What to do when the boss says, 'Keep your head down.'

One of the interesting developments within the tribe of science is the way that blogs, email lists, and things of that ilk have made public (or at least, more public) conversations within a field that used to happen only in private.

The discussions of Aetogate on the VRTPALEO list are just one notable example, but email lists and blogs also host discussions in the wake of retractions of journal papers, investigations of allegations of scientific misconduct, and other sorts of professional shenanigans. While some of the people in these conversations cloak their identities in pseudonyms, others use their real names.

How identifiable one is while participating in these discussions becomes an issue sometimes because there is pushback. We saw some examples of pushback in Aetogate. In one case, an "independent" member of an inquiry panel characterized the people who had raised the concerns which the inquiry was supposed to investigate as "mainly young, un- or under-employed workers (including both Park and Martz)" with an axe to grind. In another, a scientist posted to the VRTPALEO list (under his own name) to do some heavy-duty victim blaming, as well as to put some fear into the young upstarts raising a ruckus:

Will these actions result in outrage in the paleontological community, ruination of careers, civil proceedings, etc.? I hope not.

You better hope that the harm done doesn't also include your own career.

Graduate student(s), do you honestly think that raising a lot of hell when you are looking for employment is really going to help your career? You must not work in the same niche of academia that I inhabit.

Some advisors, as you might well imagine, are concerned when their trainees get involved in highly visible discussions of controversial conduct. One of my correspondents received a cautionary email along these lines:

I noticed your latest post to the email list about the current controversy. I just hope you are keeping your efforts focused on your dissertation.

As a grad student I think its a real mistake to get involved in stuff like this, especially to go on the record in such a public forum. You never know who your next boss might be or how they feel about this mess. And it's really none of your business to begin with.

My correspondent notes that the advisor, in face-to-face conversations (within the research group and beyond it) expressed the same view as my correspondent about the controversy in question. The concern, in other words, was not that the graduate student was wrong in the postings -- claims were substantiated, reasoning was clear. Rather, as my correspondent put it, "It won't matter what anyone said, or how they said it... THAT they said something at all is the problem!"

Grumblings from the old guard in my correspondent's field suggest that they share this advisor's view -- on topics connected to how scientists in the field conduct themselves, the greybeards believe graduate students should be neither seen nor heard.

Is "Keep your head down!" good advice? Will following it lead to good outcomes for not just the individual grad student but also his or her scientific community?

Getting your dissertation written is a good thing, and appealing opportunities to do something else (of which there are many) may look all the more appealing on account of what a daunting project a thesis can be. The advice not to lose focus on the dissertation is on its face good advice.

There's also something sensible about the advice to exercise care when participating in a public discussion of a controversy within your discipline -- especially when it's conducted online (and people can call up your words later). Really thinking through your conclusions of questions (as well as checking that you've communicated them clearly) before you hit "send" is a good idea, not least because you're doing it in a forum that includes other members of the professional community you'd like to join as a grown-up scientist. Putting sloppy thinking on display can make a lasting impression, as can name-calling.

But that's not what my correspondent was being cautioned to avoid.

The worry seems to be something like this: Your advisor thinks that your contributions to the discussion are right on, but doesn't think it's safe for you to voice them outside the protective bubble of your current research group. After you leave that research group you'll have a new boss, and you don't know in advance how he or she feels about the controversy under discussion, or how he or she would take your contribution to it. Being on the record for either side here is dangerous for you, especially since you're not part of the allegations and it's therefore none of your business.

There's a certain practical wisdom to this advice -- words you don't say can't be used against you. But I have an issue with the claim that controversies about what's involved in good scientific methodology or in ethical conduct are "none of your business" if you are not making a charge or the person against whom a charge is made.

Fundamentally, matters of what counts as good scientific methodology and what counts as ethical behavior in scientific practice are questions about the norms recognized by the scientific community. That means these questions are the business of all the members of the scientific community, including the junior members of the community who are trying to find their footing as grown-up scientists. Today's junior scientists are tomorrow's senior scientists, after all. If they're supposed to butt out of things until they are actually senior scientists, how will they get any practice at dealing with disputes within their tribe? And how will the community they have joined reflect their values as well as the values of the greybeards?

A concerned advisor might argue that a vulnerable graduate student's training in discussing controversies within the tribe ought to happen within the relative safety of the research group. In this case, though, it strikes me that the advisor has an obligation to invite these discussions and participate in them himself or herself, as part of the regular business of the research group. Otherwise, it can seem an awful lot like the advisor deems such matters unworthy of discussion. A trainee who disagrees is likely to find other venues to discuss these matters, venues in which the advisor is less likely to be involved and able to assist the trainee.

