Tag Archives: academia

When the campus sexual harassment policy doesn’t work

Which is, let’s face it, a lot.

We would all prefer a system for handling sexual harassment claims that used a fair and rigorous process of investigation and delivered proportionate consequences in a timely way. We don’t have that, for several reasons.

As I think about harassment in academic contexts, I’m struck by the problem of conferences, job changers, and cross-institution collaborations. Even if the internal process on a particular campus worked well, that would only address a subset of possible harassment cases. Academics change jobs (sometimes frequently) and they harass people who don’t work at their own institutions — but people who are nonetheless subordinates in the reputation system, or co-authors, or reviewees, or people who hope to work for the harasser or their friends and colleagues in the future. How can the campus-based system address these cases? As far as I know, it can’t. (For example, consider this good advice to graduate students about how to deal with sexual harassment, and ask how it would work if the harasser didn’t work on your campus.)

And of course even when cases fall within the jurisdiction of campus systems, these systems are often seriously flawed, inordinately focused on protecting their institutions instead of the victims (past or future) and the perpetrators are protected by tenure.

For job changers, biologist Jason Lieb, a multimillion-dollar grant recipient who quickly moved from the University of North Carolina to Princeton to Chicago, apparently trying to stay ahead of the sexual harassment and abuse cases that were trailing him, even as he continued to carry out new offenses. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but it seems that only public exposure finally dislodged him.

picture of Jason Lieb

This picture of Jason Lieb was still up on the page announcing his new job at the University of Chicago two days ago when I mentioned it on Twitter. Now the page has been taken down.

For tenure protections, consider Berkeley astronomer Geoff Macy, who got a slap on the wrist after repeated findings of responsibility for violating campus sexual harassment policies. Only after Buzzfeed blew the whistle did he lose his job. Buzzfeed also has a great story by by Tyler Kingkade about how hard it is to fire tenured professors for sexual harassment. English professor Andrew Escobedo remains on paid leave 18 months after the university concluded he sexually harassed multiple people. The story also details cases in which professors quit before they could be fired, as local investigations dragged on, which could protect them as they look for other jobs. That’s what Jasob Lieb did: “Dr. Lieb stepped down last month before any action was taken.”

Is sociology better or worse than other disciplines? We don’t know. But it looks like public exposure is necessary to apply pressure to improve this system. To that end, last week, Liana Sayer and I offered to help people bring cases in sociology to light. Read the post for more information on that.


See also: Adia Harvey Wingfield, “Are Universities Enabling Sexual Harassment and Assault?” from June, way before all this recent news. The Chronicle also had a rundown of cases the other day.

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Sexual harassment: Et tu, Sociology?

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Unrelated picture of Women’s March, January 21, 2017 / photo pnc

I once asked a journalist to cover a case of sexual harassment I knew about in a sociology department. In the discussion that followed, they told me that journalists aren’t the only ones who can do this, and that academia should police its own kind. Further, those of us who have tenure should step up and take some of the risk associated with cleaning house.

So my colleague Liana Sayer and I have an offer. If you have first-hand knowledge of sexual harassment in sociology, tell us about it. We’ll collect information and report on it.

We won’t sully reputations based on unsubstantiated rumors. But if there are serious problems going unreported, we should do something about it. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone more powerful to give us permission to speak up. Liana and I can take a little risk. And if the reputations of bad actors get damaged, that is OK — professional reputations should not be a ratchet, even if the tenure system makes it seem like they are. This has nothing to do with “witch hunts,” and everything to do with making our profession safe and productive and equitable.

As sociologists, we know that many, probably most, professional women have experienced sexual harassment in their training or careers — and we know that both the prevalence and impact of such experiences is shaped by the cultural and institutional context within which they work. In economics, a feminist initiative has taken on the “pervasive misogyny” in the field, prompted by furor over the discipline’s anonymous rumor board. In sociology we have not yet had such a catalyst.

