An illustration that shows bullying

A feeling of fear overcame me as I read the first few words: ‘This letter is intended to inform you that your position and therefore your J-1 scholarship visa has been revoked … with immediate effect.’ That’s it I had worked hard all year, but when I refused to sign my intellectual property and copyrights on the papers I had been working on for the past few years, I didn’t think I could lose anything. The image of my wife and the newborn baby shot through my mind. I stared at the phone in my hand, worried about how to pay the bills without my lab job and leave the country aside, and instead wondered how I could call them and tell them the news.

– Anonymous target of academic bullying

Research shows that more than one in ten academics has experienced academic bullying by a senior faculty colleague or supervisor. Defined as repeated acts of discrimination, rudeness, or harassment of a researcher, academic bullying can range from verbal abuse such as aggressive or rude language and microaggression to threats such as visa waiver, cut or redirected funding, and lack of credit for work . . In extreme cases, target individuals may experience intra-departmental abuse in which other laboratory workers or members of the administration are encouraged to be complacent about the abuse or even to go along with it. Underrepresented groups and fellows are particularly vulnerable as pre-existing prejudices and systematic oppression can increase the power imbalance between them and their perpetrators.

In the short term, victims of academic bullying may experience anxiety and low job satisfaction. If they go unresolved, it can make them more prone to avoidable errors (such as medical errors). Target individuals are often pressured to work longer than their peers to achieve exceptional results. This can lead to burnout or cause researchers to feel they have to violate scientific integrity in order to hold their position.

This poison culture must now come to an end

Fear of retaliation makes it difficult for a target to report incidents of bullying by high-ranking individuals. Abusive supervisory authorities usually have more power and stability in the institution than their goals. A biased administration can protect well-funded or highly respected regulators or overlook the case for fear that doing so could damage the institution’s reputation.

There is no standard guide to follow when a manager is found guilty of academic bullying. Conversely, if they speak up, there is a risk that victims of academic bullying could lose their current or future position, funding, or student visa.

The toxic culture that weakens a color scientist’s brilliant idea, makes it difficult for a woman to get money for her project, or overlooks awarding an award to a queer student doing cutting-edge research must now come to an end. Academic institutions must be proactively held accountable for creating safe environments for their fellows in order to reduce incidents of bullying and protect the rights of targeted individuals when incidents occur.

In 2019 we founded the Academic Parity Movement, a non-profit organization with the aim of bridging the gap between all academic actors – including academics, institutions and funding agencies – in order to solve the long overdue issue of bullying in the scientific community. In particular, we try to strengthen historically underrepresented groups and to support students, postdocs and young lecturers who get caught in a power struggle and are discriminated against by their superiors. Academic bullying is a diverse topic that requires different perspectives to address.

An important cultural and institutional change is necessary to tackle bullying at its roots and achieve a more equitable academic environment around the world. To support this, we are working with a diverse advisory board to provide guidelines that institutions can use to make the academic environment safer and resolve bullying cases. To raise awareness of academic discrimination and bullying, we published over a dozen articles over the past year that we hope will further research into the problem, and in March we launched our first annual international STEM bullying workshop . The event, which was attended by hundreds of academics, featured leaders in the field of academic discrimination and bullying. We also provide free support to victims of bullying and discrimination in science through our website; Experienced professionals in our team guide individuals in finding justice for their case.

Ultimately, with the help and collaboration of members of the scientific community and lawyers, we plan to support scientists who have got caught in a power struggle to reduce bullying behavior and protect scientific integrity in science.

The saying “education is the great balance” cannot be true if some scientists are systematically held back by discrimination and academic bullying. However, by making sure everyone is treated fairly and feels safe in their academic environment, we can take a step towards equity, inclusion and diversity by balancing the field.


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