The educational culture and polity that is German fake doctor edition

by on November 18, 2016 at 12:42 am in Education, Law | Permalink

Eva Ihnenfeldt was in her bathrobe when German police showed up at 8 a.m. one morning to search her home.

“I racked my brain for any unexplained murders,” said the owner of a digital marketing business, which was simultaneously searched. The search warrant cited paragraph 132a of the German criminal code. Her crime was blogging about a gag gift from her children, an honorary Ph.D. certificate purchased for €39 on Groupon.

…{The German] obsession [with academic titles] has spawned not only a host of weird rules and traditions—misuse can draw a year in prison or stiff fines—but a posse of mostly anonymous vigilantes who scout out unearned titles, academic plagiarists and other ivory tower scofflaws.

Sleuthing under pseudonyms including Dr. Simplicius and Plagin Hood, dozens of German scholars spend hours of their own time scouring obscure theses for questionable citations. Targets have included academics, minor celebrities and leading politicians. Most are exposed on the website VroniPlag Wiki, named for an early target.

…One academic downloaded 50,000 medical theses and exposed more than 60 cases of significant plagiarism. Another spent three months, full-time, investigating a single thesis.

And this:

German law in the past prohibited foreign Ph.D.s from using the title “Dr.”

American Ian T. Baldwin, a Cornell-educated professor of ecology in eastern Germany, received a summons from his local police chief in early 2008.

“He wanted to know how I planned to plead to the charge of Titelmissbrauch,” or misuse of titles, recalled Prof. Baldwin, who directs the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. “I couldn’t even pronounce it.”

This website (in German) spells out the proper protocols.  Here is the full article, by Tom Fairless, with the pointer from the excellent Samir Varma.

1 Philipp November 18, 2016 at 1:16 am

German society places an absurd emphasis on formal titles. Austria is even worse. Reading these stories always reminds me of the play “Der Hauptmann von Köpenick” (The captain of Kopenick) by Carl Zuckmayer which deals with the cult of the uniform in Prussia. Since the cult of the uniform is gone due to WWII and no new noble ranks conferred since WWI, becoming a Herr Dr. or even a Professor Dr. is the best thing you can get. Old forms of worship get replaced by new ones. But people always worship.

2 Philipp November 18, 2016 at 1:31 am

Addendum: In the anglosphere, people worship the brand names of universities like Cambridge or Harvard. As I said, everybody worships.

3 prior_test2 November 18, 2016 at 1:41 am

They also worship brand names like MIT or Stanford – but then, there is something to be said for places that educate people in things where actual results can be measured. For example, neither Caltech nor JPL ( ) are merely brand names, nor are they merely doing Straussian readings of the heavenly sphere.

Sometimes, results actually count more than brand names. Not at this web site, admittedly, with its seemingly unshakable obsession with status, mood affilitiation, etc.

4 prior_test2 November 18, 2016 at 1:36 am

In my experience over more than 20 years living near Karlsruhe, and knowing at least 20 people who have earned a doctorate (at least five who are professors at KIT), this is the sort of thing that Germans love to say about themselves, but is not true, at least in this region. What is true is that faculty members are very concerned about their university ‘rank,’ not their doctorate – however, most people at the top of a system seem to care about that.

But in general, and recognizing that GMU (like other universities) remains a place that does not really reflect American society, I would say that GMU faculty and administrators (admittedly, more than 2 decades ago) cared more about the proper use of a doctor title than any of the people I know in Germany with a doctorate.

However, it is true that medical doctors and dentists are called ‘Dr.’ in a way that is similar to how those titles are used in the U.S., and I also assume (based on how how Staatexamen degrees work – ) that the standards involved in (mis-) using ‘doctor’ in such areas is treated broadly the same.

5 Willitts November 18, 2016 at 8:26 am

Attorneys in Germany are also called Doctor.

One of my German neighbors chided me for NOT putting my title on my mailbox.

6 Vivian Darkbloom November 18, 2016 at 11:34 am

It should not be difficult for someone, particularly an American lawyer, who wants to use the title of “Dr.”, to find out that only about 11 percent of German lawyers have concluded a doctoral thesis that enables them to use the title of “Dr.” in Germany.