Here’s our proposed procedure: Send an email to my gmail address (philipncohen@), tell us as much as you’re comfortable with, or simply ask us to call you. You can do this individually or in groups. We won’t discuss it with anyone at all until we’ve contacted you and agreed on how to proceed. We’ll ask you for more information if we need to. Before anything goes public, we will take steps to verify anything we can, and corroborate with witness, and so on — like the reporters do — with your permission. Then, with your permission,  we will report on the findings, and name names. This will include giving the alleged bad actor a chance to respond, but only after we are satisfied that there’s something to report regardless of their response.

If we don’t hit a threshold for what we consider responsible reporting, we won’t report anything. Of course, you can tell anyone else, including journalists or the police, any time. We’re not trying to get an exclusive, we’re trying to shine a light.

We are not defining sexual harassment in advance here; there are legal and normative definitions you can follow or not. We don’t need to meet a legal standard to speak up, but we need to be responsible and ethical.

If no one contacts us and nothing comes of it, great. If instead people decide to use some other method and ignore this, that’s great. If people talk about this issue just to say how much they hate me or I’m trying to get attention or I’m acting badly, that’s probably a good thing, too. If you think we’re just virtue signaling, we’re OK with that. If you conclude, “Oh they just want everyone to know they’re against sexual harassment,” that’s great — despite its bad rap, “virtue signaling” is also how norms happen. (On the other hand, if we get swamped with messages we’ll have to decide how to triage the cases. With your permission, we might recruit help.)

We hope this will be part of elevating the discussion to the point at which we start to take steps to improve the situation more systematically. We want to see better policies and practices, which could at at the level of the American Sociological Association, our colleges and universities, or our departments. In light of the obvious retreat in federal policy toward Title IX and sex discrimination enforcement, we need to find creative, proactive responses. We hope evidence will help.

Disclaimers: We’re not lawyers, and we don’t give legal advice. We’re not doing this as a part of our job duties at the University of Maryland. If a court forces us to turn over what we have, we will. My lay understanding of the open documents rules in Maryland is that our private email is not subject to records requests to the state, but I could be wrong. If you choose to contact us, you’re trusting us to do our best, and we will do our best. We can’t promise any result (or any response at all if we don’t know what to do). If we fail and it becomes a disaster and people try to fire or sue us, I hope we’ll figure out how to win it.

 

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Sociology’s culture of trust, don’t verify

Replication in sociology is a disaster. There basically isn’t any. Accountability is something a select few people opt into; as a result, mostly people with nothing to hide ever have their work verified or replicated. Even when work is easily replicable, such as that using publicly available datasets, there is no common expectation that anyone will do it, and no support for doing it; basically no one funds or publishes replications.

Peer review is good, but it’s not about replicability, because it almost always relies on the competence and good faith of the authors. Reviewers might say, “This looks funny, did you try this or that?” But if the author says, “Yes, I did that,” that’s usually the end of it. Academic sociology, in short, runs on a system of trust. That’s worth exactly what it’s worth. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I thought of this today when I read the book excerpt by Mark Regnerus in the Wall Street Journal. (I haven’t read his new book, Cheap Sex yet, although I called the basic arguments a “big ball of wrong” three years ago when he first published them.) Regnerus opens that essay with a single quote supposedly from an anonymous 24-year-old recent college graduate that absolutely perfectly represents his thesis:

If you know what girls want, then you know you should not give that to them until the proper time. If you do that strategically, then you can really have anything you want…whether it’s a relationship, sex, or whatever. You have the control.

(Regnerus argues men have recently gained control over sex because women have stopped demanding marriage in exchange for it.)

Scholars and readers in sociology don’t normally question whether specific quotes in qualitative research are real or not. We argue over the interpretation, or elements of the research design that might call the interpretation into question (such as the method of selecting respondents or a field site). But if we simply don’t trust the author, what do we do? In the case of Regnerus, we know that he has lied, a lot, about important things related to his research. So how do you read his research in a discipline with no norm of verification or replicability, a discipline naively based on trust? The fake news era is here; we have to address this. Fortunately, every other social discipline already is, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Tackling it

Of course there are complicated issues with different kinds of sociology, especially qualitative work. It’s one of the things people wrestled with in the Contexts forum Syed Ali and I organized for the American Sociological Association on how to do ethnography right.

