Accountability & Justice (s03e06)

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[00:00:00] Sarahanne Field: Hi and welcome to the Open Update. I'm Sarahanne Field.

[00:00:04] Chris Hartgerink: And I'm Chris Hartgerink

[00:00:05] Sarahanne Field: In the Open Update podcast, we discuss power dynamics that affect us as researchers, the research community, and society more broadly. Each episode is around 15 minutes and we post a new one every two weeks.

Don't forget that we love to talk about issues that affect you as a researcher. So to pitch episode topics to us, join our Signal app group.

Today, we'll be talking about... Chris, do you wanna introduce the topic?

[00:00:33] Chris Hartgerink: Last week I was at the Recognition and Rewards festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It made me think about how the debate around questionable research practices almost a decade ago led to this idea of incentives pressuring researchers to do things that don't benefit research. As a result, we need to change the academic incentive system.

I know there's a lot of criticism on such causal reasoning because researchers or people are not robots, automatons. But it made me think about this question of, well, okay, we have questionable research practices, but we also have questionable academic practices, and what would the synonym of recognition and rewards in that space be?

What initiative could we start to really push back on these questionable academic practices? I thought this would be a perfect topic to also talk about here on the podcast, because questionable academic practices are very much about the power imbalances and the effects of it.

[00:01:39] Sarahanne Field: I think that's a great idea for a topic. Certainly because I've always had the feeling that the idea of questionable research practices are really focused on the individual researcher themselves, the things that they do wrong. It can be quite destructive when we talk about individual researchers, when, where, product of a system that we're trying to work within.

It certainly seems like looking at questionable academic practices comes out a little bit and looks at some more systemic problems that we face as researchers. So I like the idea of shifting that and taking a look at that from a different lens.

[00:02:14] Chris Hartgerink: The frame of questionable research practices as being very individual is also, for the people coming from psychology, very much the frame that has created friction, tension between the people saying "we need to reform science" and the people who it's about.

For example, in psychology, we had a lot of discussion around QRP and how that affected research results. I agree with you that I think it's a very good way to take back the narrative and say it's not just about the individuals, but it's also about the system. And it seems like there's also a zeitgeist change, the sense of, what is important to discuss.

We've spent, let's say a decade talking about how to improve research practices and now recently there was a new paper in Nature, human behavior or another nature, where the title was very apt: "quality research needs good working conditions."

I noticed this difference between the Netherlands and Germany, for example, because German research reform is much more focused on labor conditions. Whereas in the Netherlands, it feels for me to be much more focused on incentives and, Guidelines and policies.

To start us off, what are questionable academic practices? it's a new concept, or at least it's been named here and there. If you Google it, you sometimes find questionable academic practices to be done by students in terms of cheating on tests or whatnot. That's not what we're talking about here.

It's more about thinking of people being fired for trying to improve the workplace. We had the case of Susanne Täuber a few weeks ago, but also, professors or other people in management positions abusing employees and remaining in those positions. Then also everyday acts of in exclusion that infect the workplace. Think of acts of bullying or sabotage, which also happens. Dishonesty, double standards, shifting, goalposts all, potential forms of questionable academic practices.

From my own experiences, I would say that those are very plentiful. They also are widely recognized by the conversations I have at least, and the fact that they have substantive impacts on people's lives.

For example, thinking about PhD candidates where, I don't know the exact numbers, but that there is a vast number of graduate students who struggle with mental health throughout that phase of their career.

[00:05:03] Sarahanne Field: No, certainly. So I think, almost half. Something like 40 odd percent of PhD students meet criteria for serious mental health problems as a result of their studies. So that's, that is by no means, a small number.

Just as you were talking, and naming some of these more concrete, questionable academic practices, it struck me that these are numerous and insidious, absolutely terrible. They're also some of them at least, quite hard to prove hard to pin down. They're somewhat, I think they're more nefarious because they're hard to pinpoint.

If you are caught fabricating data, it's pretty clear what's going on. It's clear that there are consequences for that. It's a somewhat clear problem. But if you're talking about bullying, some of these things are quite hard to prove. They're hard to pursue as well in terms of disciplinary action because it's just, it's often we don't have the proof of this.