As well, if an advisor is trying to protect a trainee from harm in these discussions within the tribe, I think the advisor may have a responsibility to get involved in those discussions. Especially around cases like Aetogate, where the central charge was that plagiarism and claim-jumping was being committed against junior people in the field by senior people in the field, senior people who do not speak up to protect the interests of junior people cannot expect that junior people in the field will not raise their voices to protect their own interests. The silence of senior people in such cases also speaks to junior people: it says "We don't care." Sympathizing in the privacy of a research group does very little to address conduct that causes harm to members of the scientific community.

If the grown-ups in a scientific community don't take it upon themselves to police the bad actors and to develop standards that help the whole community work together to build a reliable body of knowledge and a group of responsible practitioners, who on earth will?

Now, maybe an advisor will decide to stay out of public discussions of the tribe's controversies because the advisor views his or her own participation in these discussions to be professionally risky. In some cases, this judgment may be accurate. But shouldn't there come a point where, as a member of a scientific community, you understand that this membership comes with a responsibility for how this community operates? Part of that responsibility surely includes standing against bad behavior and standing with the members of the community who are harmed by it.

If everyone keeps his or her head down, nothing happens to stop behavior that hurts the body of knowledge and the members of the scientific community trying to build that knowledge. There is a price for your silence. I'm inclined to think this means that your obligation to protect your trainee from the dangers of your scientific community as it is now comes with another obligation, to work with your trainee to bring the community closer to where it should be, and to help your trainee become a successful grown-up scientist within it.

Or to say it more concisely, while you tell your trainees to keep their heads down, you need to raise yours.

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Is "Keep your head down!" good advice? Will following it lead to good outcomes for not just the individual grad student but also his or her scientific community?

Somehow this sounds to me like an appeal for zero-cost principles. It would be a very nice Universe if Doing the Right Thing could always come without personal sacrifice, but that's not the one we live in.

Part of our responsibility as elders is also to teach those who follow us that sometimes it's your turn to stand in front of the tanks. It's not fair, it's not right -- but the alternative is the Niemoller spiral.

Of course, as you hint, the best way to teach that lesson is to be first in line when the tanks come into the square.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

Hm. Maybe it's coming from a different perspective (working for a decade between undergraduate and graduate school), but really the thought that someone might come back and sabotage my potential academic career when they're clearly in the wrong doesn't strike me as a terrible bogeyman to avoid.

I'm getting advanced degrees because I like academia and would enjoy being a researcher, but I'm also getting an advanced degree as an overall career enhancer. If I get into a rip-roaring debate with an established member of my field on a public mailing list and I find out later on that (s)he has a closet supporter at some institution at which I'm working to establish tenure, I'll deal with that problem when it happens.

Of course, PhD's in IS have a bit more leeway in the way of options than someone with a PhD in Physics, for example. We've got industry options that they might not have... so I can't claim that I'm operating on clear principle.

For me, the most distressing aspect of Aetogate was not the plagiarism itself, but the deafening silence from far too many of the senior people in the field. (Not all: there were a few shining exceptions.)

Worst of all was the SVP Ethics Committee's craven "conclusion" that "Faced with conflicting testimonies, the Ethics Education Committee was not able to resolve these allegations in favor of either side" -- something that no-one who's paid the slightest attention to the actual evidence will find it easy to believe.

Those with the stomach for it can read a more complete response to the Ethics Committee's conclusions over on Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, at http://svpow.wordpress.com/2008/07/10/off-topic-were-going-to-need-a-bi…


From everything I've read on the subject, physics Ph.D.'s tend to do very well in industry. Presumably they often go on to do rather different things from their study subjects, but I suppose a variety of industries have found value in the basic maethematics and problem solving training any physicist receives.

By Jason Dick (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

Maybe I'm naive, but a community where "keep your head down" is the most supportive defense of those who comment on dishonest and bad people in one's field doesn't seem to be one in which anyone sane would actually want to work. It seems to guarantee that the unscrupulous and dishonest will rule your field, and eventually will determine its reputation - kind of like major league baseball players with their silence on steroids, or "Stop Snitching" for people in bad neighborhoods. Driving out the people who are honest and willing to challenge evil leaves a field with those who are either timid or evil, not a good harbinger for future results.

