Not Letting the Bad Guys Win

An editorial in Nature this week highlighted the widespread failure of academic institutions to deal with reports of wrongdoing and its consequences, published alongside an extensive set of articles about the problems associated with poor mental health in research labs in our universities. The journal wants to see structures put in place, akin to those in many industrial labs, which permit anonymous reporting of bad behaviour; and also recognition that having a single point of failure at the top of a hierarchy of graduate students and postdocs, in the form of the PI who holds the purse-strings as well as acts as the arbiter of letters of reference and future career prospects, is not healthy.

Whistle-blowing, anonymous or not, comes with its own cost. As Mark Geoghegan highlights in a different article in this week’s Times Higher Education, discussing his own experiences and those of others who have taken that route, it can lead to the whistle-blower being impacted far more than the perpetrator. Geoghegan discusses being gaslit for three years by senior colleagues, whom he discovered could not be trusted to do the right thing. It is a difficult decision to make to decide to call out someone’s behaviour (publicly or privately), but not to do so comes with its own cost.  It can be corrosive to watch something going horribly wrong but to feel unable to act.

Everyone has to make their own decisions about whether to speak up or not; whether to call in other colleagues to try to generate an unstoppable momentum (think Harvey Weinstein) or to look the other way. I once was asked essentially to give ‘permission’ to a younger woman not to report some vile misogynist emails from a senior professor – so she had written evidence to hand – because she couldn’t face the fallout of making a complaint. I think anyone is entitled to make their own decision, whichever way that falls. In her case she was the only victim of the particular email chain, although others may have received comparable versions at different times: the danger of not reporting is that the perpetrator goes on to offend multiple times, each individual being unaware of the other occasions.

In that instance, the evidence was concrete, black and white in an email chain, but that is far from always the case. Where the behaviour is verbal (or, even worse, physical) the action may be transient, whilst the consequences are far from it. In my book, Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science, I discuss actions each of us can take to improve the work place for women and other minorities. Undoubtedly everyone stepping up to the mark when they observe name-calling, bullying, inappropriate touching or subtle discrimination favouring majority status, can only improve the situation. If you are not the victim, say, of having your name moved down the author list to reduce the credit accorded you, then it is so much easier to speak up. Have you ever asked your supervisor why a fellow student or postdoc isn’t in first author position when they deserve it? Have you ever challenged a colleague over excessive criticism or sarcasm directed at one poor individual in the tea-room or group meetings? And if not, and you’ve seen that or comparable behaviour, why not?

Such confrontations never get easier, in my view, however senior one is. It is uncomfortable to call out a colleague, but how much more uncomfortable for the victim. The last time I called out someone’s behaviour, admittedly in writing after the event, I got a fulsome grovel back, perhaps to my surprise (the time before involving a different individual, I’d been met with stony silence). Whether the guilty party actually has changed their behaviour on the back of that I cannot tell, as I rarely see them, but at least I felt I had not ignored the incident.

Whistle-blowing is of course a very different matter from calling out someone, privately or publicly, about a specific event. Whistle-blowing is much more likely to be the result of ongoing and long-lasting misbehaviour or malpractice. The stakes for both sides are therefore correspondingly higher. Which is why it can be so painful for the whistle-blower when the evidence they have accrued is somehow dismissed. In Geoghegan’s article, he tells a story of a whistle-blowing event which led to an investigation headed up by the very individual identified as being at fault. This seems incredible but it would seem, with no regulatory requirements on how investigations are carried out, this is permissible. In that particular article, all the allegedly guilty parties were senior managers. In the case of bullying, my personal observations would suggest they are often senior research academics who bring in too much money for an institution willingly to apply sanctions. With bullying hard to define, it is too easy to look the other way and say this person just had high standards.

Yet it is always the same small group of names that get discussed in the context of bullying, certainly that is so in my own institution, so there is plenty of anecdotal information even if no formal complaints are ever laid or explicit evidence put on the table. It is a frequent worry here, amongst graduate tutors for instance, who see – within their College – the price some students pay in their wellbeing for bad behaviour on the part of a research supervisor. I am not convinced anonymous reporting (anonymous on the part of the reporter, the alleged perpetrator or both is not made clear in the Nature editorial) is the solution to this problem. What we need is a willingness for sanctions to be applied when persistent rumour and evidence of distressed students is manifest, so that the next generation of students are spared the emotional turmoil of ill-treatment. Collectively, academia ought, indeed must, be capable of cleaning up its act.


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