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Good Practices

Dimensions of abuse in the academic world

Debate about a case of sexual harassment in the United States calls attention to dilemmas in the field of research integrity

AMNHD Brian Richmond…AMNHD

American paleontologist Brian Richmond, 48, resigned as curator of the Human Origins section of the American Museum of Natural History in New York amid accusations of sexual harassment. In March 2015, he was publicly denounced at a scientific conference by an assistant who said he had attacked her in a hotel room in Florence, Italy. Charges of harassment of female students and complaints of inappropriate behavior in field work in Kenya, where he was working at an institute affiliated with George Washington University, also hang over him. Richmond denies the accusations and maintains that the incident reported by the assistant was consensual, not an attack. He was reprimanded for having violated the museum’s code of contact, which prohibits relationships between superiors and subordinates, and said he had been pressured to resign.

In an interview with the journal Science, Richmond said he intends to continue his research outside the museum and keep publishing scientific articles. Although crimes such as sexual harassment, discrimination, or physical aggression do not meet the specific definitions of scientific misconduct, the case sparked discussions involving matters of academic integrity. Researchers who signed as co-authors with Richmond are uncertain as to how to treat articles that are currently pending publication. Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, proposed at an April 2016 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) that researchers suspend any kind of collaboration, including publications in co-authorship, with colleagues who are being investigated for sexual harassment or discrimination. This is because allegations of abusive behavior against subordinates cast doubt on a researcher’s commitment to the principles of integrity in the academic world. Clancy is co-author of a study that compiled reports of sexual harassment in field research work that was published in the journal PLOS One in 2014. When a researcher accused of misconduct submits an article for publication, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a forum on research ethics that assists editors of scientific periodicals, recommends that the journal await conclusion of the investigations before accepting the paper.

Richmond’s case also finds an analogy in other issues related to academic integrity, such as the asymmetry in the relationships between advisors and students, or between laboratory leaders and their staff, and the rules intended to prevent subordination from creating situations of vulnerability.

Captain-Tucker/Wikimedia Commons …resigned his position at the American Museum of Natural History after being accused of a sexual attackCaptain-Tucker/Wikimedia Commons

According to Science, at least one researcher who was supervised by Richmond reported difficulties in publishing an article in co-authorship with the paleontologist in that journal because reviewers refused to look at the manuscript. One proposed solution was removal of Richmond’s name from the article, but that leads to other problems. David Strait, of the University of Washington, who wrote articles in collaboration with Richmond says that would be plagiarism. “You cannot delete the name of an author from an article when the content was produced in good faith,” he said. Anthropologist Leslie Aielo observes that there are no rules in cases like this, but says that editors have reached a consensus that priority should be given to avoiding tarnishing the image of researchers who are just starting their careers.

As an expert in the field of human evolution, Richmond has published extensively and is now coordinating several projects, some of them supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), primary funder of basic research in the United States. This and other scandals involving sexual harassment and moral issues resulted in the January 2016 publication by the NSF of a statement that condemns sexual harassment and seeks to eradicate gender-based discrimination in science. Other organizations have published recommendations for increasing awareness of cases of sexual harassment involving researchers. The AAPA warned that experiencing harassment, attempted aggression, or threats can help persuade the victims to drop out of university or even give up research as a career. The association calls attention to the importance that victims contact the ombudsmen of their institutions and report the abuse. The AAPA document cites a study published in PLOS One that consulted more than 600 anthropologists. According to the survey, 64% of respondents had suffered some kind of sexual harassment while doing field work, and most of the perpetrators were senior researchers. Of the 139 women who reported having experienced some kind of undesired physical contact, only 37 had reported the abuse.

AMNHD The Human Origins section of the New York museum where the paleontologist was curatorAMNHD

The documents issued by international organizations have inspired similar initiatives in Brazil. Researchers who work at the Lapa do Santo archaeological site, in Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais, founded the Zine Feminista das Arqueólogas (a feminist publication by women archaeologists), offering tips for researchers who are doing field work in anthropology, archaeology and related areas, such as using institutional channels to report incidents. Another initiative was taken in August 2016 at the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP). A working group was set up to discuss and find solutions to cases of moral and sexual harassment in the research environment. One topic that will be discussed is precisely what co-authors should do when a colleague is accused of harassment. “That is a question that is still not discussed very often anywhere in the world. There are no guidelines to indicate how researchers, reviewers, and editors should act in such situations,” says Ximena Suarez Villagran, a researcher at the MAE-USP.

In the opinion of André Strauss, an archeologist from the University of Tübingen, in Germany, whether or not to remove the name of the accused from an article is the least of the problems. “There are no institutional channels that are well established enough to deal with such charges.” For her part, Villagran says that although sexual harassment occurs in all fields of knowledge in an academic environment, it is possible that professions that depend on field work, such as anthropology and archeology, are more susceptible. “Work at archeological sites frequently requires groups of researchers to spend time together in isolated locations for several days, which may create conditions favorable to abuse,” she explains. “This does not justify sexual harassment, which can occur anywhere. The question has more to do with the individual than with external factors or the profession itself.”