The Lesser among Too Many Evils

by Bernard Wood

February 15, 2016

The official Logo for the Center for the Advances Study of Human Paleobiology

The cat is out of the bag. Michael Balter’s piece in Science [1] has very publically aired serious allegations about the behavior of an ex-colleague. If true, the allegations suggest that, among other things, this individual chose to ignore the time-honored admonitions that teachers should not seek sexual favors from students, and individuals should not exploit circumstances where an imbalance of power profoundly disadvantages one party.

We all want to help to change the culture of our discipline to make our community welcoming to all.  Yet how can we as individuals best respond to this challenge? As you might imagine, I have been, and still am, struggling with this question. Events of the past eleven months have made it crystal clear to me that my experience as a paleoanthropologist rising through the ranks was almost certainly not the same as someone of my generation who was female. 

My own response in the past, and to these recent revelations, has almost certainly been wanting. I am acutely conscious that, throughout my career, my race and gender have protected me from being a victim of abuses of power and therefore my perspective is inevitably limited. No amount of thought experiment on my part can change this. I do not have all the answers, but as a senior (and male) member of the community, I have a moral and ethical responsibility to confront and condemn abuses of power to the best of my ability.  Here is some of what I have learned over the previous year. 

First, you can do things in private and in public. Respectfully reaching out to offer support to individuals is as important as taking part in public discussions.

Second, have a set of principles and assess anything you plan to do against those principles. Mine have evolved over the course of the past year, and my guess is that yours have too.

Third, emotions—for instance, anger, or feelings of betrayal—get in the way of making rational decisions. Do not let a personal desire for vengeance, retribution, or punishment eclipse your principles. Punishment is best left to institutions, but we do need to pressure them to take on that responsibility, and not hide behind the fig leaf of liability.

Fourth, although interacting respectfully with our colleagues and ensuring their safety is a fundamental obligation that comes with being a scientist—indeed, it comes with participating in any professional community—we must make sure that our response to the misbehavior of individual scientists does not get confused with, or interferes with, the process of science. In particular, we must make sure that any actions we suggest, or consider supporting, do not disadvantage students and junior colleagues who are unwittingly caught up in the response to a superior’s misbehavior.

What do I mean by this? In a previous blog post [2], I suggested that individuals should think before they “collaborate with people who use their research reputation to harass, and worse, female colleagues.” I should have made it much clearer than I did that I was referring to future collaborations, and not to arrangements and collaborations that were entered into in the past. This is unfortunate because any misunderstanding could adversely affect the careers of people who collaborated with such people, especially their students and postdocs. Enough damage has been done by people who behave in this way—we should avoid any additional collateral damage.

The particular concern I want to address is authorship. The scenario I fear is one in which allowing your name to appear on a paper alongside that of a senior scientist accused of unacceptable behavior implies that you are tacitly turning a Nelsonian “blind eye” to the alleged behavior at best, and condoning it at worst.

Attempts to codify the principles used to determine who does, and who does not, qualify to be an author on a manuscript [3], [4] sensibly stick to scientific criteria. If an individual fulfills those criteria, they should be listed as an author regardless of their personal behavior within the community, abhorrent though it may be. Don’t get me wrong, anyone who abuses their academic status and behaves as my ex-colleague allegedly has deserves to be ostracized, but this should not include having their name removed from papers.

My reasoning is this. Being identified as an author of a paper is not just a matter of public credit. It is also a matter of scientific integrity, because it signals that the individual identified shares responsibility for the data and their interpretation. If an individual is excluded from authorship, either retroactively or proactively, it unhelpfully disguises that responsibility. Listed authors of a paper act, in effect, like a chain of custody. We interfere with that principle of responsibility at our peril. In my view we should not use non-scientific criteria to determine who is listed as a co-author on a paper.

It is also important that students and postdocs do not suffer because of their supervisor’s behavior. We do not need to create more victims. Regardless of a supervisor’s transgressions, research conducted by their students and postdocs should be published so that they can receive the recognition they justly deserve. If someone fulfills the criteria to be an author on those papers, then it is illogical and unfair for the presence of that person’s name on the author list to affect decisions about whether to submit those papers for publication, or to influence decisions about their acceptability. It benefits no one if the  junior colleagues of an errant researcher suffer because of the latter’s behavior. To be clear, appearing on a co-author list with my ex-colleague emphatically does not imply approval of his alleged actions if the work in question began before the revelation of his alleged behavior.  That work was part of a collaboration that was entered into, and conducted, in good faith. We should respect and acknowledge that.

I realize that, in theory, retaining a supervisor’s name allows that person to benefit from authorship of these papers, and I know that I have argued that we should avoid adding to the research reputation of individuals who abuse their position in the academic community. But if we deprive them of those benefits by compromising publication, others will pay the price. In any event, we need to encourage a climate within which publications cannot compensate for egregious behavior. 

Not everyone will share my analysis of the issue of authorship, and I also realize that, especially for those directly affected by an individual’s behavior, seeing that person’s name in print will be distressing in ways I cannot possibly appreciate. But the alternative lacks logic and fairness, and threatens an important tenet of our discipline. 

Unfortunately, there will be many more cats coming out of many more bags—and not just in our field. The scientific community needs to work unrelentingly to prevent sexual harassment, and to ensure that individuals who engage in such activities are appropriately disciplined and are no longer welcomed into that community [5].

We need to take power and opportunity away from individuals suspected of perpetrating sexual harassment, but I am against rewriting scientific history, and punishing colleagues, especially students, in our efforts to do so.