/ 16 May 2022

Academic bullying in the sciences, an international perspective

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Bullying is a big problem in academia and often the overall culture both encourages and rewards it, with those who are traditionally underrepresented in institutions and departments most likely to be on the receiving end.

The Academic Parity Movement (APM) campaigns for the rights of higher education institutional stakeholders such as students, staff and faculty and maintains that all stakeholder groups, regardless of their academic pursuit, should be treated with fairness and respect.

APM encourages traumatised stakeholder communities (both targets of bullying and those who have witnessed bullying) and their supportive colleagues to gather strength in unity, build resources and agitate against bullying and harassment.

A recent APM conference raised pertinent questions and proffered solutions to curb the current state of bullying and harassment across STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines and address some of the systemic challenges.

From mobbing of Einstein to abusive supervision

Dr Morteza Mahmoudi from Michigan State University in the United States, who is co-founder of the APM, introduced and contextualised the landscape of academic bullying in the sciences, citing Albert Einstein’s experience of being a target of academic bullying and mobbing (group bullying) when 100 authors wrote against his theories in a book published in 1931.

Mobbing culture in academia is prevalent today in various forms. To reverse the negative influences on targets of bullying and to address any institutional protection of bullies, the targets of bullying need to feel more empowered.

The parity movement team includes various scientific experts. They put the focus on increasing awareness of academic bullying and providing advice to bullying targets. The long-term goal is to develop discipline-specific guidelines and make all members of the community allies in the campaign against bullying.

The conference was aimed at hearing insights from important stakeholders including journal editors and research funding agencies.

Dr Sherry Moss from Wake Forest University in the US presented key findings from a global web-based survey research project on “abusive supervision AKA bullying”. Those who completed the survey were people who had been targets of bullying and people who had witnessed bullying. Most bullying occurred in the highest ranked institutions.

Tackling bullying cultures

Dr Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health – the largest funder in the US – shared the extraordinary journey he and his team have made over the past few years in their efforts to enforce compliance with anti-harassment policies.

Dr Susanne Täuber from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands reported on two surveys – one a quantitative study by unions and the second a qualitative study by a network of women professors.

The union report found that discrimination, intimidation, power abuse and exclusion were widespread.

The report on women professors identified “six manifestations of harassment”: scientific sabotage, sexual harassment, physical and verbal threats, denigration, exclusion and not providing accommodation for “special needs”. Scientific sabotage included research projects being destroyed financially.

Linda Crockett, founder and director of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying, highlighted the long-term effects of bullying and presented a solutions-based perspective.

She advised that it was important for institutions and organisations to provide stakeholders with resources and qualified specialists and to train trainers along with university staff and human resources professionals.

Also vital was the provision of opportunities to share stories and build confidence. Another recommendation was that a review panel be established with broad representation including legal, human resources and trauma specialists and practitioners to review policies and procedures.

What journals can do

In a panel of journal editors, Dr Charlotte Payne, senior editor of Nature Human Behaviour; Dr Jonathan Sweedler, editor-in-chief of Analytical Chemistry; Dr Thomas Holme, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Chemical Education and Dr Arianna Colosio, deputy editor of eClinical Medicine, shared their viewpoints and experiences on authorship conflicts/credits and the manifestation of bullying in academic publishing.

Dr Mahmoudi had three questions for the panellists:

• What is your reaction when you receive papers on academic harassment-related topics in the sciences?

• What actions are taken when there is disagreement about the authorship or exclusion of author/s?

• What response do you give when reviewers’ language is not civil or constructive or is offensive to the author?

The panellists outlined how journals could counter bullying by publishing “robust scientific studies that further understand the implications and effects of bullying and harassment and the conditions that foster or prevent such behaviour, including at an institutional level”.

Other suggestions concerned journals’ handling of the peer-review process (the need to strengthen this to prevent bullies taking advantage of any power imbalance and the need to scrutinise offensive remarks by peer reviewers) and the way they address the wrongful manipulation of authorship, for instance, through clear guidelines.

The editors said journals could also prioritise invitations to authors with excellent teaching and mentorship records and listen more to concerns about bullying raised by the academic community.

What needs to change?

Dr Leah Hollis from Morgan State University and Rutgers University in the US presented a summary of the conference proceedings, highlighting the identified problems and focusing on collective power as a solution to combating academic bullying.

It is important to find allies, to connect and to know policies against bullying at all levels, from federal, state or provincial to institutional policies and procedures.

Mobilising stakeholders and gatekeepers (faculty unions, student groups, institutional sponsors, parent and institutional stakeholder communities) as well as promoting movements such as the Academic Parity Movement which confront and call out academic bullying is an imperative, as is the instigation of a kind of #MeToo movement against bullying.

Mahmoudi emphasised several critical areas of importance for the scientific community. He asserted that:

• There needs to be more scrutiny of those who use bullying as a career tool;

• Every contribution matters, so all members of the scientific community as a collective have a role to play in stemming bullying and harassment; and

• It is necessary to “disrupt the dependency of the target on the bully”.

This article was first published in University World News

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.