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August 26, 2009

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Professors investigated in German PhD scam

AN investigation of German professors suspected of accepting bribes to advise doctoral candidates could last months, prosecutors said in Berlin yesterday.

Their comments came as academics worried that degrees earned under paid advisement could undermine the prestige of PhDs.

About 100 professors are suspected of accepting payment for doctoral advisement - a fraudulent act because serving as an adviser is part of their job description.

"Such behavior would deeply discount the credibility of scholarship," Education Minister Annette Schavan said over the weekend after the scandal was made public.

At the center of the investigation is the Institute for Scientific Consulting, a private academic advising business that was based in Bergisch Gladbach, east of Cologne, and went bankrupt last summer after an inquiry landed its director in jail.

The director, who has not been identified because of German privacy laws, was found guilty in July 2008 of paying bribes to a Hanover University law professor and sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on top of a 75,000-euro (US$107,000) fine.

The professor accepted nearly 200,000 euros to advise 60-plus doctorate students between 1998 and 2005.

Now, prosecutors say documents seized in a March 2008 raid of the institute's offices and other evidence gathered during the initial investigation suggest that the scandal is more extensive.

"It's deeper than we initially thought," said Guenther Feld, a spokesman for the Cologne prosecutors leading the investigation.

The institute advertised its broad connections in German academia and experience in consulting aspiring PhD students to justify fees of between 4,000 and 20,000 euros to set doctorate applicants up with an adviser.

In Germany, a PhD is a highly sought credential for those aiming for the top of their field. Professionals referred to as "Herr Dr" and "Frau Dr" are common in disciplines far removed from academia and medicine, such as politics and finance.

With the pressure to secure the honorary so high, people are often willing to pay to expedite the long process of locating a professor with the correct expertise and enough time to advise their doctorate work, said Matthias Jaroch, a spokesman for the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers.

"A doctor title is not only an earning advantage, it's prestigious," Jaroch said. "That's the source of people's willingness to pay for this, even by illegal means."


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