Sunday, June 30, 2013

German Medical Dissertations

There have been discussions about the quality of German medical dissertations going back for centuries.  Medical practitioners are quick to note that medicine is a completely different field from, say, German literature, and thus the theses are vastly different. In particular, they often don't bother about the words, it is only the numbers, the experiments, that are important. Thus, a thesis that has plagiarism on three-quarters of the pages (mainly from the habilitation of the doctoral advisor) is considered to be fine.

At many universities it is considered a medical dissertation if the work is published in an international journal. I briefly noted in 2012 one thesis that was only four pages and which was published together with the advisor in the journal, but accepted as a thesis for the student, a practice which I find questionable. If it is the student's work, the advisor should not be on the journal paper; if the advisor participated in the research and writing, then it is not a dissertation. This should be quite clear, and is also stated in the 1998 guidelines for good scientific practice of the DFG.

There is currently a minor public discussion about another such dissertation from the University of Würzburg. The doctoral student, who submitted in 1985, is the husband of a Bavarian politician, thus the apparent interest in the case. Interestingly, the German National Library (DNB) lists the ten-page dissertation clearly as being the same as a journal article that had two authors, the advisor and the student. Soon after the local press started reporting on the case being a self-plagiarism (for example, the Nürnberger Zeitung) the university issued a statement confirming that they were investigating the case, and then a day later stating that according to the rules that were valid in 1985, it was perfectly okay to submit a dissertation like this. (A discussion about the supposed plagiarism can be found on the VroniPlag Wiki forum.)

I looked up the dissertation this afternoon in the library: "Histochemical and biochemical studies in the kidney of female rats after castration and treatment with sex hormones" (published in 1985 in the Zeitschrift für mikroskopisch-anatomische Forschung, accepted as a dissertation 1986)  and found some very similar papers-accepted-as-dissertations listed in the paper and then in the DNB:
Now the dissertation itself consists of
  • Abstract: 1 page
  • Introduction: 1/2 page
  • Materials and Methods: 1 1/2 pages
  • Results: 5 pages, of which 1 1/2 are pictures
  • Statistics: 1 page
  • Discussion: 1 1/2 pages
  • Literature: 1/2 page
For a journal article - this is a great structure. The journal was published from 1924-1990 and is indexed in MEDLINE. But is this a doctoral dissertation? And why is the doctoral advisor listed on the journal?

Some friends started looking for more of these dissertations, there are scores of them:
  • A three-page publication with seven authors that was sufficient for one of the authors to receive a doctorate in medicine from the TH Aachen in 2012.
  • A three-page publication with the advisor that was sufficient for a doctorate in Münster in 2006 - with a lovely typo: "Erectile dysfunction (ED) represents a highly prevalent social problem; approximately 5–20% of the general mail population suffer from moderate-to-severe ED."
  • Six pages, four authors, one dissertation in Hamburg in 2005.
  • Nine pages, seven authors, one dissertation in Hamburg in 2001
  • ...
Isn't it time to move on to an "MD" for medical doctors and get rid of the "Dr. med."?


  1. I find it important to clearly distinguish two things:

    A) The sometimes embarrassingly thin content of German medical dissertations

    B) The cases where those dissertations are in addition plagiarised.

    There might be a slight overlap with respect to those two aspects in that the academic standards as to what counts as plagiarism in a medical dissertation might also be low in Germany, but in general the author of a thesis can only be made responsible for B) not for A).

    Also: the length of a doctoral thesis not necessarily speaks about its quality.

    Having said all this: yes, the Dr. med should go.

  2. Actually, there seems to be a third aspect, perhaps I didn't make that clear enough: A) Thin (although if it is a radical breakthrough, I suppose thin is okay. But three pages?) B) Plagiarism C) "Honorary authorship". This last point troubles me quite a bit, as the advisors collect publications that are not actually theirs - or else the doctoral students are submitting other's work as their own. I'm afraid that it is more often than not the former. I've heard many stories over beer that I can't publicly document. Authorship is an area that really needs transparency, in my opinion.

  3. With regard to the Bologna process: why not simply move to an adequate Bachelor/Master degree instead? And those, who really want to contribute to the gain of scientific knowledge, afterwards can be given the chance to achieve an appropriate PhD/Dr. med. though.

  4. At least they didn't have to castrate those poor rats all over again.

  5. Here's another one from 2007/8: 15 authors, 8 pages. Now go to the Swiss national library ( and search for “sirolimus-eluting and paclitaxel-eluting" (I can't find a direct link). Author #2 submitted the paper 2008 as his dissertation for the University of Berne. The entry only lists Author #2 and Author #3 as authors for the paper.

  6. It is my opinion, as a chemist who worked several years, and very intensely, on my own dissertation, that three pages do not qualify for anything! Not even a second Einstein should get a PhD for three pages. It is simply ridiculous.

    Some high-level theorems in mathematics, a discipline which can be quite abstract and concise, need several hundred pages proof.

    In my opinion one should drastically restrict PhDs to people really doing research, producing novel results, on their own. Most of the disciplines at german universities do not even qualify as science. It is really annoying, what nonsense can be used to get a title, which in most cases is directly resulting in better paid jobs with better perspective also.


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