Bullying, harassment, #MeTooSTEM in Australian archaeology and anthropology: An ongoing investigation [[Updated]]

Alan Cooper, U of Adelaide
I'm reproducing here a Facebook post which sums up recent investigations of bullying, harassment, and other issues in Australian archaeology and anthropology. This will be updated as the investigations continue. One important update as of June 13: A letter from the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists about the importance of investigating these issues.

Some colleagues here may have noticed that I have been Tweeting quite a bit about my investigations into accusations of bullying, harassment, and unethical handling of indigenous remains concerning ancient DNA expert Alan Cooper at U of Adelaide and archaeologist Michael Westaway (now at U of Queensland.) I began going public on this when a significant number of sources had related their experiences about both men and there was no longer any doubt that the allegations had merit. New people are approaching me every day and the universities involved are fully aware. A lot of colleagues in Australia, ranging from junior to very senior archaeologists and anthropologists, are getting involved behind the scenes because they see this as a chance to finally make a dent in the very rigid, macho culture of Australian archaeology. If anyone here has any experiences to share, please get in touch with me privately.
I should mention that both of these investigations began when Australian colleagues approached me privately and asked me to look into it. Many people have just had enough of bad behavior by now. As one former member of Cooper's lab wrote to me:
"...I have witnessed at close quarters the devastating and lasting impact that he has had on friends and colleagues over a period of years. Maybe there are gendered aspects to this that I am not aware of, but my experience of Alan is that he is an equal-opportunity bully who mistreats men and women alike."

Update June 11: Since I first posted this, an increasing number of new sources, witnesses, and victims of this bad behavior by both Cooper and Westaway have contacted me. I hope to be able to prepare a more comprehensive report in the next couple of weeks. I should point out that I have talked to several colleagues who have a hard time believing the worst about both Cooper and Westaway, because both men are capable of being quite charming and appearing sensitive in certain situations, for example out in the field. But to their own students and colleagues at their home institutions, both men are reportedly capable of terrible bullying and other misconduct. That is often the way with bullies and harassers.

Comment from Professor Paul Harvey, former chair of University of Oxford zoology department:

Alan Cooper was forced to resign from Oxford after accusations of irregularities on a grant application, at least that was what was reported at the time (2005)--there may have been other factors as well which I am looking into. Paul Harvey was head of the department at that time. He has agreed to make the following comment:

“Alan forged data (and my signature as Head of Department) in a grant application and lied. His group came to me with a catalogue of irrefutable evidence.  I forwarded it all to the University and they took over the investigation.  Alan left for Adelaide under a cloud.”

Further update and a question, raised today on Twitter: Did Alan Cooper falsify a grant application in Adelaide?

See the Tweets below. As one witness describes the scene:

"Alan Cooper's gleeful words when he heard that Jeremy Austin got his ARC Future Fellowship: 'I can't believe we got away with it!'"
Michael Westaway, U of Queensland

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P Bruvs said…
I worked with Alan for several years at both Oxford and Adelaide. I don't think he's a bully. He's like any ambitious man on the make, like a business owner or football manager. I've seen far tougher and more ruthless behaviour outside the fluffy, rather soft, world of universities. In commercial science and on the fringes of professional sport. Like a football manager, some signings don't work out, some people need to be moved on to freshen the team. I had arguments with Alan. Some quite vehement ones. Like most footballers have with their coach. Welcome to the world of trying to be successful in a highly competitive field. Some snowflakes prefer a softer environment. And they move to one sooner or later. Alan was in large part responsible for enabling people with ideas and drive to move aDNA from 'fossil hunters doing PCR' to serious molecular biology. It's hard to build a lab, get funding, create the space to compete seriously. Much easier to snipe and whine. And some people are very ungrateful. That's my two-penneth.
Michael Balter said…
Hello Paul, thanks for your comment. I find your perspective interesting on several counts.

