Loyalty is a two-way street — even in Academia

My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country,
not to its institutions or its office-holders.
“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, 1889

The more I hear about dysfunctional leadership in Academia, the more frustrated I get. I think there is a lot of discontent brewing under the surface. I’ve heard of professors who delay publications, put their names on publications they have nothing to do with (“gift” authorship, actually a case of plagiarism), who try to remove the (post-)docs name from his/her work or place it second, even let a post-doc prepare a symposium completely alone and then suddenly jump in at the start of the symposium and imply it was all their work, shocking the post-doc and leaving that person in total confusion and betrayal.

I don’t think that these professors are the majority of professors, perhaps they are only a small percentage, but they exist. And people talk about them. While there are people who bash others without an actual reason, there is a certain pain in the faces and voices of the docs and post-docs when they talk about the negative experiences they have had. You know it when something really did happen, even if you are hearing only one part of the story.

And its no fun — the realization that they are/were played, that the reward of their efforts is stolen or diminished by someone who should be on their side and support them to make it in Academia. And strangely enough, the docs/postdocs who were really screwed frequently search for fault in their actions.

Partly — I think — because there rarely is an open discussion about these incidents. Within and beyond departments this would be career suicide. You can talk about it privately, even when going for a drink during a conference, but not publicly. It is seen as an absolutely disloyal behavior and is severely sanctioned. The person who complains is seen at fault — even having a severe character flaw, being a gossip, a traitor — not the department head who played them. It’s a bit like the old proverb: “A person who gossips with you gossips about you.” Only in this case it’s not gossip. It’s a serious problem if part of the next generation of scientists are played, if they are discouraged from continuing to work in science, if their motivation is crushed or choked by bad leadership, if they can’t be sure that the work they do and the ideas they have are actually accurately attributed to them.

And I think science loses a lot of highly qualified and potentially great scientists this way. The only way this system would make sense is if all the hope for scientific breakthroughs is put on a few “Golden Boys/Girls” who are supported on the backs of all others. But while this might be a problem in other situations, as far as I can see, people who exploit their docs/postdocs do so without exception (even an occasional Star Wars like Sith Lord relationship only works for a while).

But still, beyond a conversation with your peers (docs/post-docs), you cannot talk about bad leadership in science. It would be suicide to mention this, for example, in a job application interview. Telling another professor that you cannot continue to work in a department, because the department head … sucks the air out of the room, creates an oppressing or vacuum-like atmosphere, stifles innovation by demonstrating that “all your ideas belong to me” … is not a good strategy. It’s seen as disloyal and many would not believe you anyway, given that a lot of bad leaders are very good at impression management. These people know how to play the system and look like energetic, open and fair individuals. I’ve seen a couple of people who changed their workplace and it took them weeks or months to volunteer this information in a private conversation. And they sure as hell didn’t mention it in the interview.

And I think this is an unacceptable situation, at least for two reasons:

  1. People who are in bad departments are not only are hampered in their scientific work, they have it very hard to leave and get into an environment where they can show what they can achieve. They are trying to run with leg irons and cannot build up the publication list needed to get a better job.
  2. People looking for a place to start/continue their scientific career are not warned about the … peculiarities of that specific job. They rightfully expect a working environment where they can focus on their work and reap its rewards — and are completely blindsided. It’s inherently unfair. Note that it might even be possible to deliberately decide to work in a “bad” department, if you know about it in advance. Sometimes it is a question of fit, there might be people who can work in these environments if they know about it in advance and take necessary precautions.

But in both cases, what usually happens is that good people are drawn in and burned out — and there is no way of stopping this. Talk spreads, but it spreads slowly and haphazardly. But given the strange assumption that openly criticizing the department head is disloyal, there is no way to distribute this information publicly, visible to all.

“Strange”, because loyalty is a two-way street. And yes, if that loyalty is broken by the employer, the employee should not be held accountable to it. And yes, the best thing you can do under these circumstances as employee is too leave — if you find a suitable new position. But it’s not only you who should get out — the information about the breach of loyalty, of trust, has to get out as well, to prevent others from falling into the same trap.

After all, one-sided loyalty is not loyalty — it’s slavish obedience that has no place in a civilized society. Least of all Academia.

1 Comment

  1. Yes, it’s plagiarism, at best. Totally dishonest. But, how common?
    Surely there are senior people in related fields who can complain? Why protect a criminal?

    But overall, yes, biotech money has had bad effects on academic morals.

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