Checks and Balances in Academe

Whatever the mechanism, institutions must put in place a system to halt certain practices that lack morality, argues Nabil Elrouby.

November 8, 2018
 
 
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Quite often, you hear about how the political process is regulated by a system of checks and balances that ensures that policy making is not concentrated in the hands of one individual.This has been clearly demonstrated by the most recent mid-term elections. In a democratic society, abuse of power is punishable by law, and some acts may even lead to impeachment. Although we live in a difficult political time where some people may be skeptical about the efficiency of this system, it has, thus far, served the country well.

Unfortunately, however, academe does not seem to have any laws or regulations to deal with abuse of power and misconduct. The academic process focuses on peer review as a means to ensure the integrity of research findings, but little is done to ensure the integrity of the hierarchical system that is essential for the making of those findings.

Thousands of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers put their careers and professional lives in the hands of their advisers, quite often living off substandard incomes, in the hopes of furthering their careers and, in the process, advancing science. Overcome by a desire to excel and, sometimes, pressure from their advisers, these trusting graduate students and postdocs can work more than 60 hours per week. They often devote their lives to working in the laboratory in promise of a degree or recognition through publication of research articles.

Sadly, not all research projects lead to breakthrough discoveries, and not all findings make it to top-tier journals. The overwhelming majority of principal investigators know that, and they also know that the success of a project does not only depend on the hard work and the skill set of the graduate student but also on the design and feasibility of the project. Most PIs understand that projects designed for a beginning graduate student may need to be different from those designed for a more experienced postdoc.

However, a few -- hopefully, very few -- PIs do not consider that. Blinded by a desire to further their own careers, they do not see their graduate students and postdocs as people but rather as tools to enable them to achieve tenure, win a race for a discovery or land another grant.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a young graduate student or postdoc who is simply unable to take the pressure of the scientific process. I was also lucky to have great mentors as a graduate student and postdoc, whom I thank for helping shape the kind of scientist I am now. My experiences and those of my colleagues at many institutions across North America have been quite positive. I also appreciate how a PI may need to push graduate students and postdocs toward reaching their potential and may have to resort to certain tactics to manage a research group.

But the scientific community should not tolerate abuse of power. And, unfortunately, it does occur.

Three Stories

Take the example of Professor X. In that professor’s lab, several graduate students and postdocs (past and present) needed psychiatric assistance and prescription drugs to be able to deal with his pressure and management style. Students who spent six or seven years on their Ph.D. projects, and published work, with promising results that could contribute to other publications, were told that they “will not be able to graduate” and that they “may have to master out” -- in other words, to leave with only a master’s degree instead of a Ph.D. Professor X designed the graduate projects, and as a student in his lab you could not deviate from the experimental plan that he declared for you.

But when results were not favorable, he did not claim responsibility but instead blamed the students. He cut off funding, yet still demanded his grad students to work full-time in the lab for years. He used reference letters as bargaining cards to keep his grad students and postdocs from leaving the lab -- even at times when they received no financial support -- to get them to do the experiments that would satisfy his unreasonable requests. Again, do not get me wrong -- one of the roles of a PI is to ensure the productivity and quality of research performed in the lab. But Professor X’s requests were beyond the realm of reason at times, a sentiment echoed by other professors at his institute who served as co-advisers to his grad students.

Consider another example. Professor Y visited a research institute abroad and met with different people who had similar research interests. Through a discussion with Bob (a pseudonym), a senior postdoc, Professor Y got to know about Bob’s findings while offering no details about his own. A year later, Professor Y met Bob’s postdoctoral adviser in a scientific meeting and inquired about the status of Bob’s project. He learned that Bob was writing a paper for a top-tier journal. Professor Y suggested that he, too, was writing a paper and suggested that he and Bob would benefit from “coordinated” publication of the results by submitting the two manuscripts simultaneously.

But Bob had already finished writing his manuscript while Professor Y needed a few more weeks to finalize his data and write it up. He asked Bob for his data set to compare it with his and promised to reciprocate. Months later, and after several email inquiries in which Bob asked whether Professor Y would send his data as promised and whether it was ready for submission, Bob and his adviser were shocked to hear that Professor Y had already single-handedly submitted his manuscript.

When questioned about it, Professor Y blamed his submission on his graduate student (and first author), although the grad student had no choice about when or if to submit the manuscript. In fact, Professor Y had disregarded a written agreement between Bob and himself that they would not scoop each other. A written agreement (through email correspondence) and the collegial spirit through which Bob agreed to wait till a colleague was ready to publish his data may suggest that Bob and his adviser used caution and displayed compassion. But in the absence of a law or system to investigate it, Professor Y’s deception and lack of moral compass were left unquestioned.

