Guest Column | April 17, 2018

Counterfeit Degrees, Diploma Mills, & Their Impact On The Clinical Trials Enterprise

By Angela Roberts, craresources

Counterfeit Degrees, Diploma Mills, & Their Impact On The Clinical Trials Enterprise

Recently a clinical research associate (CRA) candidate I’ll call Evan approached our firm for assistance in finding a new assignment. His resume was impressive, representing strong foundations as a study coordinator with over 10 years of experience as a CRA for highly reputable CROs.

There was only one problem with his impressive qualifications: The education listed on his resume was false.

We are seeing a growing trend of individuals committing outright fraud by faking all or part of their credentials. Not only do we see resumes which are partially or completely fraudulent, but we also see fake degrees. Identifying counterfeit degrees is a challenge, largely because many hiring managers don’t realize this type of fraud exists and most organizations do not have a proper hiring strategy in place to mitigate the risks. It is extremely easy for candidates to claim they have a degree when they don’t.

Several years ago, I worked with a candidate I really liked. (I’ll call him John.) John’s credentials were strong, with over seven years of experience as a CRA for reputable sponsors and CROs. His site and supervisor references were outstanding, he interviewed well, and I had no concerns with representing him to one of our sponsors.

The one major drawback to John’s credentials was that he did not have a degree. Fortunately for him, a handful of our clients will consider non-degreed candidates if they have passed our qualification process and have equivalent experience. The timing for John was perfect because one of these clients needed a CRA, and we were able to immediately place John in a long-term contract.

Eighteen months into his contract, the sponsor lost its study — and John lost his contract. Even though our experience with John was positive, we were unable to secure another contract for him, as our actively hiring sponsors required their CRAs to have a degree.

Fast-forward to three years later, when I received an email from a candidate I’ll call James. James indicated he had been referred to us by a colleague and was immediately available for a new assignment.

His credentials looked great. He had a B.S. in biology, foundations as a study coordinator, and 10 years of experience as a CRA. As I reviewed his therapeutic experience, I noted he likely met the qualifications of several open positions, and therefore I quickly moved him through our prequalification process. Minutes into an interview with James, I felt we had spoken before. I asked James if we had, and he denied us ever speaking, stating he had never worked with our firm. As we continued the interview, it clicked. I did know James. We had placed James — James was really John.

I interrupted him, abruptly asking why he no longer went by John. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, John confessed to using a false name. He confessed to falsifying his degree. He then went on to explain the hardships he had experienced because he didn’t have a degree. As I respectfully listened, I realized what John didn’t understand was that in his plight to have a fresh start by providing a fake name and falsified credentials, he had ruined his reputation and spoiled his credibility with our firm. I politely ended the call, made notes in his candidate record, and permanently removed him from our candidate pool. While we had a previous positive relationship with him, John having falsified his education was a deal-breaker for us — as it should be for all hiring managers (even if a degree isn’t a requirement).

The Rise Of The Diploma Mill

While John’s story is frightening, I want to call your attention to another extremely concerning trend in our industry. Individuals can quickly and inexpensively purchase a bachelor’s, master’s, or even a doctorate degree from institutions called “diploma mills.” No courses are taken, and while some diploma mills require the individual to complete a quick “life experience” survey, the only firm requirement to obtain a degree is to pay the fee. An online organization which monitors black market products and activities called Havocscope documents where both bachelor’s and master’s diplomas can be purchased for around $500.

The degrees are instant. Diploma mills look authentic because most have a professional-looking website. These organizations also have staff members who answer phones to “validate” the degree was earned. Therefore, a third-party employment screening and verification company will not be effective in identifying the degree is a sham. tracks more than 300 fake online colleges. The number of individuals “owning” a fake degree or diploma is hard to estimate. However, in Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over A Million Fake Diplomas, Allen Ezell and John Bear estimate that more than 50 percent of individuals claiming to have earned a Ph.D. actually have a fake degree. Ezell, a 31-year FBI veteran who helped run an investigation on this issue (called Operation Dipscam), stated “Our best guestimate is there are 5,000 diploma mills at any time, and probably the same number of fake accrediting agencies.”

How Do You Protect Yourself And Your Organization?

First, ensure the educational institution listed on the candidate’s resume is accredited. Be warned, though: The U.S. Department of Education echoes Ezell’s declaration that fake accreditation agencies do exist and will accredit these fake schools. Therefore, reach out to your nation’s higher education organizations. In the U.S., this is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education. In the U.K., call on the British Accreditation Council (BAC). And for international institutions, utilize The Accreditation Service for International Schools, Colleges & Universities (ASIC).

Once you confirm the school is accredited, verify the degree is offered. Do you remember Evan? The educational institution he listed was a valid institution. However, this college did not offer the degree he stated he had obtained.

After you have confirmed the educational institution is real and the degree is offered, then it is effective to utilize a third-party employment screening and verification company to validate the candidate actually attended the institution and earned the degree. I recently spoke at a symposium on this topic and was shocked that two-thirds of the hiring managers in the audience admitted their companies do not conduct a formal employment verification and background check for their new hires. I cannot overly stress how important it is for companies to ensure this is part of their hiring strategy.

And what happened to Evan? According to his LinkedIn profile, he was just hired by a reputable CRO, which leads me to believe no third-party employment verification and background check was completed. And think on this: if Evan has falsified his education, what are the chances he has also falsified all or part of his employment history? We have found that approximately 21 percent of individuals representing themselves as CRAs have falsified all or part of their credentials. As you can imagine, the ramifications of hiring someone who has falsified part or all of his credentials can be significant. Consider the risk to your company’s reputation as well as the impact to your budget and study timeline, since you will likely have to replace that individual and perform rework. Plus, depending on your contractual agreements with your partners, there could be legal consequences. And don’t forget about the most important issue — a potential impact to patient safety.

The key is to ensure you have an appropriate hiring strategy in place which will quickly identify education fraudulence and therefore protect your organization.


About The Author:

Angela Roberts is the head of recruiting operations at craresources. Prior to joining craresources, Roberts spent 16 years as a hiring manager for high-performing teams, including 10 years with IBM, where she rounded out her IBM career as a senior global transformation executive. Roberts is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) with significant operations and account management experience. Roberts joined craresources in 2008, where her mission was to build a better recruitment agency — one which focuses on doing the right thing and consistently providing high-quality candidates to the clinical research Industry.