You liken Alan to a business owner or football manager. From what I have heard from numerous colleagues who have been through that lab, the latter analogy might be more accurate. But should science be a competitive, contact sport like football, or a more cooperative endeavor that fulfills some of the more noble aspects of humanity? That might sound idealistic, but it really should be the ideal in the minds of many people.

Then you refer to those who have complained of bullying (and, btw, sexual harassment) as "snowflakes." In the US that term would peg you as a right-wing Republican Trump supporter. I hope that's not the case.

Despite your dismissal of those who have complained, there are actually quite and few of them, and some have managed to go on and have successful careers despite still suffering from trauma. Others are still there and just trying to survive the experience. One colleague described to me two basic strategies for coping with Cooper: Keeping one's head down and making it through, or surviving by being a sycophant. You say that you argued with Alan sometimes, so perhaps you were not a sycophant, but in the end your defense of him could be construed to mean the same thing.

Finally, the Oxford story has never fully been told, why Cooper really had to leave. I believe it was more than just irregular grant applications and I am likely to find out more as I continue to investigate.
Paul Harvey said…
Re Bruvs comment - scientists don’t lie, can you understand that? Forget comparisons with other professions. When researchers make up data, how should they be treated?
Rhona Fenwick said…
@P Bruvs:
Welcome to the world of trying to be successful in a highly competitive field. Some snowflakes prefer a softer environment.

Or one might alternatively say, some people with a stronger sense of morality and ethics prefer that academic competition be genuinely merit-based, and not based upon one's capacity to engage in outright aggression and intimidation. It's to the point in Australian archaeology where we even have a term for such people: silverback. If our wish to move beyond the era of the silverbacks in archaeology makes us snowflakes, so be it, but as others have phrased it before, if you get enough snowflakes in one place, you get an avalanche. The environment of professional academe, especially in Australia, is in places highly toxic and change is long overdue.

Also, with respect, your opinion of whether or not Alan Cooper is a bully and a liar is not particularly helpful in deciding whether or not he actually is a bully and a liar. The very worst bullies and abusers often get away with it for so long precisely because they're capable of switching on great charm and charisma at will. People look at them and say, "Surely he can't be a bully, he's such an engaging and charming person when he's with me." Which then means victims are disbelieved, their self-esteem continues to corrode, and eventually you end up with a sort of gaslighting by proxy, where the victim may begin to doubt their own experience because nobody else will believe their word over the word of a more powerful person who just has an excellent poker face. We're just learning this lesson in Australia after the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, who even while on trial managed to obtain character references from not one, but two former Prime Ministers. That's the degree of charm that can be turned on and off at will.
Mike B said…
I respect other people's opinions but I find Bruv's misconstrual of the evidence which is building up on the basis of his personal experience and outlook on the world to be precisely what is wrong with sections of academia. As someone who straddles both academia and the private sector, I can safely say that academia can be highly vicious in ways which are completely unacceptable. In terms of the two accused scholars, dismissal of those accusing them of harassment and unacceptable behaviour as snowflakes is itself unacceptable behaviour and I have to question your motifs in such victim-blaming.

