But what about the collaborations? Going forward after an allegation of sexual misconduct

Today’s post is a follow-up to a recent post by Dr. Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, a Biological Anthropologist at the University of Cape Town. You can read the original post by Dr. Ackermann, detailing her personal experience with harassment in anthropology, here

Since the recent news story broke about sexual misconduct in my discipline, I have been in many conversations with colleagues and students about both this specific case and the issue of sexual misconduct and gender bias more generally.  In one extended email exchange with my colleagues – some of whom are collaborators with the recently accused – we were discussing the best way to move forward with collaborations with someone who has a demonstrated history of sexual misconduct. All agreed that they would not begin new collaborations with such a person.   But the question of what to do with current collaborations – ones where the work is in progress, or the research is completed but remains to be disseminated – raised a diversity of opinions. The primary concern raised by some was a need to keep the science separate from the behaviour, and resist the slippery slope that might result from mixing the two (e.g. do you take action for more minor transgressions or disagreements, or for other misdemeanours?). In this light, one possible route forward has been outlined in a recent blog post by Bernard Wood. Our conversation, and that blog post, resulted in me writing the email that I have copied below.  I have left it in its original form, only making minor edits for clarification and to protect people’s identities. I hope this helps to stimulate further discussion going forward (see also this post by anthropologist Katie Hinde).  This isn’t a settled matter, and we all need to keep talking about it.

18 February 2016

Dear Friends,

I know that this has been a long thread, and we are all tired (and sad), but I just want to weigh in one last time here after reflecting on all of the responses.  I have learned a lot through this discussion and it has really helped me clarify my thinking.  None of us want to be told we are being unethical, me included, and I don’t think that is the case at all for our choices being contemplated here, though of course our decisions in many respects are inherently ethical and political ones.  Let me try to explain…

I think the take-home message for me here is that each individual person’s solution depends on how they view and value the various aspects of science.  On the one hand is the ‘internalist’ perspective that places higher value on the scientific process and content.  In this view scientific papers are “reports of scientific activity”, period.  On the other hand is the ‘externalist’ perspective that places higher value on science as an ‘institution’ and the place and meaning of that ‘institution’ in society.  In this view scientific papers are products of human activity and therefore suffused with “ethics and politics” and cannot be otherwise (in design, process, development, production, publication, participation, etc.).

From an externalist perspective, papers are also artefacts of an academic culture, and ones that are highly valued within that culture, making them a medium for accumulation of power and influence within the culture, and *exclusive of their content* convey this power.  Hence high-status and high-volume paper producers are valued within the culture as individuals.  It is all but impossible for members of the culture to compartmentalise the reasons an individual might have high status – the status accumulating from one kind of activity (e.g., publications) accrues to the person as a whole.

The preference for one perspective over the other (internalist over externalist) is, for those unable to see both, a particular bias and subjective lens through which science is viewed, decisions are judged, opinions formed, etc. For those able to see both perspectives (and I am willing to guess that is most if not all of us), which is preferred is a value choice and inherently an “ethical and political” one.  The internalist perspective is one that aligns with Western, male and traditional (conservative) interests (as Science does), reinforcing the status quo and its power relations.  The duty to the science is perceived as higher than the duty to the discipline or broader culture in which we act and live.  I understand what some of you are saying, and I can see that perspective.  I really can see it.  I was raised in a scientific tradition that values that perspective.  But I can no longer draw a boundary between my duty as a scientist and as a human being (mentor, colleague, parent, whatever) given that my whole being informs, well, everything I do.   This is particularly so because as a woman, and as a scientist navigating the South African culture of redress and transformation, I have internalised the need to practice science in a manner that encourages cultural change, and have come to realise that reports of scientific activity are not without consequences.  This is not infusing politics into science, it is acknowledging that science is a political, that is, human, process.

