Scientific misconduct and sexual harassment: Similar problems with similar solutions?

Michael Chwe
Michael Chwe

Today colleges and universities face a crisis of accountability in two domains: scientific misconduct and sexual harassment or assault.  Scientific misconduct and sexual harassment/assault are obviously different, but the way they are reported, handled, and play out have many similarities. Michael Chwe at the University of California in Los Angeles has been thinking about this for a while.  Just last summer his own department was rocked by the high-profile retraction of a Science paper about gay canvassers, and two graduate students in the UCLA history department sued the university for failing to investigate sexual harassment complaints.  Chwe suggests that, if scientific misconduct and sexual assault are similar, they might have similar solutions.

Scientific misconduct and sexual assault have more in common than you might think.

For starters, in both scientific misconduct cases and sexual assault or sexual harassment cases, typically a weak person accuses a powerful person. The accused is usually much closer to administrators and the investigative system: the first administrator to confront Diederik Stapel with charges that he had faked his data played tennis with Stapel every Wednesday, and told him that he would “like nothing better” than to believe in Stapel’s innocence.  After an investigation found that Sujit Choudhry, dean of the UC Berkeley Law School, sexually harassed executive assistant Tyann Sorrell, UC Berkeley Provost Claude Steele told Sorrell that he would not fire Choudhry because it might “destroy his future chances for higher appointment.”

In contrast, people who report scientific fraud and sexual assault and harassment typically do not have powerful friends, and decide to report at great personal cost.  The students of Elizabeth Goodwin abandoned many years of graduate school study in order to report that Goodwin had faked data.  As Sarah LaMartina told Science in 2006:

We kept thinking, ‘Are we just stupid [to turn Goodwin in]?’ . . . Sure, it’s the right thing to do, but right for who? . . .  Who is going to benefit from this?  Nobody.

LaMartina lost her appetite and fifteen pounds, while faculty members in the department all supported Goodwin.  Similarly, sexual assault is one of the least reported crimes: In a 2015 survey of 23,000 college students, only 12.5 percent of rape incidents and 4.3 percent of sexual battery incidents experienced by women were reported to authorities.  People reporting sexual assault face the possibility of violent reprisals, not being believed by authorities, and even being blamed for the assault.

A particularly insidious dynamic in both scientific fraud and sexual assault and harassment is that people who report it are made to feel that they themselves are implicated in the offense.  In a 2006 survey published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, the vast majority of women who were raped did not report to authorities; the most common reason they provided (63 percent) was that they themselves would be blamed for the assault.  Similarly, as pointed out in a 2010 editorial by the journal Nature:

A young scientist’s reputation is tethered to the successes and failures of his or her adviser, and when that adviser is accused of misconduct, trainees can also be viewed with suspicion.

Even for an established scientist, accusing another of fraud can be very costly.  In her book about Jan Hendrik Schön, Eugenie Samuel Reich writes:

A whistleblower of scientific fraud once told me that he felt he needed the right to remain anonymous for the rest of his life. “Like a rape victim,” he said. . . . Thinking of a fraud allegation as if it were an allegation of sexual abuse, I could start to understand on an instinctive level why scientists might feel strongly and yet be very fearful about coming forward.

There is often a lack of clarity about what constitutes a violation.  In 2012, the RAND Corporation surveyed the US military about sexual assault, asking whether anyone had “sexually touched you (e.g., intentional touching of genitalia, breasts, or buttocks) or made you sexually touch them” without your consent.  This question seems all too clear, but in 2014 RAND changed it because sexual assault crimes need not “arouse or gratify sexual desires. . . . The law also recognizes assaults that are designed only for the purpose of abusing, humiliating, harassing, or demeaning the victim.”  For example, punching a man’s testicles, which is not “sexual touching” and might be dismissed as “roughhousing” or “hazing,” is abusive sexual contact as defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  In the writing realm, after Doris Kearns Goodwin had been found to have extensively plagiarized, fourteen eminent historians tried to defend Goodwin by writing: “Plagiarism is a deliberate intent to purloin the words of another and to represent them as one’s own.”  But almost all definitions of plagiarism state that plagiarism does not require intent.

People often recommend “common-sense” solutions that miss the reality of the problem.  After six women recently sued the University of Tennessee in federal court for “deliberate indifference” toward sexual assault, women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick stated in the Tennesseean:

We don’t encourage drinking, (but) kids drink. . . . They are going to go to parties, and you just hope they make the right choices. As coaches, we are in an environment here that is a safe environment. So it’s up to us to let them know, ‘No, you don’t walk down the street by yourself.’

But Warlick’s comments are not relevant to the lawsuit’s allegations — for example, as reported by Deadspin, that “the perpetrators and athletic department could deter and discourage victims from pursuing complaints by . . . delaying the investigation process until the athlete perpetrators transferred to another school or graduated without sanction or discipline.”