7 Andreas Moser November 19, 2016 at 11:40 am

Attorneys in Germany without a PhD (I am one) do not call themselves “Doktor”. It’s usually only older and rural folks who address us as such.

And yes, the “Dr.” on the mailbox is a really funny thing. In Germany, when people get a PhD, they also change their ID card to reflect the academic title and then they go to the bank to change the name on the bank account and they call their newspaper to change the subscription.

8 Lanigram November 18, 2016 at 10:22 am

There is unlimited demand for social status.

9 prior_test2 November 18, 2016 at 1:22 am

Well, this is what happens when you elect a woman as Chancellor – she gets to be called ‘Dr.’ if she wishes, and yet seems to not care much about it, thus demonstrating that some people, at least those who have left the academy behind, don’t care. This would also apply to all of the people I worked with at a software company that had also earned a doctorate – not a single one cared about their title in daily life. (Oddly enough, at least in the past, SAP cared a lot though – they will not partner with any software company that does not have the proper percentage of people with doctorates as employees.)

On the other hand, in the U.S., we have other priorities –

(Merkel earned this title in quantum chemistry – ‘Doctor rerum naturalium (Dr. rer. nat.), literally: Doctor of the things of nature, doctor of natural sciences, is a post-graduate academic degree awarded by universities in some European countries (for instance in Germany and Austria) to graduates in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, computer science, other natural sciences, and similar areas. These doctoral degrees are equivalent to a PhD. German universities often translate a Dr. rer. nat. to doctorate of science.’ )

10 tjamesjones November 18, 2016 at 5:02 am

Yeah, because Chancellor isn’t a title.

11 dearieme November 18, 2016 at 7:42 am

She can afford to be relaxed. Her doctorate is in a proper university discipline.

12 Lanigram November 18, 2016 at 10:51 am


“…other priorities…Valor_Act…

We hold the characteristics of selflessness, courage, and the will to action in high esteem. The self-serving pursuit of academic titles, not so much.

We stand at the ready to help Germany when the next Stalin comes along. Can they do the same? Maybe Europeans should follow our lead.

There will always be Stalins, and they are not intimidated by PhDs.

13 Andreas Moser November 19, 2016 at 11:43 am

Re “Well, this is what happens when you elect a woman as Chancellor”:
How was this different before Angela Merkel became Chancellor?

14 Yancey Ward November 18, 2016 at 1:27 am

We should turn them loose on the field of economics in this country.

15 prior_test2 November 18, 2016 at 1:45 am

First, you would need to have a catchy translation of Sozialmarktwirtschaft –

Further, considering what a socialist hell hole Germany is, why would any American be interested in these sorts of ideas? – ‘The social market economy was designed to be a third way between laissez-faire economic liberalism and socialist economics. It was strongly inspired by ordoliberalism, social democratic ideas, and the tradition of Catholic social teaching or, more generally, Christian ethics.

The social market economy refrains from attempts to plan and guide production, the workforce, or sales, but it does support planned efforts to influence the economy through the organic means of a comprehensive economic policy coupled with flexible adaptation to market studies. Effectively combining monetary, credit, trade, tax, customs, investment, and social policies, as well as other measures, this type of economic policy creates an economy that serves the welfare and needs of the entire population, thereby fulfilling its ultimate goal.

The “social” segment is often wrongly confused with socialism and democratic socialism, though aspects were inspired by both models. Social market economics rejects the socialist idea that states can replace markets. Socially the model supports the provision of equal opportunity and protection of those unable to enter the free market labor force, for example because of old-age, disability or unemployment.’

16 Bob November 18, 2016 at 2:00 am

Are you a national socialist? Is that why you moved there?

17 Troll me November 18, 2016 at 2:14 am

Are you trying to normalize the word, or perhaps just playing “no you”, “no you” like a 5 year old … ?

