The Unforgivable Curses

Fabrication and plagiarism are the unforgivable curses of science – crimes of no return. If you are caught committing them you will not wind up in an academic Azkaban but you would be hard put to find another job in a university as a parking warden, much less a research role. Ironically, to outsiders these infractions may appear to be relatively victimless crimes. Do a few faked graphs really hurt anyone? If music can be downloaded with impunity is plagiarism a terrible sin? However, these transgressions are unforgivable because they undermine the integrity of the system, not as a result of their impact on individuals. An expert counterfeiter whose bogus Benjamins are never spotted by banks might claim that no-one was hurt by their escapades, but financial systems can be damaged by a flood of fake notes. Likewise, we trust the integrity of our colleagues when we build on their work. We tell students to “check everything” but this is an impossible goal, since at some point you would do nothing but verify the work of others, so dishonesty undermines science just as debased coinage threatens an economy. 

Last month the American Geophysical Union revised its understanding of “scientific misconduct”, a term encompassesing plagiarism and data-faking, to explicitly include a new category of crime – discrimination, sexual harassment, and bullying. These are transgressions against individuals, but the AGU’s decision recognises that they weaken science itself; systematically burdening those who are disproportionately on the receiving end of “poor behaviour”, blighting lives and careers, boosting inequality, and robbing the field of talent. This recognises that many female geoscientists experience harassment or worse in the field, often while they are physically isolated and far from help. Just last week sickening allegations of bullying and assault during trips to remote Antarctic valleys were levelled against David Marchant, a geoscientist at Boston University. It was telling that while many of the worst allegations were corroborated by others, some of Marchant’s defenders pointed out that they themselves had never witnessed such behaviour by Marchant and that these infractions were “historical”, with no recent allegations of misconduct coming to light. However, if this had been a case of data-faking there would be no ill-defined statute of limitations and “some of his work is legitimate” would in no way constitute a defence.

A similar paradox was visible last year, thanks to a defamation case pursued by astrophysicist Mike Bode against Carole Mundell, who intervened after he wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for a mutual colleague facing an active harassment investigation. The claim that Mundell had defamed Bode by this action was witheringly rejected but I cannot imagine anyone writing a letter of reference – much less a good one – for a person facing live allegations of intellectual misconduct. Moreover, the position in question was Chief Scientist in the Square Kilometre Array – South Africa, an organisation which will have a key role supporting South Africa’s engagement with a multi-hundred million dollar international collaboration involving vast amounts of public money from a half-dozen countries. This hire fell through, but the job was later filled by a scientist who had left (and was apparently “dismissed” from) a leadership position at the Arecibo Observatory while “under a cloud“, demonstrating just how hard it can be for a senior scientist to definitively torpedo his own career.* [This situation may also lead one to draw inferences about the institutional health of SKA-South Africa, but that is another matter.]

This is the same month that the Harvey Weinstein story broke and his serial sexual assaults appear to have been an open secret within the entertainment industry. Despite this, any number of male stars who had benefited from their association with Weinstein were shocked, shocked to hear the news, or to think that their industry may suffer from an endemic harassment problem. And while we lack Hollywood’s glamour, senior academics have a similar ability to make or break the careers of young people vying for their big chance, and it is similarly a breeding ground for abusive behaviour. Likewise, just as many men averred that they had personally never seen poor behaviour by Weinstein, many scientists assert that because they have never witnessed a colleague harass that person cannot be an harasser – a stunning lack of logic for people who spend their professional lives drawing inferences about events we cannot hope to witness with our own eyes. Likewise, we all know that many senior harassers in science are yet to have their “Geoff Marcy moment” and, like Weinstein, some are rumoured to have agressively lawyered up to keep a lid on simmering scandals.

If this is our truth, all scientists – and particular all white men in science whose progress has never been potentially impeded by our gender, our race, or our sexual identity – are complicit in having allowed it to happen. And it is on us to sort it out. 

<div class="sqs-video-wrapper" data-provider-name="" data-html="[youtube=://]”>

FOOTNOTE: *To be clear, the investigation of the original applicant was apparently never completed so these allegations were never formally substantiated. However, published sources refer to them as “sexual assault” so it does appear that they were of a serious nature. Likewise, the specific employment issues faced by the person now in the role have not been fully disclosed.

COMMENTS: Comments off on this one. Getting way more than normal and they didn’t seem to be heading anywhere constructive.