This sort of behaviour in academia must never be tolerated and must never ever be excused.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks for the recent comments. Rhona's reference to Cardinal Pell resonates with me because the Australian court system, combined with Australia's draconian defamation laws, kept the details of his abuse under wraps for a long time. If I were an Australian journalist I might not be able to cover these cases at all without being slapped with a defamation suit. Being in the US doesn't protect me entirely, of course, but there are significant protections for journalists here--especially ones who are reporting the truth.
P Bruvs said…
Clearly me being a post-doc researcher in both institutions, at the centre of events for several years, counts for far less than generalised emotive virtue signalling by the likes of Rhona and Mike - who weren't anywhere near either place as far as I'm aware? Talented scientists publishing cutting edge research seem to have thrived and enjoyed themselves by and large; why don't you ask them and see what they say? As ever, those who don't succeed as well probably have less enjoyable memories. Same as it ever was: in science, politics, business, sport, the arts, life in general. But what do I know? I was only there for a few years. Rhona and Mike feel things more ;)
Anonymous said…
P Bruvs - It seems to me that there are two issues. 1) Generalised bad behaviour, the severity of which you either dispute or don't regard as important (or both?). As I am someone with no direct experience of any of the labs Cooper has run, and as the details of those claims are yet to come out, I don't believe I'm in a position to have an opinion. 2) Data fabrication. To the best of my understanding, the fabrication of data in a grant application is well documented and was public (at least aDNA-public) knowledge when Cooper left Oxford and took up the position in Australia. If I follow your comments correctly, I think that you left Oxford when Cooper did and took up a position in his lab in Australia, yes? If so, can you help us understand why a position in the Cooper lab was so attractive that you accepted it, knowing that the PI was willing to falsify data? Or, have I failed to understand something essential in the timeline here?
Anonymous said…
Anecdote for P Bruvs to reflect on. A notorious PI once threatened legal action against me over a premise that was very easy for me to demonstrate as false, relating to a manuscript they were trying to publish. Once I replied and pointed out the problems in the premise, and the evidence in support of my position, the PI rapidly back tracked, and wrote a series of grovelling emails that essentially stated: well of course it wasn’t he, the PI, who had wanted to take the action, he would never do that, but it was the initiative of his very frustrated postdoc who was under a lot of pressure and unfortunately overreacting. I can only assume due to the high pressure in the lab that we other snowflakes can’t deal with.

So now let’s see...that’s:
(i) a relatively poorly planned (impulsive) attempt to bully me
(ii) clearly by someone too cowardly to take responsibility for his actions, who
(iii) had such a happy lab that it resulted in its frustrated staff doing poorly planned attacks on others, unless,
(iv) the postdoc was innocent and the PI made a habit of blaming his staff for his poor behaviour.

I remain anonymous to maintain the dignity of the postdoc in question, just in case he was innocent of the charges and just a tool of the PI. Although perhaps, P Bruvs, the PI's behaviour was simply the kind of thing you expect in high pressure labs, that we snowflakes can't handle?
Rhona Fenwick said…
P Bruvs, I happen to be typing this from within the University of Queensland archaeology department as we speak. I have been associated with the department for nineteen years, obtained my undergraduate, honours and doctorate degrees from this school, and remain an honorary research fellow of that institution (though I clarify for the sake of the discussion that the opinions I post here are my own). You can find my page on the UQ School of Social Sciences website under my own name, and you can find my own scientific research on my Academia page, also under my own name. I have met both of those accused in this post and knew one of them through professional circles for more than ten years. Your accusation of "generalised emotive virtue signalling" is as disgusting as it is misguided. The generalised nature of my comment was a deliberate choice made precisely because I knew one of the accused and have heard independent first-hand accounts from two separate people of separate incidents of professional misconduct involving that person, but in the interests of preserving confidences, I believed (and still believe) that these are not my story to tell. With that said, I will not sit back and listen to someone defend an alleged abuser on the flimsy evidentiary basis of "I never saw anything so it didn't happen" - since such an argument is objectively a fallacy of relevance of the purest kind, and I'd expect more from an academic of any calibre - and I absolutely refuse to be lectured, P Bruvs, about what I do and do not know about these situations by someone who doesn't have the courage to sign their own name to their comment and who chooses to respond to a respectful and cordial comment with inflammatory sloganeering. If this is the academia you wish to champion, I want no part of it.
P Bruvs said…
Although I had some enjoyable times and published some papers I'm very proud of, I'm no longer in the aDNA field or even academia - thankfully! - and haven't been for several years (now working for a private diagnostics start-up company). I haven't been in contact with anybody being discussed in this thread since ~2012. So I've no dog in the fight either way and I don't really care too much tbh. But the reason I weighed in was a distaste for the sight of people trying to ruin a man's career - particularly anonymously - years after the event. IMO it is ungrateful, spiteful, sly and pretty cowardly - especially if you didn't have the guts to argue your point at the time. I certainly did. Won some, lost some. Bit like life.