That forum took place in the wake of all the attention Alice Goffman received for her book, and article, On the Run (my posts on that are under this tag). One person who followed that controversy closely was law professor Steven Lubet, who has written a new book titled, “Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters,” which addresses that situation in depth. The book comes out October 20, at a conference at Northwestern University’s law school. I will be one of a number of people commenting on the book and its implications.

inteth

I hope you can come to the event in Chicago.

Finally, regardless of your opinion on recent controversies in sociology, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to read (and, if you’re in such a position, require that your students read) “Replication in Social Science,” by Jeremy Freese and David Peterson, in the latest Annual Review of Sociology (SocArXiv preprint; journal version). Freese and Peterson refer to sociology as “the most undisciplined social science,” and they write:

As sociologists, the most striking thing in reviewing recent developments in social science replication is how much all our neighbors seem to be talking and doing about improving replicability. Reading economists, it is hard not to connect their relatively strict replication culture with their sense of importance: shouldn’t a field that has the ear of policy-makers do work that is available for critical inspection by others? The potential for a gloomy circle ensues, in which sociology would be more concerned with replication and transparency if it was more influential, but unwillingness to keep current on these issues prevents it from being more influential. In any case, the integrative and interdisciplinary ambitions of many sociologists are obviously hindered by the field’s inertness on these issues despite the growing sense in nearby disciplines that they are vital to ensuring research integrity.

That paper has some great ideas for easy reforms to start out with. But we need to get the conversation moving. In addition developing replication standards and norms, we need to get the next generation of sociologists some basic training in the (jargon alert!) political economy of scholarly communication and the publishing ecosystem. The individual incentives are weak, but the need for the discipline to act is very strong. If we can at least get sociologists to be vaguely aware of the attention to this issue generated in most other social science disciplines, it would be a great step forward.

Incidentally, Freese will also present on the topic of replication at the O3S: Open Scholarship for the Social Sciences symposium SocArXiv is hosting at the University of Maryland later this month; still time to register!

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Advice for and about ASA

Last summer the incoming American Sociological Association President, Michèle Lamont, asked me to offer some advice to ASA about open access publishing issues. It was an open-ended request, and I didn’t know how to go about it. My understanding of ASA is that it is not well outfitted as a change agent; it’s much more likely to respond to external developments in its ecosystem than to take the lead, especially when its revenue stream is at stake. Nevertheless, lots of good people work in and around the association, and it has great capacity. (I am involved myself, as co-editor of the ASA magazine Contexts, as chair-elect of the Family Section, and as secretary treasurer of the Population Section.) So I wrote a short essay on what ASA might do, or what its members might do or demand of it.

It’s not coincidental that this is posted on the SocArXiv blog, SocOpen, which is part of that changing external environment that I hope will lead to ASA adapting for the better. I believe that devoting my energy to this project is producing something tangible for research and scholarly communication, while also pressuring ASA (and maybe other associations) to move in the right direction.

I hope you’ll read it on SocOpen.

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No paper, no news (#NoPaperNoNews)

nopapernonews

In the abstract, the missions of science and science reporting align. But in the market arena they both have incentives to cheat, stretch, and rush. Members of the two groups sometimes have joint interests in pumping up research findings. Reporters feel pressure to get scoops on cutting edge research, research that they want to appear important as well as true — so they may want to avoid a pack of whining, jealous tweed-wearers seen as more hindrance than help. And researchers (and their press offices) want to get splashy, positive coverage of their discoveries that isn’t bogged down by the objections of all those whining, jealous tweed-wearers either.

Despite some bad incentives, the alliance between good researchers and good reporters may be growing stronger these days, with the potential to help stem the daily tide of ridiculous stories. Partly due to social media interaction, it’s become easier for researchers to ping reporters directly about their research, or about a problem with a story; and it’s become easier for reporters to find and contact researchers to cover their work, and for comment or analysis of research they’re covering. The result is an increase in research reporting that is skeptical and exploratory rather than just exuberant or exaggerated. Some of this rapid interaction between experts researchers and expert reporters, in fact, operates as a layer of improved peer review, subjecting potentially important research to more extreme vetting at just the right moment.

