“I frequently vomit before going to the lab.”
“I wanted to become a professor, but after the treatment and behavior of my PI [principal investigator] and department, I do not want to ever be involved with academia again.”
“It was ~ 1 year before I realized that being told by my PI that I had 45 seconds to go to the toilet was inappropriate and an invasion of my privacy.”
These are just a few of the 1904 anonymous responses that poured in when Sherry Moss and Morteza Mahmoudi invited scientists to describe their experiences with academic bullying. The vast majority—71%—of respondents who experienced bullying did not report the behavior to their institution, mostly for fear of retaliation. Of those who did report, only 8% found the process to be fair and unbiased, according to a preprint posted online this week.
The findings lay bare the inadequacy of the reporting process at many institutions, says Mahmoudi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who experienced bullying earlier in his career and co-founded an antibullying nonprofit called the Academic Parity Movement. “All of the investigations happen inside the institutions—there’s no accountability.”
He notes that institutions may want to protect top-performing academics, especially those who bring in a lot of money, and have a vested interest in preventing complaints from becoming public. One possible solution, he adds, would be to establish a national or global committee on academic behavior ethics, which could investigate allegations of abuse more impartially.
Many of the survey responses were hard to read, say Mahmoudi and Moss, a professor at Wake Forest University—especially those that described serious mental health challenges. But sharing them is an important step toward changing culture. To that end, Science Careers compiled a sample of responses from the survey, with a focus on those who reported or confronted bullying behavior—sometimes resulting in positive outcomes, but more frequently not.
The responses have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
I complained to our department chair. An investigation committee was created. Through their investigation they found most of my allegations valid, but they gave me two options: 1) continue working under my supervisor and report if additional bad behavior happened, or 2) leave the institution.
I first spoke up, but this made the situation worse. Then, I reported to higher level people in my department and then to the dean’s office. They destroyed my life and my scientific identity as well as my dignity. They crushed my entire career.
I complained to the university. They did not follow their own prescribed guidelines for resolving complaints and allowed my PI to remove me from the lab and take away funding.
I spoke to the dean of the graduate school and she helped me get out of the situation. But she made it really clear that if I formally reported nothing good would happen to me or my co-workers.
I complained after graduation, which was a very painful process, since this PI required 15 (!) papers in order to graduate. The university seemed to take it seriously, but 6 months later nothing has changed.
I went to HR [human resources] of the department and of the institution; I discussed it with [a] disability adviser; I discussed it with the international office adviser; I filed a formal complaint with the dean; I consulted with the ombudsperson. The outcome of all of this was zero.
It took me a long time before I reported; I had to be seriously into depression. The outcome felt that it was seen as a problem in communication between us and a cultural difference—not a genuine issue.
I talked to the ombudsman and the dean who both supported me and [took steps to ensure] my appointment wasn’t canceled. It was cut short but not as much as initially threatened. I got therapy hours from the institute to help cope (10 hours) and meetings with the ombudsman to keep contact and let me know they hadn’t forgotten about me.
I complained to the HR representative, who raised the issue to the head of the department, who then spoke to the bully without giving my identity. The bully then emailed the entire group about it, asking the person who had complained to come forward. Nothing changed, and I resigned a few months later.
I complained to the head of the department, the head of faculty, and the university legal department. All were only concerned with protecting the university. I told them research is suffering and somebody is going to commit suicide if they don’t fix the problem. It was terrible. Nobody cared...