18 Michael November 18, 2016 at 2:54 am

fully agree with your description, but note that now — for better or worse — it applies to absolutely every one of the developed economies

seems to me that this concept was a big deal in the past when it came up, but meanwhile the world has moved on

19 The Lunatic November 18, 2016 at 3:31 am

Third way, distributism, middle way, mixed economy, corporatism, social market, economic democracy, competition socialism, stakeholder capitalism, tripartism, Nordic model, Rhine capitalism . . . it’s amazing how many brand names get invented for the same old retread.

20 Lanigram November 18, 2016 at 11:04 am


“…serves the welfare and needs of the entire population..,”

We need that here in the USA. Our social contract seems to be undefined. Given the impacts of globalization and automation and their associated shocks to the system, we could end up with a populist demagogue as president.

21 Thor November 18, 2016 at 1:48 am

In our country it is arriviste Reality TV hosts who deplorably call themselves President.

22 Bob November 18, 2016 at 1:59 am

Nazis to the last….

23 So Much For Subtlety November 18, 2016 at 2:16 am

So the Germans punish more severely people for claiming fake Ph.D.s than the Americans do for claiming false heroic deeds, medals and service in the Vietnam War?

I am not sure that reflects well on either.

24 Adrian Ratnpala November 18, 2016 at 4:23 am

This one is easy.

America wins.

25 N.K Anton November 18, 2016 at 9:26 am

Not really, the veterans one is just a status game (a well-deserved status to be fair), while the fake PhD must have at least some signalling value that is useful for jobs and so on.

26 Lanigram November 18, 2016 at 11:27 am

N.K. Anton,

“.,.status game…”

I don’t think a medic that treats a bloodied soldier while under deadly fire is thinking about status. That we honor such people after the fact is a Good Thing. We the people are signalling our values.

Unfortunately, people like Zuckerburg – average age of FB employees is 26 – don’t seem to share such values. So, you are correct, the PhD has more useful signaling value. The big Z, but little man, prefers to help “Dreamers”, a noble cause with great signalling value among the tribe recently defeated in the presidential election. Ironically, he is very concerned about personal security – he buys all the houses around his Palo Alto home and doesn’t go anywhere without body guards, or so it is rumored.

Meanwhile, the barbarians are at the gate…

27 N.K Anton November 18, 2016 at 12:08 pm

I literally said it was well-deserved. Status games aren’t always a bad thing if they don’t escalate or get detached from the societal benefits they provide.

Maybe those pernicious Facebook 26 yr olds do share those values and are willing to extend thealtruism our medic showed to a non-related soldier to other unrelated individuals you find undeserving? Or is it better to support the tribe that didn’t sanction a president that mocked a person with disabiltiy (something veterans deal with), made light of a veteran’s time in a POW camp, or attacked a gold star family?

28 David Wright November 18, 2016 at 2:19 am

I experienced this when I moved to Munich as a newly minted Ph.D. My application to open an account at a local bank had a box for title, and I marked Dr, When I turned in the form, they looked it over and told me I would have to bring in proof of my degree (with stamp, it’s very important that there be a stamp!) before they could write Dr on mail to me. It wasn’t worth it, so in the end my correspondence was just addressed to Herr.

29 Hoosier November 18, 2016 at 2:22 am

Interesting story! Funny how other cultures work sometimes.

30 Adrian Ratnpala November 18, 2016 at 4:27 am

I just logged into my Deutsche Bank account to see if I was listed as Dr. It seems my personal information section doesn’t even have the title “Herr”, or my sex. It does have on record that I am unmarried.

31 Alex from Germany November 18, 2016 at 5:57 am

I think this isn’t coupled to the Bank or Brand itself but rather the “locale” of your bank account. A non-German-based account will not have to go trough this “is-the-title-for-real”-ordeal.

32 Axa November 18, 2016 at 6:15 am

Marital status is important for taxes. Married = more taxes :/

33 yo November 18, 2016 at 2:53 pm

In that case, married = less taxes. The dividend income hat will stay tax free each year can go up to €1,602 if you’re married, its €801 if you’re not. Note the “1” at the end. It used to be 1.600 Deutschemarks; they just converted it literally and didn’t change it for 20 years.