Those of us in these relationships who want to do the right thing really do need each other. And one way to help is to encourage the development of prosocial norms and best practices. To that end, I think we should agree on a No Paper No News pact. Let’s pledge:

  • If you are a researcher, or university press office, and you want your research covered, free up the paper — and insist that news coverage link to it. Make the journal open a copy, or post a preprint somewhere like SocArXiv.
  • If you are a reporter or editor, and you want to cover new research, insist that the researcher, university, or journal, provide open access to its content — then link to it.
  • If you are a consumer of science or research reporting, and you want to evaluate news coverage, look for a clear link to an open access copy of the paper. If you don’t see one, flag it with the #NoPaperNoNews tag, and pressure the news/research collaborators to comply with this basic best practice.

This is not an extremist approach. I’m not saying we must require complete open access to all research (something I would like to see, of course). And this is not dissing the peer review process, which, although seriously flawed in its application, is basically a good idea. But peer review is nothing like a guarantee that research is good, and it’s even less a guarantee that research as translated through a news release and then a reporter and an editor is reliable and responsible. #NoPaperNoNews recognizes that when research enters the public arena through the news media, it may become important in unanticipated ways, and it may be subject to more irresponsible uses, misunderstandings, and exploitation. Providing direct access to the research product itself makes it possible for concerned people to get involved and speak up if something is going wrong. It also enhances the positive impact of the research reporting, which is great when the research is good.

Plenty of reporters, editors, researchers, and universities practice some version of this, but it’s inconsistent. For example, the American Sociological Association currently has a news release up about a paper in the American Sociological Review, by Paula England,  Jonathan Bearak, Michelle Budig, and Melissa Hodges. And, as is now usually the case, that paper was selected by the ASR editors to be the freebie of the month, so it’s freely available. But the news release (which also only lists England as an author) doesn’t link to the paper. Some news reports link to the free copy but some don’t. ASA could easily add boilerplate language to their news releases, firmly suggesting that coverage link to the original paper, which is freely available.

Some publishers support this kind of approach, laying out free copies of breaking news research. But some don’t. In those cases, reporters and researchers can work together to make preprint versions available. In the social sciences, you can easily and immediately put a preprint on SocArXiv and add the link to the news report (to see which version you are free to post — pre-review, post-review, pre-edit, post-edit, etc. — consult your author agreement or look up the journal in the Sherpa/Romeo database.)

This practice is easy to enforce because it’s simple and technologically easy. When a New York Times reporter says, “I’d love to cover this research. Just tell me where I can link to the paper,” most researchers, universities, and publishers will jump to accommodate them. The only people who will want to block it are bad actors: people who don’t want their research scrutinized, reporters who don’t want to be double-checked, publishers who prioritize income over the public good.

#NoPaperNoNews

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Do we get tenure for this?

My photo. For the occasion I titled it, Openness. https://flic.kr/p/FShb6d

For the occasion I titled this photo of Utah “Openness.”

Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed has written up the American Sociological Association’s committee report, “What Counts? Evaluating Public Communication in Tenure and Promotion.”

I was once a member of the ASA Subcommittee on the Evaluation Of Social Media and Public Communication In Sociology, which was chaired by Leslie McCall when they produced the report. (It is a subcommittee of the task force on engaging sociology, convened by then-President Annette Lareau.)

It’s worth reading the whole article, which also includes comments from Sara Ovink, McCall and me, in addition to the report. Having thought about this issue a little, I was happy to respond to Flaherty’s request for comment. These are the full comments I sent her, from which she quoted in the article:

1. We don’t need credit toward promotion for every thing we do. Scholars who take a public-facing stance in their work often find that it enhances the quality and quantity of their work in the traditional fields of assessment (research, teaching, service), so that separately rewarding the public work is not always necessary. I don’t need credit for having a popular blog – that work has led to new research ideas, better feedback on my research, better grad students, teaching ideas, invitations to contribute to policy, and book contracts.

2. We’d all love to be promoted for authoring a great tweet but no one wants to be fired for a bad one. Assessment of public engagement needs to be holistic and qualitative, taking into the account quality, quantity, and impact of the work. Simplistic quantitative metrics will not be useful.

