Scientists with US PhDs no longer to face criminal charges for using the title 'Dr'

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

A truce appears to have been called in the recent battle in Germany between at least six scientists with PhDs earned in the US and police authorities who initiated investigations against them for illegal use of the honorific title Doktor (Dr).

German state laws - some dating back to Nazi Germany - mean that PhDs awarded by universities outside the EU are not automatically recognised. Without state approval, scientists using the title on public documents face criminal charges for impersonating a ’Dr’ - punishable by up to a year in jail, according to some legal experts.

But on 6 March, the Association for education and research ministers (KMK) of Germany’s 16 states approved a resolution calling for state governments to change existing laws so that PhDs earned at US universities accredited by the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement in Teaching in Stanford are automatically accepted in Germany.

Andreas Schmitz, spokesman in Bonn for the KMK, says all ministers at last week’s meeting voted in favour of the resolution, indicating support from their respective state governments. As part of the resolution, the ministers also agreed to compile lists of universities from five other nations - Australia, Israel, Japan, Canada and Russia - whose PhDs will automatically be accepted in Germany.

The scientists under investigation included three senior chemists employed as directors by the Max Planck Society’s Institute for Chemical Ecology (ICE) in Jena. The society’s institutions generally function in English and are among the most successful in Germany in attracting foreign scientists.

Welcome resolution

"I think we are a good step further in solving the problem" - Bernd Wirsing

Responding to the KMK’s move, Bernd Wirsing, chief Max Planck spokesman, said, ’We feel quite happy about the decision. I think we are a good step further in solving the problem.’ Wirsing noted that there are a variety of state and federal laws that need to be changed, so it might take time, but added, ’I am sure this will happen.’

German privacy laws allow people under investigation to remain anonymous but there are suggestions that anywhere from 50 to 70 people around Germany have been investigated.

Christian Herbst, spokesman for the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), says that ministry is pleased with the KMK’s decision and sees it as a positive signal to the global research community. ’It is very important that Germany becomes an even more attractive location for researchers from all over the world to work and live in,’ he added.

BMBF legal experts studied the issue at the request of Chemistry World, and found no federal statutes pertaining to foreign-earned PhDs. ’It is a matter for the states,’ said Herbst. ’There is nothing to change at the federal level.’