Warlick’s statement reminds me of the common explanation that scientific misconduct is due to “the fiercely competitive nature of research funding and the hardscrabble intensity of scientific status seeking.”  But this does not apply to cases like the infamous Study 329 carried out by GlaxoSmithKline; the company was fined $3 billion by the US Department of Justice for fraudulently claiming that paroxetine was safe for adolescents.  Not one of the authors of the journal article that made this false claim, including Martin Keller, chief of psychiatry at Brown University, has been disciplined or has called for the paper to be retracted.  This is not about “hardscrabble intensity,” but, as in the accusations against the University of Tennessee, institutional corruption.

After remaining silent for decades, many women publicly accused Bill Cosby of rape once they learned that many other women were making similar allegations.  Mechanisms to share information can thus greatly facilitate reporting.  Recently, the website PubPeer has greatly facilitated finding scientific misconduct.  At PubPeer, people can anonymously criticize published journal articles, for example discussing whether an article’s images have been digitally manipulated.  Anonymity and sharing are essential to the PubPeer model.

Could we have a PubPeer for sexual assault and sexual harassment?  This year, the University of San Francisco and Pomona College have adopted a web-based system for reporting sexual assault called Callisto.  Callisto, designed with the input of sexual assault survivors, allows a survivor to upload and time-stamp evidence and then decide later whether to report it to authorities.  Also, people can choose to have their evidence sent to authorities only if someone else reports the same perpetrator.  This idea, introduced by Ian Ayres and Cait Unkovic, is called an “information escrow” because information from each person is held “in escrow” until more than one person reports.  This encourages people to report partial evidence which can corroborate the evidence of others, and ensures that no one will be the sole accuser.  Of course there are differences between PubPeer and Callisto: in PubPeer, only comments that are publicly verifiable given the published record are allowed (for example, you cannot claim that someone committed fraud based on evidence that only you can access).  For sexual assault, the absence of publicly verifiable information is exactly the problem which must be solved.

PubPeer has been criticized for enabling “vigilante science” instead of “quiet discussion.”  The PubPeer team replies that “a quiet chat . . . is certainly a good way to minimize hurt feelings, but it is totally ineffective as a strategy for disseminating information.”  Indeed, suggesting that we keep discussions about sexual assault quiet and private is exactly the wrong approach.

Given that such a small percentage of sexual assaults are reported, it is essential to encourage reporting.  For survivors who do decide to report, the most commonly reported reason is to prevent the offender from assaulting other people.  Mary Allen, one of the graduate students who reported the fraud of Elizabeth Goodwin, told Science in 2006 that “[m]y biggest worry was what if we didn’t turn her in . . . and different grad students got stuck in our position.”  With enough creativity and effort, we can develop institutions that allow the people most hurt by sexual assault and by scientific fraud to share information and help each other.

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17 thoughts on “Scientific misconduct and sexual harassment: Similar problems with similar solutions?”

  1. The solution is simple, and will never be implemented: Universities should stop covering up for professors who don’t know how to behave ethically. But universities are bubbles of mutual hand-washing. They never will.

    1. “The solution” is not as simple as it appears. Do we want to prevent or punish misconduct? Or both? We attempt to do both in a multitude of ways, I’m sure you can recount them as well as I can. Misconduct is as old as humankind. Sexual drives and competition—including science-centric–are as basic to us as eating, sleeping, and breathing. We fumble from one fix after another, so far. What else is there to do but keep trying? We do know a few things, though. A word of caution before acting to prevent or punish a particular instance. Study what others have experienced. And keep in mind that reading or talking about doing something about a particular misconduct, or alleged misconduct, is completely different from taking individual action. We know it is much more difficult and fraught with risk. Know what you are doing, collect evidence-like any good scientist, vet the evidence, and be prepared to defend the evidence and your actions.


      I am aware of a situation in which a person was fired or forced to resign from multiple places for misconduct. These were covered up in a way that has allowed this person to continue publishing fabricated and plagiarized work for the past several decades. The shenanigans continue, but (probably due to Retraction Watch) employers are now able to save themselves the time and trouble of hiring and then investigating this person.

  2. It should be mentioned that these issues of scientific misconduct and sexual harassment happened together in the case of “Ivory Tower Phony ? Sex, Lies, and Fraud Alleged in West Virginia University Case – NBC News” The investigation was funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Both interesting and scary. Too many details to relate here. Google “Anoop Shankar West Virginia University” Learn the meaning of O-1 V. I don’t understand how he was able to gain employment but later on terminated at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) after being exposed as a fraud and ousted at WVU. Homeland Security doesn’t know or doesn’t want to reveal as to where he is now for privacy concerns.

