Archive for the 'conflict' category

When should details of misconduct be made public?

Amid the #metoo movement, we have seen extreme publicity of the Hollywood allegations of sexual misconduct, including the shocking and sensational details revealed by victims coming forward. We have seen some spread of this movement and publicity to other arenas as well, including research in STEM fields. Academic institutions should already be prepared to deal with allegations as they arise, but should also be able to respond to the growing attention paid, by both the media and people in the field or organization, to issues of misconduct.

A recent termination of a prominent scientist at a prominent research institution raised a lot of questions – with no answers apparently forthcoming. The particular scientist and institution are not essential for the message of this post, but you can read about him here. This institution, like many others, has a reputation for quelling accusations before they reach a level where action must be taken, and for not taking action when many deem it necessary. So, many people were happily surprised to find that someone (a prominent someone!) would and could be terminated for breaching institutional policies.

But what were those policies? What actually happened? The institution has not revealed this, except to say that it was not scientific misconduct, which leads one to believe that it must have been inappropriate interpersonal behavior. Indeed, even some employees in the researcher’s lab have no idea what happened, and reportedly have asked the institution to explain, with no further information obtained.

It is certainly important to consider that the institution may be acting in the interest of the individuals involved – both perpetrator and victims – to keep the details undisclosed. But is that the best course of action?

In a time where we – all of us, right? – are trying to rid our institutions of the sexual misconduct infestation that negatively impacts both individual and field-wide well-being and advancement, institutions should be doing everything in their power to make it known that this specific act will not be tolerated here. This would encourage others with allegations to come forward, and discourage potential perpetrators from initiating or continuing similar actions, and, all in the best long-term interest of the institution, enhance the overall image and attractiveness of this place as a safe environment where misconduct will be investigated and not tolerated, leaving the work to be the central feature.

Institutions should endeavor to be as brave as the many women who have come forward to share their stories – for the benefit of the people and the future.

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When should details of misconduct be made public?

Amid the #metoo movement, we have seen extreme publicity of the Hollywood allegations of sexual misconduct, including the shocking and sensational details revealed by victims coming forward. We have seen some spread of this movement and publicity to other arenas as well, including research in STEM fields. Academic institutions should already be prepared to deal with allegations as they arise, but should also be able to respond to the growing attention paid, by both the media and people in the field or organization, to issues of misconduct.

A recent termination of a prominent scientist at a prominent research institution raised a lot of questions – with no answers apparently forthcoming. The particular scientist and institution are not essential for the message of this post, but you can read about him here. This institution, like many others, has a reputation for quelling accusations before they reach a level where action must be taken, and for not taking action when many deem it necessary. So, many people were happily surprised to find that someone (a prominent someone!) would and could be terminated for breaching institutional policies.

But what were those policies? What actually happened? The institution has not revealed this, except to say that it was not scientific misconduct, which leads one to believe that it must have been inappropriate interpersonal behavior. Indeed, even some employees in the researcher’s lab have no idea what happened, and reportedly have asked the institution to explain, with no further information obtained.

It is certainly important to consider that the institution may be acting in the interest of the individuals involved – both perpetrator and victims – to keep the details undisclosed. But is that the best course of action?

In a time where we – all of us, right? – are trying to rid our institutions of the sexual misconduct infestation that negatively impacts both individual and field-wide well-being and advancement, institutions should be doing everything in their power to make it known that this specific act will not be tolerated here. This would encourage others with allegations to come forward, and discourage potential perpetrators from initiating or continuing similar actions, and, all in the best long-term interest of the institution, enhance the overall image and attractiveness of this place as a safe environment where misconduct will be investigated and not tolerated, leaving the work to be the central feature.

Institutions should endeavor to be as brave as the many women who have come forward to share their stories – for the benefit of the people and the future.

3 responses so far

Is this cheating or is it networking?

Mar 19 2018 Published by under academia, cheating, conflict, education

I’m a TA for a large undergraduate course that’s required for premed and bio majors. As I was grading the first exam of the course, I was scoring an open-ended question that was vaguely worded. So I was surprised when many of the students put together the exact cookie-cutter answer the professor was looking for.

“How on earth did they know what she was asking here?” I said to another TA. “Did you guys cover this explicitly in review sessions?”

