The Limits of Gossip

Informal system of warning colleagues about senior scholars who engage in inappropriate behavior doesn’t really protect anyone, study finds.

November 3, 2016
 

Almost anyone who works in academe has to navigate a complex world of gossip and reputation, which in theory keeps certain types of bad behavior -- such as mistreating students or stealing ideas from colleagues -- in check.

It operates when a formal punishment might be too heavy-handed, or concrete evidence of wrongdoing too difficult to gather.

But a new study based on about 250 anonymous interviews with scientists in the United States, Britain and India about their gossiping habits suggests that this informal system often fails to hold back wrongdoers in positions of power, who continue to enjoy stellar careers despite it being common knowledge that their research is “sloppy” or their labs miserable places to work.

Even though these scientists believed that gossip was an effective way to police behavior, “when targets are of higher status, gossip doesn’t seem to do much more than vent frustrations,” said Brandon Vaidyanathan, the study’s co-author and a researcher at the University of Notre Dame.

In one example, a biology professor at an Indian university was well known for abusing research students -- including throwing sandals at them -- but still received a steady stream of students willing to work with him, despite his former victims putting up posters on campus warning that life in his lab was “hell.”

“These warnings weren’t taken seriously,” explained Vaidyanathan. “In fact, some thought it was a ploy by previous students to keep the competition away.”

Gossip often fails to dent the careers of senior researchers with shoddy research, the study also concluded. One U.K.-based lecturer in theoretical physics said that “some well-known people have a reputation for sloppy work.” Even though their work has “limited weight” among their peers owing to back channels of gossip, they were still published in high-profile journals, he said.

The academic gossip network can also backfire and be used maliciously to discredit rivals, the study, “Gossip as social control? Informal sanctions on ethical violations in scientific workplaces,” published in Social Problems, warns.

One U.K.-based faculty member in physics recounted how a senior colleague started spreading negative rumors about him, leading to others withdrawing from collaborations.

Although the study did uncover examples of gossip having a positive effect -- for example, where supervisors warned other institutions off employing their postdoctoral students owing to their “dodgy” research -- scientists need to understand that it does not always work, Vaidyanathan argued.

“Many scientists we talked to expressed considerable confidence in the self-policing power of gossip, and our article wants to call this confidence into question,” he said.

The study found that gossip was used to police what it calls “normal misbehavior” -- ethical failures that undermine the scientific enterprise but are not seen as being as serious as outright data fabrication, falsification or plagiarism -- which scientists were “often reticent or unable to take formal action against.”

This “normal misbehavior” includes the misuse of research funds, taking undue authorship of papers and publishing “sloppy” research to beat more meticulous rivals to publication.

But, Vaidyanathan suggested, it is unclear what would replace gossip as a means of ensuring good behavior. “Like the scientists we spoke to, we’re not sure that formal mechanisms can be easily instituted to address concerns that become the topic of gossip,” he said.

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