34 Michael November 18, 2016 at 2:58 am

it’s wrong to generalize over whole populations, of course, but Germany seems to have a preponderance of a peculiar obsession with justice: that someone may have obtained an unearned advantage or (god beware) privilege

You Americans compare this with the defining fear, nay panic, of the Puritan — that someone, somewhere, might be having fun

35 So Much For Subtlety November 18, 2016 at 5:23 am

Germany is a country that has a hierarchy which people still respect. Being an academic of most sorts means a certain social status. Which Germans do respect. That means the Germans police the boundaries. If someone demands respect, they should deserve respect. Faking is unacceptable and undermines the whole system.

The American comparison is Affirmative Action. If you set up a system to benefit a minority and damage the majority, the majority may go along with it, but only as long as it is done honestly. People are outraged by fraud like Ward Churchill. Of course the Left is not policing the boundaries. As Elizabeth Warren shows. That proves the system is, in reality, a joke to the American Left. Otherwise they would be outraged.

Personally I think it can’t be long before sensible people in the English speaking world deem being called a PhD an insult.

36 anon November 18, 2016 at 6:45 am

Being a PhD is an insult in America. They are all money grubbers who lie about global warming to line their own pockets, remember?

37 Willitts November 18, 2016 at 8:36 am

America as a puritan nation wants its vices to be invisible, not absent.

In early colonial times, many puritan communities had a death penalty for even slight offenses to morality. But there were hardly ever any executions. Was this because there was never any moral crime, or that people were discreet and turned a blind eye? My guess is the latter.

Even today, city councils and police know where 90% of crime lives and works. There is an uneasy truce between organized crime and law enforcement. They attempt to avoid one another as much as possible. Most homicides in America are disputes within and between criminal elements. Many solvable crimes aren’t solved because of the wall of silence on both sides.

It’s somewhat depressing for an idealist like me. I’m not panglossian enough to believe we won’t have drug and prostitution dens, but police choosing their battles grated against me many times.

38 chuck martel November 18, 2016 at 8:58 am

” There is an uneasy truce between organized crime and law enforcement.”

They’re just two different gangs. The latter are part of the state and licensed by it.

39 rayward November 18, 2016 at 6:24 am

Cowen, ever clever, is parodying the explanation by some on the left that fake news stories resulted in the election of Trump. Whatever. I recall a controversy here whether a lawyer should have the title “Dr.” (most of us have juris doctor degrees) since lawyers in Germany use the title. If a lawyer (a lawyer!) can be called “Dr.”, then Trump is entitled to be called “President”.

40 Vivian Darkbloom November 18, 2016 at 8:03 am

Rayward, very few German lawyers are entitled to use the title “Dr.”. They are simply Herr or Frau Rechtsanwalt. To obtain the title, one needs to write, and have accepted, a doctoral dissertation (perhaps a bit of politics involved finding a friendly professor to sponsor you). It entails no additional coursework and the German legal dissertations I’ve reviewed contained very little, if any, original research or insight. On the other hand, perhaps you don’t need to write anything yourself—a bribe or a sexual favor might suffice:

But, it’s true that the Germans are a bit gaga and protective about academic degrees. A long time ago I was a dozent at a German university and it was not uncommon for the wife of a professor to be introduced or to introduce herself as “Frau Professor Dr. so and so”. Perhaps they’ve eased up a bit in the meantime.

41 Willitts November 18, 2016 at 8:41 am

I didn’t have to provide any extraordinary proof to use the title Dr. as an attorney.

Perhaps our status of forces agreement contained such a clause. I was quite familiar with the SOFA but I don’t recall anything regarding titles. Either it didn’t exist or it was too mundane to notice.

42 egl November 18, 2016 at 11:33 am

“On April 7, 1969, the Harvard Corporation voted that the J.D. would thereafter be awarded as the first degree in law and that it would be made available retroactively upon application to recipients of the LL.B. degree of the Harvard Law School.”

