Editor's Note: This piece was first published in the fall of 2018. It's newly relevant in 2020 thanks to an essay in the Wall Street Journal chiding Jill Biden for using the honorific "Dr." when she has an Ed.D. not an M.D. The author rightly notes that Scientific American doesn't use the honorific "Dr." when citing or quoting Ph.D.s. or people with other kinds of doctoral degrees. However, we don't use it for M.D.s either—except when republishing articles as part of a partner content agreement with other outlets who have different policies
Last month, National Public Radio’s current ombudsman/public editor, Elizabeth Jensen, explained why the news organization does not confer “Doctor” on PhDs; it reserves the title for “individuals who hold a doctor of dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine or veterinary medicine.” This news organization's reason for the distinction is “that for most listeners, a ‘Dr.’ practices medicine.” As it turns out, this practice is followed by many journalistic outlets, including Scientific American, because it is the standard laid out by The Associated Press Stylebook. The New York Times is one of few news outlets that does not abide by this guidance.
For those unfamiliar with the Stylebook, it's “an English grammar style and usage guide created by American journalists working for or connected with the Associated Press over the last century to standardize mass communications.” It serves as a guide and resource to journalists; news organizations who follow its recommendations are doing so by choice.
As a trained scientist with a PhD in epidemiology, I was extremely disheartened and disappointed to learn that news organizations follow such a simplistic, flawed and misguided recommendation, particularly as national sentiment suggests that experts are increasingly unnecessary. Following AP style on this matter comes into direct conflict with some organizations’ own missions. For example, NPR’s mission “is to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture within the United States and across the globe.” By abiding by the AP rule, news organizations are failing to create a more informed public. Further, they stand to create potential harm to the scientific method and to the individuals who dedicate their lives to acquiring expertise and advancing science and policy.
One particular sticking point of the NPR article must be immediately corrected: no news organization can “confer” any title on any individual. These are academic credentials that are granted by accredited institutions of higher learning. More importantly, these are not honorifics or simple job descriptions; “Dr.” is a title that is earned only upon demonstration of a deep independent understanding of a specific narrow topic. In the sciences, this generally means that practitioners have to collect primary data, perform extensive statistical analyses, pass oral and written qualifying exams, publish research in peer reviewed journals, make presentations at conferences, defend a written dissertation, and more.
By refusing to use the titles scientists have earned, news outlets contribute to the delegitimization of expertise. Some argue that using the term “Doctor” to describe an individual's credentials is elitist. This is incorrect. Having a PhD or other terminal degree does not make one elitist; elitism is a behavior, based on how an expert acts or shares knowledge. (The general charge of elitism may come from people who feel insecure about their lack of expertise.) Besides, if someone with a PhD is elitist for using the term, why isn’t someone with an MD equally so?
The academic credential is particularly important in the case of women in science, as many face extra obstacles to success that most men don’t have to contend with. This year’s Nobel Prizes, for example, were awarded to two outstanding women in science: Dr. Donna Strickland, the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel Prize in Physics and only the third woman in history to do so and Dr. Frances H. Arnold, a chemist who faced enormous personal obstacles to win science’s most prestigious award.
Their accomplishments were earned through both academic rigor and the courage to assert themselves in environments that have few female role models and are often rife with gender discrimination that hamper upward mobility. The term “Doctor” is a reminder to the world of how accomplished they are.
But this isn’t just a feminist issue. It’s an issue of recognizing achievement and knowledge. If news organizations strive to be leaders in creating a more informed public, it is incumbent upon them to lead by example. Though our titles are not why we continue to pursue scientific discovery, it is only appropriate to recognize us for the experts we are. We have doctorates of philosophy. Please call us “Doctor.”