It strikes me that this is more important almost than questionable research practices. But also at the same time, more difficult to talk about in a sense, at least some people.

[00:06:11] Chris Hartgerink:  It's super interesting that you say it's harder to prove while at the same time it's much easier to observe. But it's much harder to do something about. Because bullying, you can observe it happening, but what do you do in a situation like that?

[00:06:27] Sarahanne Field: I think it's really common, but one challenge that I see is that we're becoming more and more aware of some of these problems. So these are happening so frequently to so many people I would imagine, you kind of get used to it. It's like the water's heating up, but you've been in the water the whole time and you're heating up along with it so you don't realize it's heating up.

We really are seeing more and more of this come to light because people are talking about it more, we're becoming more aware of it. And that's part of the idea of this whole podcast, to sensitize people to some of these issues that they may not have been aware of before.

Because when it comes to questionable research practice, I would hazard a guess that most people you would ask in research would know that fabricating data is a research sin. We're aware of that, we're sensitive to that, but how sensitive are we to some of these more more nebulous issues and behaviors.

[00:07:22] Chris Hartgerink: It's so interesting that you make this comparison because in essence it's saying that, fabricating data is more clear cut than these questionable academic practices. But what is the comparable academic practice to data fabrication? I would argue this is really, some real, emotional, verbal or even physical abuse, which I would argue is also clearly crossing a line.

And then you have the more, almost timid, questionable research practices which have become so ingrained, collecting a few additional, participants rerunning your analysis.

A comparable behavior in terms of questionable academic practices might be these minor slights, these double standards being applied and really the behavior of belittling people's emotions, which sounds super obvious that it crosses a line, but then in the day-to-day, I have frequently heard these sentences such as "don't be so emotional," "don't take things so seriously," which is a way of dismissing the effects of people's behavior.

[00:08:31] Sarahanne Field: I completely agree with you. I think that comparison doesn't go very far. As someone who's becoming more aware of these things myself, I'm becoming more aware, say of things like manipulation, gaslighting, for example.

I've always known that data fabrication is wrong, but I'm starting to realize some subtle signs of everyday sexism in the workplace that, that I wasn't aware of before, that I wasn't sensitive to before. And I get the impression that people who I'm close to, colleagues of mine, friends in research and academia, they're also, along with me becoming more and more aware of some of these more subtle, questionable academic practices.

[00:09:10] Chris Hartgerink: The beauty of it is also that, once you've fabricated data, there's no way back. You have to confess without any suspicion, and then maybe you can get to restoring it. But with these questionable academic practices, they're very relational based.

It doesn't have to do necessarily with the research. So there's also in that sense, an opportunity to really restore relations and to cultivate them and grow a much healthier space in that way.

What I really like about the effect of talking about questionable research practices is that it has led to this idea of recognition and rewards as an initiative and a title that helps people galvanize around it.

What could an initiative be called in a similar vein with regards to questionable academic practices?

I've had this conversation with some people and we started saying, well, accountability and justice might be a nice term for that, cuz it talks about, well, we should hold each other responsible, we should hold each other accountable, for the behavior, not just reward specific behaviors. And then to also put that value of justice in.

Not just recognizing and rewarding behavior, but which doesn't really have this value of what is it that we are rewarding. Within an accountability and justice to really say, we want a certain base level of accountability and a base level of justice in the workspace.

This wasn't my idea. I don't know whether the person would be comfortable with who I was discussing this with, whether I disclosed that because they were sharing experiences. So it's also the people who have precarious positions who tend to experience these precarious behaviors.

But I really like this idea of calling it accountability and justice and what does that mean for how we set up, not just academia, although we're talking about it that way, but also what does it mean for how we set up a workplace, workplace or an institution to begin with?

[00:11:11] Sarahanne Field: I love that articulation of the issue and the way that it implies that not only are there issues, but that there are actions that we might be able to take to set up. A protocol for ourselves to act within academia, within that academic system. It gives us some active things to work towards.

Do you have some examples of what those actions might be to add to that kind of ac accountability and justice framework?

[00:11:37] Chris Hartgerink: Yeah, and those are definitely lessons I've also had to learn over the course of the past five years or so. Literally as I was leaving academia, I was able to learn these things.