3. It is also important to value and reward openness in our routine work, such as posting working papers, publishing in open access journals, sharing replication files, and disseminating open teaching materials. Public engagement does not need to mean separate activities and products, but can mean taking a public-facing stance in our existing work.

The SocArxiv project is one outcome of these conversations (links to latest infosubmit a paper), especially relating to point #3 above. Academics who open up their work should be recognized for that contribution to the public good and for promoting the future of academia. In that spirit also I proposed a rule change for the ASA Dissertation Award, which now includes this:

To be eligible for the ASA Dissertation Award, candidates’ dissertations must be publicly available in Dissertation Abstracts International or a comparable outlet. Dissertations that are not available in this fashion will not be considered for the award.

It’s hard to change everything, but it’s not that hard to make some important changes in the right direction. Rewarding engagement and openness is an important step in the right direction.

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SocArXiv in development

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Readers of the blog have become familiar with my complaints about our publishing system (scan the academia tag for examples): it’s needlessly slow, inefficient, hierarchical, profit-driven, exploitative, and also doesn’t work well.

Simple example: a junior scholar sends a perfectly reasonable sociology paper to a high-status journal. The editor commissions three anonymous reviews, and four months later the paper is rejected on the basis of a few hours of their volunteer labor. This increases the value — and subscription price — of the for-profit journal, because its high rejection rate is a key selling point. The author will now revise the paper (some of the advice was good, but nothing to suggest the analysis or conclusions were actually wrong) and send it to another journal, where three more anonymous reviewers — having no access to the previous round of review and exchange — will donate a few hours labor to a different for-profit publisher. In a few months we’ll find out what happens. Repeat. The outcome will be a good paper, improved by the process, published 1-3 years after it was written — during which time the paper, the code, and the data, were not available to anyone else. It will be available for $39.95 to non-academics, but most of the people who are aware of it will be able to read it because their institutions buy it as part of a giant bundle of journals from the publisher. The writer may get a job and, later, tenure. Thus, the process produces a good paper, inaccessible to most of the world, as well as a person dependent on the process, one with the institutional position and incentive to perpetuate it for another generation. There’s more wrong than this, but that’s the basic idea. The system is not completely non-functional, it’s just very bad.

With current technology, replacing our outdated journal system is not difficult. We could save vast amounts of money while providing free, faster access to research for everyone. Like our healthcare system, academic publishing is laboring under the weight of supporting its usurious middlemen. Getting them out of the way is a problem of politics and organization, not technology or cost. We academics do all the work already – research, writing, reviewing, editing – contributing our labor without compensation to giant companies that claim to be helping us get and keep our incredibly privileged jobs. But most of us are supported directly or indirectly by the state and our students (or their banks), not the journal publishers. We don’t need most of what the journal publishers do any more, and working for them is degrading our research, making it less innovative and transformative, less engaging and engaged, less open and accountable.

SocArXiv

The people in math and physics developed a workaround for this system in arXiv.org, where people share papers before they are peer-reviewed. Other paper servers have arisen as well, including some run by universities and some run privately for profit, some in specific disciplines. But there is a need for a new general, open-access, open-source, paper server for the social sciences, one that encourages linking and sharing data and code, that serves its research to an open metadata system, and that provides the foundation for a post-publication review system. I hope that SocArXiv will enable us to save research from the journal system. Once its built, anyone will be able to use it to organize their own peer-review community, to select and publish papers (though not exclusively), to review and comment on each other’s work — and to discover, cite, value, and share research unimpeded. We will be able to do this because of the brilliant efforts of the Center for Open Science (which is already developing a new preprint server) and SHARE (“a free, open, data set about research and scholarly activities across their life cycle”).

And we hope you’ll get involved: sharing research, reviewing, moderating, editing, mobilizing. Lots to do, but the good news is we’re doing most of this work already.

SocArXiv won’t take over this blog, though. You can read more about the project, and see the steering committee, in the announcement of our partnership. For updates, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or email to add your name to the mailing list. In fact, you can also make a tax-deductible contribution to SocArXiv through the University of Maryland here.

When your paper is ready, check SocArXiv.org.

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