  Degrees can be obtained with only a few months work.

Although there has been a push for reform, universities have resisted calls for thesis committees, external graders, and a single set of admission criteria applicable to all candidates.  Only recently have a few universities started to use the software designed to identify plagiarized passages.

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