43 Axa November 18, 2016 at 6:42 am

Haha, you made me look through the business cards from German collaborators. One says “Dipl.-Ing (FH), M.Sc., Ph.D.”. The second one says “Dr.Ing.” The last one just says “Dr.”. Just for laughs, the guy that uses only “Dr.” in his business card is the boss of the “Dipl.-Ing (FH), M.Sc., Ph.D.”.

If you spent a minute reading the list of Dr. titles in Germany, you can see how easily you can make a mistake.

Dr. phil the literal translation of Ph.D. is an specific title, it’s not a generic title as used in the US. The WSJ article could have been more sympathetic if it stated clearly, “it’s another country, they do things differently over there”. The information is very useful but the condescending tone is unnecessary. Generally, this is tabloid article template for anything related to Japan.

44 yo November 18, 2016 at 2:59 pm

The one guy with the PhD went to the FH. No surprise here, and he’s not a Dr. either (though I think they changed the law, so he could also apply to have his ID changed and list him as “Dr.”)!
In addition, the other guy is a “Dr. Ing.” Now, in Germany, there are regular Dr., and there are those demigods…

45 Alex from Germany November 18, 2016 at 7:10 am

I can’t seem to disconnect the obsession of titles with an illiberal mindset. From a historical standpoint the “en-titlements” in Germany and Austria can be seen as a replacement for privileges once granted through class-society after the latter was abolished. Heirs of the middle-class now had to either compete in the free market (which in many cases they’d lost the ability to over generations) or go to Acadamia. German fraternities in its earliest days after Napoleon were split between enthusiastic liberalism and disenfranchised middle-class. Of course, “middle class” here means a “class”-class and “disenfranchised” means de-privileged. The angry ones finally took over the fraternities, making them the hotbed for the 19/20th-century, naturalist anti-semitism and illiberalism.

Thats why I can’t disconnect Austrian-felt immunity for WW2-/holocaust related guilt with the even higher obsession of titles in Austria. Every teacher there has a title which he proudly prints on his bell name plate (“Magister” wich he automatically gets with graduation). I remember meetings in Austria were it was common to be addressed solely with “Herr ” and the wife being “Frau ” up and down the complete ranks of the attendees.

46 Alex from Germany November 18, 2016 at 7:12 am

Lost in Encoding: “Herr TITLE” and the wife being “Frau TITLE”

47 komponisto November 18, 2016 at 7:35 am

For a rather contrasting case, see Italy, where an undergraduate degree entitles one to be called “doctor”.

48 Bill November 18, 2016 at 8:22 am

In America,

This is known as

A Disease of Congressional Republicans

Known as

Clinton Investigitis

49 derek November 18, 2016 at 9:07 am

You mean that you will make up another phobia to describe this?

Do you promise?

50 Professor Harold Hill November 18, 2016 at 9:10 am

Has The Music Man ever been produced in Germany?

51 jon livesey November 18, 2016 at 2:39 pm

On a trip to Vienna in the eighties, I visited a stationary store to buy some pencils. I was unfamiliar with the grades of pencil leads and asked the assistant which grade corresponded to a #2.

She replied “I don’t know, but I can ask the store manager. Oh, Dr. Dr.?”

52 Zach November 18, 2016 at 5:31 pm

I ran into this when I lived in Germany. I was actually being employed by the government in a position that required a PhD at the time.

The best way to look at it is that a title has both a legal and an academic meaning. The academic meaning is that being a PhD equivalent is part of your job requirement, and they’ll happily accept a foreign doctorate for those purposes. Legally, being a doctor is part of your name, so you need to have an identity card that says “Dr. So and So” unless you want to get in trouble.

If you’ve ever applied for a job in the United Kingdom, you’ve probably been amused by the sheer number of titles that you can choose from. It’s a different version of the same thing. I imagine that calling yourself Viscount Cowen in legal documents would get you in trouble sooner or later.

53 Andreas Moser November 19, 2016 at 12:06 pm

This pensioner in Austria is collecting PhDs to keep mentally fit: He already has four of them, so please refer to him as “DDDDr. Pichl”.

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