Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Prevention of power abuse and supervision conflicts should be considered as a matter of good scientific practice, argues the doctoral researchers network N² in their postition paper. Jonathan Stefanowski explains how this can be done.

Why should prevention of power abuse and supervision conflicts be considered as a matter of good scientific practice?

The application of good scientific practice aims to ensure that science is, without exception pursued in accordance with the highest standards of the respective scientific field.  Thereby a sustainable evolution of the science ecosystem should be achieved and its credibility and reputation in society maintained. The good scientific practice includes the quality of data, the standards of collaboration as well as personal interactions. Doctoral researchers typically enter the research environment with limited previous scientific work experience and responsibilities, and consequently have to rely on a comprehensive and thorough introduction to the rules and regulations of academia. Without awareness of good scientific practice they are susceptible to adapt established, faulty routines for their own possible future scientific career, extrapolating existing conflicts and misconduct. In a supervisory relationship all aspects of good scientific practice underlie two extremes: massive pressure to succeed or absent supervision. In both scenarios power is abused and both motivate sloppy work, diminish quality assurance, and blur future perspectives. Concerning author contributions, the measurable unit of scientific work, an unhealthy or abusive supervision often neglects appropriate attribution for the benefit of other interests.

Consequently, the abuse of power, especially when connected to supervision acts against all aims of good scientific practice: It obstructs the development of the science ecosystem and leads to mistrust, unreliability and incredibility. GSP suggests arbitration with the help of trained ombudspersons, who should serve as first instances for such conflict cases. Ombudspersons are implemented widely and their network can be a great basis for mediating and resolving cases of power abuse and supervision conflicts. Many scientific institutions already demonstrate that these topics are inseparable by acknowledging that supervision is a matter of GSP in their respective guidelines. Nevertheless our experience show, that this is barely followed in everyday work. Therefore more has to be done to recognize and implement trustworthy supervision and the prevention of power abuse for better science.

Who is in the position to proclaim a supervision conflict?

Public proclamation of conflicts is not a central claim of us. Reporting misconduct should not be reserved to certain employees, be they direct victims, offenders or witnesses. There should be a number of instances to report to, in order to provide whistle blower with a contact they personally entrust and guarantee discretion. For the benefit of all parties involved, supervision conflict cases should be addressed long before an escalation becomes inevitable and measures can be taken to resolve a conflict. However, the relevance of low-threshold communication about possible conflicts does likewise apply to any stage of escalation. Here trustworthy entities can be central or decentral Ombudspersons, complaint offices (Beschwerdestelle), Equal Opportunities officer (Gleichstellungsbeauftragte), directors, deans, or other trained authorities. Optimally, organizations provide a committee independent of their hierarchy to which cases can be forwarded and which evaluates them in accordance to standards of professional conflict resolution management. After careful consideration of the available evidence it should be with the consulted body to proclaim and mediate the conflict. If the conflict could not be resolved the case may be redirected to the next higher unbiased and independent authority.

You say that supervisors should, apart from guidance and scientific mentoring, help with career development and ensure mental and physical health of Doctoral Researchers. How do you think can supervisors manage that besides their own careers and administrative tasks? And moreover, shouldn’t Doctoral Researchers as adults be in the position to take responsibility for themselves?

We believe that doctoral researchers should be respected as responsible and independent scientists, which includes the associated scientific freedom and responsibilities. We expect the same of supervisors, which includes their freedom to pursue their scientific interest and appreciate the responsibility for their scientific employees. Here, the scientific success lies in the interest of the group leader, but not exclusively with the doctoral researcher. For both, an academic career and perspectives outside academia the graduate needs overarching qualifications, which are often not trained but self-taught. In order to learn best practices and determine career perspectives, doctoral researchers need at least some offers for qualifications beyond their everyday work. We realize that career development is predominantly an institutional challenge: to provide doctoral researchers with soft skill seminars, professional qualification, and offer opportunities for networking with e.g. alumni, mentors, and potential employers. Here, we see the role of the supervisor to grant the necessary freedom to take these opportunities and to give regular and critical feedback on the future perspectives in science and beyond. This is a dimension often completely lacking and realistically compatible with the time management and freedom of a responsible, professional scientific supervisor.

To ensure well being obviously does not imply, that supervisors have to guarantee that doctoral researchers may not become sick. But we observe that early career scientists are often exploited with the full understanding of their supervisors. They are seeing the dangers of overwork and exhaustion but do not act on them. This may be a cause of external pressure, ignorance, or the limited time of a direct working relationship, possibly making long term damages to the doctoral researcher’s health no concern for the supervisor. Sometimes even persons of leading scientific positions express that in order to successfully master a doctoral degree, the doctoral researcher necessarily has to conquer failure and hopelessness. Scientifically, there is striking evidence that doctoral researchers suffer increasingly from mental health problems (Peterse et al., 2018). Therefore, we pledge for acceptance of these facts and for a common understanding, that doctoral researchers are humans with strengths and weaknesses. Supervisors must be able to recognize and act accordingly when first signs of mental illnesses show up. For a good supervisor this is no extra work: The supervisor should not pressure doctoral researchers beyond their limits and be sensitive to their challenges. Information about the current state of wellbeing can be inquired in regular meetings, by asking the doctoral researcher directly. The knowledge to verbalize the right questions and managing a conversation accordingly can be transferred by leadership trainings and mental health workshops for supervisors with lesser experience. For the most part we expect the doctoral researcher to responsibly and honestly respond to such questions, as adults do.

Are academic researchers more  prone to power abuse? If so, what do you think are reasons for that?

Yes! This is not due to the susceptibility of the academic researcher per se but due to the pronounced hierarchy in academia, the high pressure to “publish or perish” and above all the universal dependency of doctoral researcher on their supervisor: the latter often controls the contract, almost always the evaluation of the thesis, and influences the scientific credit gained in the community. And it does not stop with the graduation, regarding a potential future career in science a doctoral researcher have to rely on a good recommendation of their supervisor. Accordingly, sustained negative feedback may have huge consequences on contract, thesis and the doctoral researcher’s career. Additionally, in the scientific environment the networks are often small and reputations can be manipulated.

Furthermore, scientific leaders are primarily evaluated by their scientific achievements. Leadership qualities however are of little relevance for selection and  seen as naturally occurring characteristics which develop self-taught and based on life experiences but not as trainable competencies and are therefore often not trained at all. Furthermore, we believe the relative short duration of typical employments in the early stages of a science career, associated with no supporting feedback structure in academia lead to little identification of the leaders with their doctoral researchers. When conflicts arise self-inflicted or caused externally, situations occur, which the parties are incapable to manage or resolve. Ultimately, when decisions are made the fate of a single doctoral researcher is of little importance for a supervisor in the scope of scientific success.

On the one hand you demand full confidentiality, e.g. of the independent committee that is supposed to arbitrate conflicts, but on the other hand you also want to report people to funding bodies. How is that compatible?

In our opinion, these aspects have little to do with each other. The independent committee should be an institutional body of highest relevance, to investigate and judge about the credibility of accusations. Furthermore it should mediate conflicts and enact consequences for misbehavior. During the investigation, anonymity of all parties should be respected, but if someone has been found guilty of misconduct appropriate consequences should follow. Reporting findings of scientific misconduct of the investigation to funding bodies should be one measure. What sort of implications result from this, should be left to judgement by the funding body.