So from an externalist perspective, the entire scientific collaboration with the person that we are discussing here – including the papers produced by it (the primary and most visible output) – is a product of the humans (in all their glory) that engaged in it.  Moreover, because our entire discipline is rife with gender bias and discrimination, his behaviour must be considered as an extreme manifestation of the gender bias and discrimination that is pervasive across academia, and that allowed his behaviour to exist and persist, rather than merely the isolated behaviour of a single person (though it is that as well).  His research must have benefitted from his behaviour because that behaviour reinforced his position of power and therefore contributed to all the benefits that resulted from that power. There are a whole lot of peer-reviewed studies out there that provide empirical evidence for what happens to individuals within a system that is biased and discriminatory.  They indicate that gender bias significantly affects hiring, promotion, citation counts, student evaluations, awarded prizes, article acceptance, evaluations of “productivity”, “quality”, and “excellence”, among other indicators of academic performance.  For women, this effect is overwhelmingly a negative one.  For men, it is generally positive.  I am not an expert on sexual misconduct and gender bias in our field.  I speak mostly from experience.  But others are (e.g. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0102172), and what they say on this topic is not merely a matter of opinion but the result of many years of thoughtful consideration and research.  We should listen hard to people like them.

And no, I don’t see this as a slippery slope at all, as his behaviour occurred within a professional context with people who were his subordinates (making it quite distinct from, for example, an extramarital affair with someone outside of the discipline, or with a peer).  He used the power accrued in his professional context to his advantage in a professional context.  Let me put a personal slant on how such behaviour can affect science.  My PhD was on australopiths.  I never published anything from my PhD.  Why?  Because in the first couple of years after finishing my PhD I realised that I really needed to gather a bit more data, and I simply didn’t want to go back to one particular institution and be near the individual who harassed (and kissed) me.  A colleague and I did a growing-up-baby-fossil analysis, presented it at AAPA, and submitted a paper on it to JHE. But I knew I really needed to collect more landmarks to do it well, and I didn’t want to go do it. When another colleague approached me to find out if I was okay with him (and his collaborators) essentially taking our idea and running with it, I said okay.  I let it go.  Only recently have I started working directly with fossils again.  This changed my entire career path.  It changed my outputs, the outputs of others in the field, and the direction of the science. It excluded my voice, limited the diversity and plurality of voices in this area of research, promoted the voices of others, and distorted the acquisition of scientific knowledge. It also prevented my accruing early benefits from my years of work on the PhD, which would have helped lead to other academic status benefits and publications, compounded over a career (much as early financial investment compounds over a lifetime).

Another example.  A colleague of ours went to the field to work on early Homo.  She was aggressively touched and harassed by a well-known palaeoanthropologist.  As a result – and despite working under a mentor who specialised in this area – she moved to a different topic entirely.  Again, excluding her voice, limiting the diversity and plurality of voices in this area of research, promoting the voices of others, and distorting the acquisition of scientific knowledge.  An obvious (and less personal) example of this is the behaviours of Watson and Crick.  For all these examples, those who remain in that area of research also benefit from ‘clearing the field’ and having fewer competitors.

So I guess what I am saying, in sum, is that everything about us academically … our success, our collaborations, our recognition, and, yes, our papers … is a reflection of us as whole people within the broader academy, not just as scientists narrowly defined.  I cannot separate The Scientist from The Sexual Predator, especially when those predatorial behaviours occurred in a professional context where he was the responsible party.  There is only The Academic. This is how I see it.  Others will as well.  In publishing with him we give him more status in our field as The Academic, the person.

I am so happy we are having this conversation, and sharing our thoughts and opinions.  My sense from talking to many young people is that they are as conflicted on how to go forward as we are.  I do not agree that ‘punishment’ should be the sole responsibility of institutions; rather social sanctions, reinforcement and redefinition of social norms and responsibilities, and other informal ‘punishment’ is as important among the communities and cultures of science as they are in any human endeavour.  We have a responsibility to navigate this difficult but important moral space.  That is why it is important for us to explain our positions – whatever they are – in the most public way possible.  I think the acknowledgement section is the right place.  Others may disagree.  I for one would welcome it if all of you came to AAPAs to participate in the Saturday discussion on these issues.  I think having a breadth of opinions from senior people will give considerable relief to the junior researchers who value these different perspectives differently, just as we do, and also have a breadth of opinions… just like we do.

