In the aftermath of my two posts on allegations of ethical lapses among a group of paleontologists studying aetosaurs, an email correspondent posed a really excellent question: what’s a junior person to do about the misconduct of senior people in the field when the other senior people seem more inclined to circle the wagons than to do anything about the people who are misbehaving?
That’s the short version. Here’s the longer version from my correspondent:
I am and have been outraged by the blatant corruption in my field for a couple of decades, and one of the “stars” in my field was my first violator. Since then, I’ve experienced and witnessed dozens of similar crimes. I fight it where I can, and I’ve stopped a few incidents, but the academic system allows for no victories, only standoffs. In a field as tiny and ego-driven as paleontology, the bad ones travel in packs. The field veterans are well insulated, and the professional organizations seem to be wholly subsumed by an Old Boys’ Network — allies of the wrongdoers.
I’m angry to hear that some of the people who stole my results are still at it, but at this point, I’m not sure that I can contribute anything of substance to help their more recent victims. My first-hand experiences occurred years ago while I was still a student. I can only offer undocumented reminiscences that are, relatively speaking, ancient history. I worry that they will cloud the main issue, namely, the more recent violations of trust in our field. At best, they’ll be regarded as more “unfounded” accusations from a relative unknown, with the air of sour grapes; at worst, they’ll be regarded as libelous.
Ethics in science is a war I think is worth waging, but even in war, commanders pick their battles. Do you think this is skirmish is one to fight? Can it be won? Does it need to be won to be effective? Can scientists at the bottom of the hierarchy receive redress for the misbehavior of those at the top? Can they stop these scientists from committing further misdeeds?
After years of training and more years’ fruitless search for a research position, I find myself afraid to risk what little I finally have teased from the PhD dream to hold the wrongdoers to account. What would you do?
This is a tough spot to be in. I’m guessing that the first round of crimes my correspondent witnessed (and fell victim to) in this scientific community were so surprising that keeping a paper trail wasn’t even on the radar. (Were it me, I suspect I’d be thinking about whether I even wanted to stay in the field, not collecting evidence against people far more powerful than myself in that scientific community.)
So, the option of directly confronting past bad acts on the basis of testimony without documentation doesn’t seem like a great one. The fact that it would be the word of a junior person against the word of a senior person makes it feel like a suicide mission.
Still, I think it’s a very bad thing if the victims of past misbehavior give up and turn their bitterness against other victims. That’s no kind of way to build a healthy professional community whose members take their shared project of building scientific knowledge seriously.
So what other options are available? Here are the ones that occur to me:
Train your students to protect themselves from similar mistreatment.
Good record-keeping is very useful in science. You want to document your observations, measurements, and analyses — and it also makes sense to document with whom you share specimens, data, manuscripts, student theses, and so on. In circumstances where your field is not a snake-pit, this sort of documentation can be helpful in capturing the development of your ideas and understanding of the particular scientific question you’re tackling, which in turn might be helpful to you later if you hit a mental block and need to get your scientific mojo back.
In circumstances where your field is a snake-pit, the student who is doing this sort of comprehensive record-keeping has a better chance of protecting herself and her intellectual property from the snakes. (I also wonder if the snakes might notice the really thorough record-keepers and be dissuaded from victimizing them.)
Beyond helping your students become habitual documenters, it may also be good to help them suss out which members of your professional community have shown themselves to be trustworthy and which have, through their personal interactions, provided good reason to think they are less reliable. You don’t want your trainees jumping at shadows, but you want to help train them to trust their gut feelings when they get a bad vibe from someone in the community, and to find diplomatic but effective ways to protect themselves.
Demonstrate alternatives to circling the wagons.
In the event that people have brought charges of misconduct against senior people in your scientific community, take a stand in favor of seeing what the evidence shows. Gently remind your colleagues that scientists are professionally committed to following the evidence rather than making their minds up in advance — especially on the basis of position or personality.
Express empathy for those bringing the charges. You can, if necessary, preface this empathy with a disclaimer that you don’t know all the relevant details (which should remind your colleagues that they don’t, either). But a conversation about how, if the allegations are true, this is a truly awful situation for those making the allegations in particular ways X, Y, and Z — that’s a conversation that might get your colleagues thinking beyond the question of who will be the winner of this particular dispute. Indeed, it might get them thinking about the various people in their scientific community as engaged in a common project — as comrades, not just competitors.
Talk with your colleagues (including the senior people) in your professional community about what kind of professional community you all want to create and maintain.
This is huge. Be a consistent voice within your community raising the questions, “Is this the best way to do science in our field?”, “Are these the kinds of interactions on which we want to be judged by folks in other scientific fields?”, and “Is this the kind of professional community we want to be?” Even having people inside the tribe asking these questions out loud is bound to make people in the tribe a bit more reflective. It might make them consider long-term consequences of choices that seem expedient in the short term.
It might even start a real dialogue — one where people express different views, but where they also understand that they will be expected to provide reasons to back up those views. Again, this is an opportunity to harness the scientist’s self-image as a person of reason, not only to consider how bad actors make it harder for the community to do good science, but also to notice that there are different plausible ways that the community could be than its current state.
Notice professional communities that aren’t pathological, and bring back reports to your professional community.
Talking with folks who are still in the tribe of science but who aren’t in your particular field may help suggest ways your own professional community could improve. Being able to bring some of this anecdata to bear in the discussion of what you want your community to be like may help your colleagues believe that change is possible — and making things better could restore your pride in your field.
None of these suggestions will lead to a quick and satisfying take-down of the wrongdoers whose ethical violations did you harm. Each on its own can be expected to have relatively modest effects.
But when enough members or the community are asking the questions about where the community is going, interacting with each other in ways that involve accountability as well as trust, and resisting the reflexive circling of wagons — maybe then a scientific community can change course for the better.
I want to pose the question to my readers, though — especially those of you with experience in such situations: What good options does a junior person have to stand up to the misbehavior of senior people in the field?
Follow-up: I pose the question to senior scientists, if you’re seeing the bad acts, what are you doing about them?
* * * * *