The other TA answered, “No we really didn’t talk about that too much. But I think a similar question was on last semester’s exam? She refused to let them have a copy of that to study from, though. So I don’t know how they could have seen that.” She frowned at her pile of exams, “I’m having the same concerns with another question.”

A few minutes and a brief internet search later, we figured out that the exam from last semester was still posted online and although it was not available to current students, the exam and answer key were still accessible to last semester’s students. So, basically, any student who knew a former student would have had an answer key prior to the exam since the professor re-used the same exam from the preceding semester.

Upon review, it became clear from the lack of variety in responses to the open-ended questions that most of the students who had scored well on the exam had seen a copy of the answer key. For instance, one question asked students to draw and label the structures of the pituitary gland. The professor, on the answer key, drew the organ from an unusual angle. Many of the students did the same, although this was not how the pituitary gland was drawn in the text, in lectures, or in most online resources.

We, of course, immediately alerted the professor to the situation. She promised to make the next exam ‘harder’. In my mind, this was not a sufficient response to the inequities of the present exam, because the students clearly did not have access to the same study resources so I don’t think it was a very fair test.

Students who were able to get old exams and answer keys were simply using all resources at their disposal to study—although from a pedagogical perspective, if students simply reiterate answers they may not understand well, they’re clearly not getting much information out of the course. On the other hand, I sympathized with students who did not have access to the old exam through their social connections, studied hard, and did not score as well. I worry that they might be discouraged from putting in honest work in the future because of this experience.

What would you do in this situation? As a TA, I feel really frustrated and can imagine what the students who didn’t have the answer key feel. Of course, I think the professor should not have re-used last semester’s exam. I personally thought the professor should have done a mea culpa and not factored this exam into the final grade but she said that was not an option. I really hope she will create new exams in the future and I’ve even offered with the other TAs to write the next exam. But I just don’t have a lot of power in this situation.

Although I personally don’t think the students cheated in this case, since the answer key was so easily available, there’s a fine line between them and these guys, who, in my opinion, clearly cheated—although they seem to think their behavior was justified as ‘networking’.

Briefly, the link goes to a case where a professor re-used old exam questions although he took pains not to allow copies of his exams to fall into students’ hands. Some students managed to photograph their exams behind his back and passed them on to friends in the course. The thread was started by a student who did not have a copy of this exam, found out others did, and wasn’t sure what to do about it. Many responses posted on the thread were along the lines of this one: “Life isn’t fair, bruh, time to make some friends.”

Reading what those students wrote makes me wonder– what are the differences between cheating, slightly unethical behavior, and networking (especially in 2018 where such lines are completely blurred, even in the highest office in America)? Is cheating just networking to a greater extent?

The pre-med students who have been rewarded with high grades for ‘networking’ don’t seem motivated to outgrow this behavior either—CNN revealed radiology residents cheated on their board exams by basically the same means—which, frankly, could put our healthcare at risk.

I’m feeling naïve in my belief that students come to college to learn (as I did), or that they’re here for anything more than a grade on a transcript and a fat salary down the road. But, especially for pre-med and medical students, academia is set up to reward grades over knowledge, students learn to game this system by ‘networking’, and it’s difficult to know what, if anything, to do to change that.

4 responses so far

What’s in a name?

I defended 7 years ago this month…. and I’m still a Research Scientist 1.  I had hoped to be up for a promotion last year because I felt like I kicked butt all year. When I had my year end review, my supervisor said I did great and was up for the top merit bonus… but no mention of a promotion.  I mustered up the guts to ask how I was doing “in terms of career development” and he said “Great! You’ve only been with us for 2 years and it usually takes ~5 to get a promotion so you are right on track.”  I was bummed but I was also 5 months pregnant (and sick as a dog) so I had other things on my mind and I let it go.
It took me a little time to get back into the swing of things once I came back from leave in September.  But now I feel like I’m back and ready to take on really juicy interesting projects. I’m also looking around and seeing that other people in other departments are getting promoted and I feel like I am getting left behind. I’m starting to worry about my ability to transfer to a new company… will it be held against me that I’m still a Research Scientist 1?
Some days these thoughts/worries motivate me, make me work harder and try more.  I skip pumping sessions and pick up the baby late so I can squeeze more data out or be at a meeting hoping my presence and input might be the little bit extra to push me over the edge into an “early” promotion.  Other days not getting a promotion makes me question my ability and value as a scientist. Should I just quit and stay home with my new baby? Open an Etsy shop?  Paint?