One of the things is really to actively practice setting boundaries for yourself, to figure out what those are and to articulate those, or even say, this is crossing a boundary for me and I can't really articulate what it is. And then to also practice with each other to respect those boundaries because it's in essence, Boundaries are always related to feelings.

And if I tell you for example, Sarahanne, that I'm feeling sad, you will have a very rough time disagreeing with me that I'm sad. It's the same with boundaries. this act of, "okay. You just did this, it made me feel uncomfortable it crossed the boundary" and then for the other person to say, "okay, thank you for sharing that boundary." Not to say I disagree with that you set this boundary right now.

Setting a boundary is really making yourself incredibly vulnerable. But that's also the act of saying, "Hey, I appreciate this relationship so much that I'm willing to engage and set that boundary instead of simply disengaging and walking away."

It's easy to get defensive when somebody says no and draws that line, but I think it's really important to appreciate that. So there's actively practicing boundary setting and respecting those boundaries.

Another point is recognizing the work people put in to understand each other and to communicate emotions, because this is often called, emotional labor. There's a great philosopher, Ellie Anderson, who went more in depth on a specific form where they say, "the burdensome work of understanding and express one's own feelings and to then also try and discern those of others."

That has nothing to do with research, nothing at all, but it's such a critical aspect to the relations on the work floor that appreciating it when somebody tries to articulate what go, what is happening for them, and to try and understand what's happening with you and to have those conversations around it. It is incredibly vulnerable, but I think that's another thing where we can really start to move towards holding each other accountable and to also create a more just, workspace and even just relations.

[00:14:19] Sarahanne Field: I completely agree. One thing that really strikes me too is that if each of us are aware, very cognizant of our own accountability within academia, even the most sort of junior of us, early career researchers, for example. You've told me a story when you were teaching, you realized that you had power over people even though you didn't feel that you were very powerful.

It's really important that, we don't assume that we are too junior or that we're too powerless to be accountable for our actions. Thinking about this framework and applying it to our behavior at any sort of level of academic, activity is really, really crucial because each of us still have a sense of a certain sense of power, even if we're not aware of it. Becoming aware of it is, really, important.

[00:15:06] Chris Hartgerink: This whole podcast season is about power imbalances. So we should definitely be able to sensitize ourselves and others to when there is a power dynamic at play.

[00:15:19] Sarahanne Field: A lot of us who are remaining in academia or attempting to are in a position where, every few years, we make a new step in the ladder. We become more senior and it kind of gradually occurs to you, "Hey, hang on, I have power over other people."

And I think that there's a potential problem with, only at the last minute when you're suddenly, an associate professor realize "oh, I have all this power over these people and it gets you by a surprise and all of a sudden you've gotta think, oh, have I been accountable for my own actions in the past?"

That's something that I'd like to leave listeners with, is to consider at your particular career stage, even if you are an early career researcher, where does accountability and justice really come into play for you in your own academic behavior?

[00:16:15] Chris Hartgerink: What is one thing that I would like people to take away?

It's this idea of "if we don't talk about things, then it's not there." I feel like that happens to me a bunch. It's very much in bad faith, but sometimes it's easier to procrastinate and do something else.

But that doesn't mean this work isn't necessary to begin with because I've learned that by not doing anything bad doesn't necessarily mean you're doing something good.

As somebody who's been socialized as a man in society, I've had situations where I would make the mistake of doing something wrong and then asking the other person to tell me what I needed to do to fix it.

One of the things I really, really want to put out front that I've learned the hard way is also: You break it. You fix it.

[00:17:16] Chris Hartgerink: That's us for this week's Open Update.

We have the Signal Group, as Sarahanne mentioned at the start of the episode. We've asked what is happening in people's worlds that they think we should be aware of as we prepare for these podcasts.

We will be back in another two weeks with our next episode. We are planning to also do a series at some point within the season.

If there's topics that you would like for us to really dive in much deeper, we're noticing that this 15 minutes slot is very nice to start scratching the surface of some of these topics, but we also wanna make sure that we create a bit of space to go in deeper and to tell a longer story about the power imbalances in academia and research and beyond.

Don't forget to recommend us to, to your friends, your colleagues, if you think we are worthy of recommending, and then you'll hear us again in two weeks.

Thank you very much.

Accountability & Justice (s03e06)
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