I wish I could say “time to go back to my science” or my “day job” now, but since I no longer believe my science is separate, or that separating them will ever be possible for me, I will just say bye, and thanks.


4 thoughts on “But what about the collaborations? Going forward after an allegation of sexual misconduct

  1. As one of the students of the accused, which means one of a group of junior researchers working hard to get a job, or to get tenure, or to build my CV for whatever reason, I find the conversations taking place frustrating and somewhat myopic. They seem to assume that everyone involved is senior (eg, see Hinde’s recent post that was referenced above). This is far from the case. As we (the discipline) slowly rolled toward publication of the article we all knew was coming, I heard endless comforting statements from senior researchers amounting to “we have to protect the junior researchers caught up in this.” But that has not happened. Instead our personal opinions are being hijacked by people with loud internet voices, and in the most egregious cases, we are being accused and punished, in many instances by tenured people who have far more security than we do. I find this not only frustrating but angering. In regard to some publications we are bound by the rules set forth by NSF to retain an intact author list. In all cases, we are less than five years out of school, and working hard to find a footing. We have already lost an adviser. Are you now suggesting we lose all of the unpublished work associated with him? Or perhaps we should make a six person stand against the NSF? Neither options is palatable. Do they seem otherwise to you?

    • Dear Erin,

      Although I have generally refrained from commenting on these pieces your reply is distressing. I for one did not say anything in this post about what authors should and shouldn’t do with regards to authorship. I am simply providing a framework for thinking about how and why opinions on this matter might differ. However, since it has evidently been inferred (here and otherwise) that I did make an authorship statement, I will state (as I already have on FB) that I do not believe that anyone should remove themselves from a paper they contributed to if someone else on the paper is a sexual predator. That would only harm them, as others have said. I do think that if the behaviour occurred in a professional context during the time period when the predator was conducting the research (and was funded to conduct this research by a national body like NSF) that there is a real argument to be made that the individual should remove him/herself from all papers arising from that work/funding. I don’t think that will happen easily, however, unless NSF makes a stand. In the absence of that, my feeling is that efforts should be made on the part of the lead author (or another senior author if the lead author is the predator) to include an ethical statement in the acknowledgement section. I wouldn’t want to dictate the form of that statement, but we do include other ethical statements in papers and could do it in this context. People without that power, such as yourself and other junior researchers, cannot insist on such a statement, so it is the responsibility of the more powerful to take a stand. However, remember that this is *my* opinion given *my* worldview; I am aware that it is not the opinion of everyone, and that different choices might be made.

      I also feel very strongly that we should be protecting the young authors by helping in any way possible. Part of that is listening to them, part of that is going to bat for them when necessary. But we also need to realise that there are many collaborators and colleagues, young and old, who have very different opinions about what to do. Moreover, individuals can move between perspectives, and research teams can be made up of people with different perspectives. Personally I believe that however we choose to navigate this complex ethical space we need to clearly articulate why we do so, with full acknowledgement of the diversity of voices and opinions. The last thing I want to do – anyone wants to do – is to be proscriptive. My goal here and elsewhere is to open up the conversation rather than slam doors. Ideally such conversations will make our Science a better, healthier place for everyone, without compromising the products of our work in any way.

      I am sorry this has hurt you. I do not think it will harm your career in any way, but if you ever feel like it does, please make an effort to reach out to someone you trust so that they can step in to support you. I am always happy to play that role.

      Regards, Becky

  2. Yet another argument over the works of Dr Mengele. Seriously, it is, although the primary SOB is a different person.
    The remainder is a rationalization over accepting the objectionable works or not.
    I move for repeating the research again, without potential taint.
    If the originating researcher was so vacant for morality, is the research also equally vacant of morality and additionally, should we reward such a morally vacant person?
    To support is invites a new Mengele. Even typing his name repeatedly, even once makes me feel dirty.

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