I had lots of run-ins and arguments at both the institutions mentioned. Some quite feisty indeed. On the other hand we were all gifted with a wonderful chance to do high level, cutting edge, research on fantastic materials.... if we had the imagination, drive and scientific chops to grab those opportunities. Some of us did... others... less so. I thought - and still think - that the feisty, argumentative, atmosphere there was stimulating. The plain-speaking constructive criticism, given and received, was vital in helping to prevent wastage of time and resources, both of which were tight up against some of the world's best labs - and certainly helped to sharpen up and improve my papers and hypotheses (and I like to think I did the same in return). I expect the many other people who worked - and still work - there for years feel much the same. In contrast, I've also worked in labs where everybody is polite and collegiate and 'supportive'. In labs like these, there was just as much - probably more - easing people out, back-stabbing, plotting etc. But all done behind a veneer of middle class academic politesse. Two-faced hypocrites, basically. I preferred the in-your-face factory-floor, say-it-to-your-face, atmosphere. But I understand, given the socio-economic backgrounds of the great majority of 'academics', many might have found it tough. Go and work in a factory or a building site FFS. I have. And some of these people weighing in, now there's a bandwagon, are indeed snowflakes, frankly; who look everywhere and at others for reasons for their disappointment except the place they should look... the mirror.

As I'm no longer involved directly in the game, this will be my last comment on the issue. Bottom line, the snivelling and back-stabbing on display is unedifying and I'm far from being the only ex-lab member - both males and females - who thinks it's pathetic. You wonder why plenty of normal folks hold academics in contempt by and large? Look at all this shite and try to imagine viewing it from the point of view of a plumber, welder or footballer. End of...
Rhona Fenwick said…
I've worked my time on a building site too, P Bruvs, and will raise you two seasons of fieldwork as an out trans woman in a Muslim-majority country. I'm well used to plain talk when it's necessary, and I prefer such an environment as well - so long as it's objective and constructive. But the allegations I'm aware of go well beyond "plain-speaking constructive criticism" or "feisty, argumentative atmosphere" - does law enforcement usually get involved in "plain-speaking constructive criticism"? And you're clearly a man who's never known or had to counsel a victim of abuse, or you wouldn't be using terms like "spiteful" or "sly" to describe those who've sometimes had to take years to gather enough of their self-esteem to speak up at all (and the irony of your accusation of cowardice, while remaining safely behind your own veil of anonymity, remains palpable). More, this is an ongoing investigation and I'm sure that people will be willing to put their names to complaints when the time is right. But in the meantime, these are still men with power and the ability to cause damage to careers in what is a very small community, and you have no right to demand that the complainants risk themselves by shedding the shield of anonymity that is their right. Just because evidence is not in your hands does not mean it doesn't exist.
Anonymous said…
Anyone defending Alan's character can no doubt point to times when he has acted like a normal human being. I could give some examples of that myself. But instead, I will tell you about the light-bulb moment that put all of his bad behavior into context for me. In a lab group meeting, a PhD student (on the verge of tears) asked Alan whether he had heard that their collaborator, with whom they were working on a paper for publication, had been badly injured in a car crash. Alan's first reaction was "Oh, shit! That's the last thing we need." Seeing everyone's shock at this response, he hurriedly added "Poor guy, I hope he's ok". At that moment I realized that underlying his often callous, combative exterior is an even more callous interior - and the only value he places on human beings is what they mean to his career. What a house of horrors.
Anonymous said…
To anonymous above - P Bruvs has declined to answer my question, so perhaps as another former lab member, you might? Assuming you joined his Australian lab, then you joined after he left Oxford and his data fraud was widely known. What is it about him that made you conclude that joining his lab was so attractive that you could overlook his having falsified data? Lots of people made exactly that calculation - that the opportunities offered in working in his lab outweighed his disregard for scientific integrity. If only a couple of people had decided that joining his lab was worth it, then it wouldn’t be a very interesting phenomenon; but as perhaps dozens of people have decided to join his lab since his arrival in Australia, it seems to me that there are larger, and more interesting, forces at play that we would do well to understand.
Michael Balter said…
A point of information on the comment just above: Oxford was very circumspect in its official announcement when Alan Cooper was forced to resign (not much more than a sentence, and pretty vague about the misconduct) and that allowed Alan to deny wrongdoing which he has done ever since. Only now has Paul Harvey gone on the record about what happened from his perspective. So while there may be some truth to the assertion that people who came to Alan's lab did so despite the cloud over his head, the facts were so murky that it was hard to know what had really happened.