I recently started talking with a new mentor in the Contracts and Alliances group who suggested I might be able to try out her group or Project Management. I thought about it long and hard (and after some twists and turns) I talked to my supervisor about it. He was supportive but also encouraged me to stay the course if I wanted to stay a scientist. I decided not to pursue it at this time but I still feel torn. It’s hard to move forward when I can see so many interesting options and feel under appreciated (sometimes). I think the idea of not being a scientist anymore is also really sad/scary to me… who would I be?  Would I be happier in a different profession?  For now I’m just trying my best at work and sorting through the options hoping for the patience to take the time to see how things go in the new year.


One response so far

Choosing a research question – for science or for the public?

Jun 01 2017 Published by under conflict, funding, hearable message, Public, research

There is increasing pressure and urgency for scientists to be visible and accessible to the public, but also to choose the most important and appealing research in an uncertain funding climate. To whom are scientific researchers beholden in the choice of research studies to perform? To the funding agencies who sponsor us? To the taxpayers who ultimately fund those public institutions? To ourselves to carve a niche and promising career path? Or purely to science, to go where the data and your passions take you?

A recent article in the Atlantic described one extreme – research demonstrating the lack of a link between gluten and heart disease – not because there was any reason to believe that such a link existed, but precisely because there was no evidence that one should, and yet many popular books, diets, and people espoused this idea. The researchers argue that this is how science should work – people of the world have an idea and scientists demonstrate whether there is evidence to support the idea or not.

I strongly support this approach on principle, but I have to wonder if it’s the wisest course of action today. Is it wasteful to spend precious resources on research questions that have no basis and minimal chance of adding to knowledge that will improve the human condition or the world? To be clear, I absolutely support research for the sake of knowledge, and hope it is widely understood that future revolutions will come from today’s explorations for the sake of curiosity, like cell phone capability relied on a foundation of knowledge from Hedy Lamarr’s invention of frequency hopping in the 1940s, which couldn’t be implemented with the technology of the day. But when we’re talking about biomedical research like the study mentioned above, would those resources be better spent on investigation of mechanisms and treatments for real ailments?

Furthermore, using science to disprove a popular misconception doesn’t seem to work, as has been the case for the supposed dangers of vaccines. The translation of information from scientific findings to incorporation into the public mindset and practice must be fixed for this to be effective.

These days I’m just hoping we can maintain a funding level that covers research that runs the gamut, from scientists like me, following the data and trying to help human conditions, to pure exploration, like some of my favorite researchers.


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How to Encourage a Supportive Environment

Apr 07 2016 Published by under conflict, empathy, empathy gap, LGBT

I read an article recently about casual racism and how the victim didn’t know how to respond. It’s complicated. But what if you are not the victim. I think that someone who is not a victim of the comments has a responsibility to respond. But how?

I was recently talking to a senior professor, let’s call him Prof A. He was commenting on a senior professor at another institution, Prof B. Prof B happens to be a transgender man. The comments had nothing to do with the fact that he’s transgender.

The problem is how Prof A was referring to Prof B. He repeatedly, and not even just once or twice, referred to him as her. He would always eventually correct himself. But then every time he would go back to saying “she.”

Prof B has been transgender for longer than I have been in science. He makes no secret of his status. Why would it be difficult to remember the correct pronoun? Was it purposeful disrespect? Even if it wasn’t, it was disrespectful by lack of trying.

Given the obstacles and issues transgender people face, perhaps this is only a microaggression. However, given all the obstacles and issues transgender people face why would anyone with any empathy want to add to that with microaggressions?

What is my role? Does my silence support this kind of behavior? Would saying something raise awareness and promote respect or just irritate people? Does the power differential between me and the speaker affect how I should react? Workplaces can be respectful of gender transitions. I would like to support that kind of environment but I am not sure of the best way to help others work toward that goal as well.


7 responses so far