Let's assume a hypothetical context where someone figures out that a given businessperson's claims to have a PhD from a prestigious university are not true. The person in question was enrolled in a PhD program but they never finished and therefore no degree was awarded. The person is introduced in interviews and presentations as "Dr." and listed in the company's website as having a PhD in a scientific topic from a specific real university.

Provided the evidence is unequivocal, the questions are:

What is the ethical response to this? How to handle it?

Is it fraud?

What are the mechanisms available to denounce this, if pertinent?

(depending on answer to previous question)

I'm personally interested in the case for Europe and UK, but cases for other countries may be of general interest.

This is related to other question about Diploma mills, but my question is about real prestigious universities, real enrolment but no award.

This question does not relate to degrees pending imminent conferral, but to incomplete degrees, falsely advertised as completed.

  • 7
    It is fraud in some places and in some fields, depending on local law. Denouncing it comes with potential traps, also depending on local law.
    – Buffy
    Jan 15, 2020 at 19:51
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    This is clearly fraudulent claim. In Germany, I suspect that it is falling under criminal code. Lawyer required. I am not sure how severe this is in other countries. Jan 15, 2020 at 20:06
  • 3
    If the businessperson is sufficiently well-known, many newspapers would be very interested in the story. Contact a credible journalist and present your evidence to them, I’m sure they will do the rest.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 15, 2020 at 20:10
  • 1
    Just a thought. If the evidence turned out to not be so unequivocal as originally thought, then any public statements in this regard could be quite dubious. If this is a big deal, it could be worth consulting with a lawyer before taking any steps. And a lawyer with a relevant specialty. Paying for 2 or 3 hours of a lawyer's time could be well worth the trouble it could save you. And in particular, paying so that you get client-lawyer confidentiality.
    – puppetsock
    Jan 15, 2020 at 20:13
  • 2
    Companies or those who have good reason can ask the awarding university to confirm the award...
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 15, 2020 at 20:45

2 Answers 2


Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

In Germany, using a Dr. title without having earned it is illegal, and it is punished with imprisonment up to one year or with a monetary fine (this is a link to the relevant law in German).

The mechanism available to denounce this is to report the offending person to the police. Before doing this, I would suggest talking to a lawyer, as there might be consequences if the accusation turns out to be false. If the offending person is working as a medical doctor or some other regulated profession, the corresponding regulating association (for example, in the case of doctors, Bundesärztekammer or Medical Association of Germany) or other fair competition associations might sue the offender on the grounds of unfair competition (this has happened already several times).

The ethical thing to do depends on your particular sense of ethics. What you will do depends on what motivation you have to do it. The other person could sue you for false accusations, and going on a legal fight as a private person is very expensive, so there must be a good motivation. If the offender has been selected over you for some position and you feel that this is due to the fraudulent use of the title, you might as well just inform that particular employer of the situation. Going public is not recommended unless you have talked to a lawyer, as you could land in legal trouble if you make public accusations that turn out to be false.

  • 4
    You got the right law, but the rest of this answer is incorrect. Misuse of titles is an "Offizialdelikt", which the state has to investigate and prosecute on its own. So notifying the police would be enough. It's just that in most cases monetary damages are involved as well, for which one should get a lawyer, but that is a separate thing.
    – mlk
    Jan 15, 2020 at 21:17
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    There's also the possibility that the person making the claim is doing so without the backing of their bosses. For example, if the CEO of a company is making such a claim, notifying the board is a less risky avenue than suing the CEO yourself. The board should have an interest in the reputation of the company and shouldn't be so happy about the CEO representing themselves with fraudulent claims. Jan 16, 2020 at 1:46
  • @mlk you are right, my bad. I updated my answer. It would be nice to have some data about how seriously the police pursues this kind of reports if there is no evident damage involved, but I could not find any. Most news articles involve either suing or people forging diplomas.
    – wimi
    Jan 16, 2020 at 7:36

In many countries (Germany being a well known example, and I know this is the case in the Netherlands as well) the use of the "Dr." title is protected by law. Using the title without having obtained the appropriate degree is an offense it these jurisdictions and can be prosecuted. In other jurisdictions it can be less spelled out, but generally it would still constitute some sort of fraud (the way of handling it legally will differ though).

A relatively low key (and therefore safe) first step to take if you learn that someone is claim a PhD title they do not have, is to contact the university that supposedly conferred the degree, and inform them that you think someone is wrongfully claim to have a degree from them. It is very much in the university's interest to protect their reputation from fraudulent claims, and take appropriate legal action.

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