As for anonymous posting on this comment thread: I do hope that the only colleagues posting anonymously are those who are really vulnerable and at risk, and not senior scientists whose livelihoods and careers cannot really be threatened but still hide behind the mask of anonymity. Perhaps everyone could think about following the example of Tanya Smith at Griffith, who just bravely named her bully:

Anonymous said…
Officially, yes, Oxford played its cards very close to the chest. However, the misconduct was so widely known within the aDNA community that as a mere grad student, in a not especially well connected or prestigious lab, I knew. It is certainly likely that some of the people who joined Cooper’s Australian Lab didn’t know, but it strains credulity to imagine that they were all ignorant of the misconduct. Which is why their joining is an interesting phenomenon worth understanding.

I will remain anonymous as I am up for tenure in a couple of years, and depending on how this all shakes out, my file could well be sent to Cooper for evaluation. I enjoy gainful employment and am not willing to put it at risk.
Michael Balter said…
Yes, I agree that is a good point, it was widely known via the gossip mill.

I would not expect someone up for tenure to take big risks, so that does not refer to you. But there are tenured, senior, untouchable scientists who still post anonymously.
Anonymous said…
Re. the question of why people joined Cooper's Australian lab given his reputation:

I can only speak for myself and say that I did not know about the Oxford events before I joined, even if other folk did. People in ACAD come from a variety of academic backgrounds and not all moved in aDNA circles beforehand to have heard the rumours. First I heard of it was when someone shared with me the Nature story from May 2005 (vol. 435, p.398 - News in Brief https://www.nature.com/nature/volumes/435/issues/7041) about his departure from Oxford.

I agree it's an interesting phenomenon why people would knowingly throw in their lot with someone with that kind of history. I think an even more interesting question is why the University of Adelaide was willing to hire him in the circumstances. As the Nature story from 2005 makes clear, his Adelaide lab was already in the pipeline at the point that he left Oxford, so the University cannot claim ignorance of his background. The institution needs to be held accountable for making a bad choice, and for sticking with that bad choice.
TommyG said…
As one of Alan’s former D.Phil students from Oxford, I would like to comment on one point in the above chain that may need clarifying, and that relates to the small, but often significant, differences that appear once fact becomes gossip. And don’t get me wrong... i love gossip, but i’m also therefore very aware of the relationship between gossip and fact.

I left Alan’s lab about 1 year before the Oxford investigation so don’t have the details first hand, but my understanding is that the investigation Paul Harvey refers to concluded that the misconduct related to grant issues. Its not my place to say what the details were - and perhaps there were fraudulent facts in the grants. I do not condone this for one second if true. (I also don’t condone any of the other alleged behaviour this series of posts is about, if they are shown to be true).

What i can say, is that i know of no research fraud that relates to any published work from his lab, during my time there (2000-2003). In that time Alan’s role was always in the creation of projects and publishing resulting papers. His students and postdocs did all the data generation, analyses etc. Alan simply had no hand in that. For all his alleged sins, he’s a very smart scientist and extremely good at taking results and spinning them into great stories, and that’s what he did on those of our projects he cared about.