I don't think this impedes the initial decision of people to pursue science, but considering those who have had their careers destroyed fro attempting to challenge the wrongs of others, it may impede the advancement of lots of people later on. It wastes lots of resources (that we may eventually not have) to train people who will never use their training, and uses it to train and benefit those who do wrong.

Finally, while it's easy to expect others to do the heavy lifting, tenured professors have much greater capacities to change this behavior with lower costs than most others. if the behavior had been criticized earlier by them, blogs and other sources would not have been necessary to attempt to bring the behavior to light and prosecute it (for example, the Sames retractions in chemistry, which birthed ChemBark). In addition, professors have a wider variety of closed-channel communications to attempt to deal with questionable and dishonest results, the costs to their careers if their positions become public are lower than for grad students, postdocs, or untenured professors, and the likely positive effects of their actions are greater.

The SEAL books (fiction) that I've read cite various rules of being a commander, one of the most important of which is to lead from the front ("I won't make you do anything I haven't done first", roughly). How exactly does the above behavior fit into a reasonable definition of leadership?

Finally, the lack of oversight in education (at least in my experience) makes it more problematic to challenge any sort of problems - since your advisor has roughly absolute control over your education, it's much easier to supress dissent and to prevent people from doing anything when one's advisor (or others) are committing evil. It seems like apprenticeship, but without many of the responsibilities that might have been associated with it.

By Robert Bird (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

For what it's worth, I am an example of someone who has refused to keep her head down, over and over again, to the point of a strained relationship with faculty when I was a grad student, and I still got a great job. I did it all with the expectation that I would end up jobless but that I couldn't just sit and watch it happen. In some ways I feel "lucky" that it all worked out, in other ways I think it's exactly because I let go of worrying about it and focused on what was important -- which sometimes meant working 50-hour weeks on union organizing, and very little on my dissertation -- that I ended up where I did.

I think it just depends on what is going on in your university and your department, and how comfortable you are with being complicit with whatever bad stuff is happening around you. I happened to be in a place with many very very bad things, and I couldn't be complicit in them by keeping my head down. Of course, now I can't really keep my head down about anything at all... but I do think I have learned over time how to do it more diplomatically.

The people who have tried to advise me to keep quiet receive the same scornful silence as the people who tried to tell me what to eat while I was pregnant, how to parent my kid, that a breastfeeding woman should not train for a marathon, that my research questions are not testable. I take what I can from advice, but there is little constructive criticism in those comments, so I largely just move on.

The "keep your head down" thing is bullshit, because those giving that advice, as you say, far too often do not compensate. I think it's wonderful that the interwebs have given everybody a voice in Aeteogate. You can't get away with stuff anymore--given voice to the younger generation should keep the older generation honest. Aetogate was a complete clusterfuck IMO. The ethics committee clearly lacks ossified vertebrae and didn't want to piss off the wrong people.

The whole shebang, as well as the general attitude in academia toward grad students, has made me seriously reconsider getting into paleontology.

You are quite right to report the appalling quotes that advise the whistle-blowers not to make waves. But none of it matters because although it reveals this local branch of science culture is completely broken, itâs been clear for years that it was far more broken than even this fiasco shows.

Warning that just trying to fix a supposed problem of attribution might risk outrage, ruination of careers, or civil proceedings, doesnât really compare to the entirely separate episode of criminal misconduct elsewhere, potentially punishable by a fairly long spell in clink, that many suspect was allowed to continue without investigation. Never mind the immorality - itâs the blatant stupidity blind to the worse damage caused by not trying to fix things, that show the âdonât make wavesâ brigade shouldnât be in charge. (Donât worry though, itâs not just a palaeo thing!)

Any organisation or system with as high a percentage of dodgy components as we suspect here, will not function. But besides institutionalised resistance to fixing problems, the science wouldnât get much right if every participant was the patron saint of administration. The other day I was told that science isnât about trying to pick holes in currently existing theories. Also, that theories are pretty well automatically defined by the data. Whatâs frightening is that the way things are, the person voicing these views could go into palaeontology, get a PhD, and become a professor without such views ever being considered unusual.

Aetogate is checking for valid tickets in a runaway-train-wreck. And don't expect the whistle-blowers and their sympathisers in this case to listen to anyone else's whistle.

[I look forward to following this blog. It does seem though that the web page never seems to finish downloading, making it hard to save.]

By John Jackson (not verified) on 20 May 2009 #permalink