A third story involves Professor Z. Professor Z met Mike (also a pseudonym) in a scientific meeting. Mike presented new data that he came across through a carefully designed experimental plan. When Professor Z could not obtain enough details about such unpublished data, he accused Mike of concealing some, which Mike assumed to be unnecessary details that would appear only with the publication of his work.

But Professor Z wanted the data so badly that he offered Mike a job in his lab. Mike was hoping for a faculty position, but his funds were running out. He accepted Professor Z’s offer, with a verbal agreement that he would bring his projects with him and would use his short tenure at Professor Z’s lab to complete and publish several of those projects. The agreement was supposed to serve both Mike and Professor Z well: Mike would get his half-done projects published, and Professor Z would get his name on them.

As soon as Mike joined the lab, however, Professor Z inquired about the data Mike had presented in the meeting. When he learned that the data was already written for publication, Professor Z became extremely agitated and suggested that all the material Mike generated in the past was now his (Professor Z’s) material because it was physically present at his university. Soon after, he asked Mike to stop working on his projects and to help a graduate student in the lab set up an assay that Mike had expertise with.

Although that would violate their agreement, greatly derail his progress and hamper his efforts to publish his work and apply for faculty positions as planned, Mike agreed to do so since Professor Z was paying his salary, after all. But as soon as Mike set up the assay, Professor Z declared that he'd run out of money and that Mike had to leave the lab. When the work that involved that assay was about to be published, Professor Z insisted on doing that himself without including Mike’s name in the author list. Mike contested the issue repeatedly with Professor Z, putting together evidence that illustrated his contributions to the work.

But it became clear that Professor Z had no intention of having Mike as a co-author on that paper.

Mike raised the issue with the publishing journal, but his evidence was outweighed by a letter from Professor Z suggesting that, because he’d been a professor for more than 30 years, he was able to judge who should be author. Moreover, he claimed that Mike was just a zealous young scientist who saw the benefits of publication and “unjustifiably” wanted to be an author on that paper.

Mike also raised the issue with Professor Z’s university officials, who suggested that since Mike wasn’t questioning the integrity of the findings themselves, the decision of authorship was left to Professor Z. To Mike, it was clear that Professor Z’s hopes were that he would host him for a short period of time, get hold of the material that he generated as a postdoc in his previous institute and then let him go.

A Question of Accountability

Outside a professional setting, Professors X, Y and Z are gregarious, talkative and charming. They can recruit starting grad students and postdocs who do not know the inside stories. Once those students and postdocs are in their graduate programs or research projects for a couple of years, it is difficult for them to leave without a degree or a paper. So, they are stuck. Previous grad students and postdocs couldn’t communicate this information about Professors X, Y and Z, as they feared retaliation. After all, their careers depended on a letter from their PI.

Although examples like Professors X, Y and Z are relatively rare, should universities establish a system of checks and balances to govern behaviors like theirs? Should departmental and university officials hold people like them accountable even though they are tenured? How can that be done if grad students and postdocs continue to need their PI’s approval for graduation and for reference letters that are essential for career development?

Should universities require internal review processes of practices like that of Professors X, Y and Z -- and not only scientific progress? Should funding agencies require evidence of solid mentorship in addition to scientific productivity before funding a PI? Should they call for three letters of recommendation from former grad students and postdocs before funding a PI?

Whatever the mechanism should be, institutions must put in place checks and balances to halt academic practices that lack morality. Peer review and the nature of modern science -- that findings are often made by more than one laboratory -- usually ensure that ethical standards are met and solid scientific research is published. But almost no effort is devoted toward ensuring that moral standards are in place.

The three professors I’ve described represent an extremely small fraction of PIs, and I can write books about the overwhelming majority that act with moral standards and the conviction that their role is to advance science at all fronts, including preparing the next generations of PIs. But stories like those of Professors X, Y and Z highlight problems with the scientific process -- and with individuals who would be impeachable if they were politicians. My hopes are to raise the need for, and start a conversation leading to, the implementation of a system whereby those who feel too empowered by their tenure or academic weight can be held accountable.

Bio

Nabil Elrouby is a freelance writer in Pullman, Wash. He earned his Ph.D. in biology at McGill University and worked as a research scientist and lecturer there, as well as at the University of Wisconsin, the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, Germany, and the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, N.Y.

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