I know almost all of those who overlapped with me well. And do not for one second think any of them did anything but the highest quality science. If there are incorrect facts in papers resulting from that time, i do not think they were intentional, as i don’t think any of our cohort would have tolerated any attempt by Alan to change any facts. And at least in my case, Alan never once gave the slightest suggestion any fact/data be changed. ( I never wrote a grant with him mind you...). I would hope that whatever Alan is alleged to have done at ACAD did not fall to pressuring employees to make up data. Not least as he’s smart/creative thinking enough not to need to do that, and presumably reflected on his last days at Oxford.

So yes grant fraud is bad. And research fraud is bad. And big scientists treating people badly is wrong at so many levels. I neither condone, nor excuse any of those in any lab - despite the argument presented by one poster who says its the reality, that’s just bull. In labs run by bullies it might be. But that’s not representative of most labs i know, many of which are very prolific and have many happy alumni and current staff.

But to get back on track, its important that the rumour mill keeps to accurate details of what happened at Oxford, and that IF Alan is guilty as charged, its for things he actually has done, not which legend now says he did.

Tom Gilbert
D.Phil with Alan, 2000-2003
Professor at the University of Copenhagen

PS as i said, i was not at Oxford when the investigation happened and what i know is through the alumni. I’d be very happy to be corrected if what i state above is wrong about what he was proven to have done.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks Tom. I should add that I do not have any evidence from my reporting that Alan Cooper fabricated data in a published paper, and no one I have talked to has made that particular claim. There are, however, indications that the grant fraud was only one of a number of issues while Alan was at Oxford, but that was the one with which he was formally charged.

It remains, however, very troubling that there are credible and reliable witnesses to Alan having boasted of doctoring a grant application for his deputy Jeremy Austin around 2010/2011. This was for a Future Fellowship award from the Australian Research Council. Given the Oxford situation, it would form a pattern if true. I have heard that some colleagues are angry that I have raised this allegation concerning Jeremy, who is well thought of. But Jeremy has not responded to my queries (three) about whether it is true or not, and whether Alan might have been bullshitting or exaggerating when he made this claim in front of multiple witnesses. I hope those colleagues who think highly of Jeremy will ask him themselves, directly, and that this matter will be cleared up soon. Meanwhile I will continue to pursue it, and frankly the University of Adelaide and the ARC should be doing the same with all of the allegations.
Matt Phillips said…
Adding to TommyG, I personally saw no misuse of data during my time in the Cooper lab in Oxford (I overlapped with the investigation). Indeed, on balance I would say that Alan Cooper, with much help from some highly competent postdocs and students has played an important role in lifting the standards of ancient DNA work.

However, Michael, I am stunned that you’ve potentially thrown Jeremy Austin under the internet mob justice bus based on a few contextless overheard words, with Alan Cooper saying, “I can’t believe we got away with it”. This means almost nothing. Maybe he felt they’d undersold an aspect of the application and thus were fortunate to be successful or it could just be typical Aussie/Kiwi self-deprecation. My advisor often referred to grant and paper successes with, “We fooled them”. Then there’s a gossip-style mention (above) of sexual harassment. I can’t comment on Adelaide, but it’s this sort of rumour-mongering that was part of the Oxford story and that often condemns the innocent if difficult to disprove or alternatively, if proven false, can free the otherwise guilty of their less sensational malfeasance.

So, I don’t blame Jeremy or anyone else for not wanting to discuss this situation on this forum. Some of this looks like pitchfork journalism, which hardly engenders trust. Investigations that ignore context and causal relationships and fail to carefully tease apart fact and fiction may ultimately even help select for more insidious bullies and empower false accusers.

To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Alan Cooper should be free from scrutiny. Universities should give any bullying claims the full attention they deserve.

Michael Balter said…
Matt, thanks for writing.

Alan did not just idly say "I can't believe we got away it it" or "oh we fooled them."

He described in detail to those present how the grant application had been falsified.

I understand the desire to protect Jeremy, but why don't you ask him about it directly? I have not heard from one colleague yet who has actually done that. He can speak for himself about this, if not to me, to others.

As for sexual harassment, again, these are not vague accusations but at the moment specific sources have to be protected by being circumspect about the specifics.