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Volume 86 Issue 10 | p. 11 | News of The Week
Issue Date: March 10, 2008

Mistaken Masquerade

Scientists in Germany with U.S. Ph.D.s face charges for posing as 'Dr.'
Department: Government & Policy
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The maximum penalty for misusing the "Dr." title in Germany is one year in jail.
Credit: Shutterstock
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The maximum penalty for misusing the "Dr." title in Germany is one year in jail.
Credit: Shutterstock

UPDATE ON THIS STORY

» Soon In Germany, U.S. Ph.D. = Dr.
Officials move to allow U.S. doctoral graduates to use the title "Dr." in Germany.
March 14, 2008, 12:20 P.M. ET

AT LEAST SEVEN U.S.-educated scientists working at the Max Planck Society's (MPS) prestigious research institutes in Germany have faced or are facing criminal charges for impersonating a "Dr." The maximum penalty for this crime is one year in jail.

According to documents examined by C&EN, the charges were issued by German officials because the scientists put the title "Dr." in front of their names on public documents, such as work-related websites.

"The whole situation is absurd," says Jonathan Gershenzon, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena. Gershenzon received his doctorate at the University of Texas, Austin. He was charged with impersonating a "Dr." by German officials in January.

According to German criminal law, the title "Dr." is reserved only for individuals who received a doctoral degree from a European Union institution, explains Erik Kraatz, a criminal lawyer at the Free University, Berlin. Kraatz notes that the law also prohibits masquerading as a police officer, medical doctor, or professor.

"I am not allowed to be publicly listed as 'Dr. Baldwin,' " says Ian T. Baldwin, another director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, who was also charged in January. "To obey the law, I must refer to myself as 'Ian Baldwin, Ph.D., Cornell University, Ithaca (N.Y.).' "

Indeed, to legally use the title "Dr." in Germany, foreign-trained scientists must request permission from their local German state government. With this state-level consent, they can use the title "Dr." anywhere in the country. But without the state's permission to use the title, a scientist breaks two laws: the state law requiring approval to use the "Dr." title and the federal impersonation law, Kraatz says.

Breaking the state law is punishable with a fine akin to that associated with a traffic ticket. However, breaking the federal law is punishable by a larger fine or up to one year in jail, Kraatz adds.

"This law caught everyone by surprise," says Bernard F. Schutz, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, Potsdam, and a doctoral graduate of California Institute of Technology. He was charged with misuse of the "Dr." title in November 2007.

Schutz, Baldwin, Gershenzon, and David G. Heckel, a Stanford University-trained director at the chemical ecology institute who has been similarly charged, have removed the title "Dr." from their websites and business cards. Baldwin's and Gershenzon's cases are still pending, whereas Heckel's and Schutz's have been dismissed.

Although C&EN has counted seven scientists in Germany who are facing or have recently faced the title misuse charge, the number seems to be rising. In a February letter to the top scientists within MPS, which is one of the largest employers of foreign researchers in Germany, MPS Secretary General Barbara Bludau wrote, "Against the background of a growing number of charges and preliminary proceedings brought against our Directors owing to the unauthorized use of academic titles, the need for legal advice has steadily grown."

MPS has now hired a legal firm and is also using its influence to try to change German law, MPS President Peter Gruss wrote in a statement.

"I hope that the law will be changed to allow scientists with a legitimate, earned Ph.D. from an accredited university outside of the EU to use the 'Dr.' title in Germany without fear of harassment or prosecution," Heckel says.

 
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