  3. This article is bizzare for many reasons, not least of which is that it doesn’t even get the basics right. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are legally different. Sexual assault is considered a violation of human rights and a crime. To suggest that someone reporting scientific misconduct is experiencing the same level of personal, physical, and emotional violation of a rape survivor is truly, deeply offensive. I’m at a complete loss as to why RW would think this is appropriate to post on its site.

    1. I don’t think the article is saying that “.. someone reporting scientific misconduct is experiencing the same level of personal, physical, and emotional violation of a rape survivor..”
      I believe the article is suggesting that their are some similarities in how the reports are handled I.e. – people not believed, investigations drawn out/supressed, bias against those in the weaker position.
      I don’t think the article (or anyone) is suggesting the crimes have the same effect between whistle blowers and rape/assault victims…

      1. Actually, the article directly quotes someone who suggests whistleblowing and rape have similar effects:

        “A whistleblower of scientific fraud once told me that he felt he needed the right to remain anonymous for the rest of his life. “Like a rape victim,” he said. . . . Thinking of a fraud allegation as if it were an allegation of sexual abuse, I could start to understand on an instinctive level why scientists might feel strongly and yet be very fearful about coming forward.'”

        Rape, like any other type of physical assault, involves physical contact between a perpetrator and a complainant. Whistleblowing, while potentially traumatic, does not, by definition, involve a perpetrator physically contacting the whistleblower.

    2. Surprisingly, the experience of reporting scientific misconduct can indeed result in the helpless and powerless feelings that rape survivors often feel. I found this article surprisingly intuitive and on-target.

  4. I really cannot agree with the premise of this article. Sexual harassment and academic misconduct have hugely different power dynamics and are committed for vastly different reasons. Academic misconduct can be and is perpetrated by all ranks of researchers and is usually done in secret, and doesn’t inherently involve using position coerce fellow workers. It doesn’t follow that the complainant will be junior, nor that the respondent will be senior, nor that there is even a “victim”.
    Sexual harassment is almost always commited by a senior (male) colleague against a vulnerable individual who will be all too aware of what is going on. The perpetrator will use their seniority to silence their victim(s) and there is always a victim.
    I can agree that handling both requires Institutions to be open, approachable and to act swiftly and effectively in the event of allegations, but there’s where the similarities end.

    1. I completely agree with you. A whistleblower who alleges academic misconduct via sites like PubPeer may have no connection to the perpetrator apart from having read the paper. Their status as a “victim” of the misconduct is questionable.

  5. You must be kidding with this. Equate sexual harassment and academic misconduct? The one is a violation of a person’s body and physical safety. The other is not. Avenues for open communication are essential in both, but equating them to make this point is a dive into male privilege and a total lack of awareness of the impact of sexual harassment and rape on its vulnerable victims. This is a shockingly ill-conceived piece of opinion.

    1. Agreed. I can’t help but think Michael Chwe has spent far too much time thinking, and not nearly enough time reading either his university’s policies on sexual violence/assault, or actual research on the impact of sexual assault instead of a few news articles and editorials. He should also read a little on the definition of sexual abuse, because he’s apparently unaware that it’s legally quite different to either sexual harassment or assault, in that the victim is a minor.

    2. Second sentence in the article: “Scientific misconduct and sexual harassment/assault are obviously different, but the way they are reported, handled, and play out have many similarities.”

      He is not talking about the acts themselves, which is what you refer to. He is talking about the process of reporting and investigating. We currently get this process very, very wrong on many college campuses.

      As to impact of scientific misconduct versus rape, I agree they are vastly disproportionate. However, I think people dying of measles thanks to Andrew Wakefield also qualifies as “a violation of a person’s body and physical safety.”

      It is an unfortunate reality that institutions who do the right thing take a hit in reputation. It should be the other way around.

      1. Beyond being willing, open and sensitive in handling allegations of either misconduct or sexual harrassment, there are few similarities between the two. The investigations themselves will take different forms and will typically be conducted by different parts of the organisation – research office (or equivalent) versus HR. Evidence will be in substantially different forms, victims and witnesses will be in very different positions and frames of mind. I think the author took the point that organisations need to be aware of these two issues in particular, and willing and ready to investigate complaints, and then grossly over extended the point, whilst actually ignoring some of the fundemental differences that make both so difficult to handle, to make a paper out of what is essentially a common sense statement.

        1. The author initially appears to compare only two issues – the post’s title links misconduct and sexual harassment – but then introduces sexual assault, and throws in a quote regarding sexual abuse as well. These are all different offenses, and UC’s policies (of which the author should certainly be aware) details the differences between sexual harassment and sexual violence (which includes sexual assault), the different procedures for handling both, and guidelines for determining which process is used (eg ). The author uses the terms interchangeably, suggesting he does not understand these differences. His claim to have identified similarities in the way academic misconduct and sexual harassment/assault “are reported, handled, and play out” therefore lacks credibility.

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