Fighting harassment and bullying in academia: Serious, or lip service?

Alan Cooper, fired from the University of Adelaide, still publishing in high profile journals

Of all the scientists who have lost their jobs due to misconduct, Alan Cooper, former director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), was one of the most high-profile. The University of Adelaide, where ACAD was hosted, began an investigation into a series of bullying charges after I began reporting on his alleged misconduct, with the help of numerous survivors of his abuses. While most of these allegations involved bullying colleagues, I also reported that the the university was aware of at least three alleged episodes of sexual harassment, and I believe that this was quietly taken into account in the decision to fire him.

Despite an increasing consciousness of issues related to bullying and sexual harassment, and a very determined effort by a growing number of colleagues in academia to enforce accountability for both individuals and institutions, too many abusers are finding ways to land on their feet. One way this happens is when disgraced academics are still allowed to continue to publish in their disciplines, almost always together with other colleagues who themselves have voiced opposition to misconduct. Some younger academics have begun to address this problem (see, for example, "A Beginner's Guide for Addressing Sexual Harassment in Academia" by Needhi Bhalla and "What to Do With the Predator in Your Bibliography?" by Dan Souleles.)

These two articles were recently cited in a two-part paper in the journal American Antiquity by archaeologist Barbara Voss of Stanford University, which are open access. As Voss points out, a growing number of organizations and funding bodies are re-defining sexual harassment and other abuses as scientific misconduct, raising them to the same, higher level gravity as fabricating research results, plagiarizing, fraud, and other well recognized sins.

Voss makes a sharply worded and well taken comment and a recommendation in such situations:

By defining harassment as scientific misconduct, archaeologists also can take steps to ensure that we are not enabling harassers through our professional relationships: “Every paper they publish, talk they give, and conference they attend enhances the influence they have abused” (Wood 2015). As Bhalla (2018) urges, “Erode the status that some serial harassers continue to enjoy. Do not collaborate with them. Do not invite them to meetings, to give seminars, etc. Do not invite them to be a PI [principal investigator] on a training grant or to participate in a graduate program.” In an essay titled “What to Do with the Predator in Your Bibliography,” Souleles (2020) recommends specific measures to avoid elevating the status of harassers through citations: acknowledge the abuse that occurred during cited research, consider alternatives to citing the abuser, and work to move the field beyond the abuser's contributions.

To get back to Alan Cooper: Voss's admonition to colleagues to stop enabling abusers, including by not collaborating with them, seems to have been ignored in one of the most high profile cases of misconduct and institutional consequences, that of Cooper himself. Here is the clear evidence, first from a recent issue of Science, and second from a new issue of Nature Ecology and Evolution:


A global environmental crisis 42,000 years ago

 See all authors and affiliations

Science  19 Feb 2021:
Vol. 371, Issue 6531, pp. 811-818
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb8677

Reversing the field

Do terrestrial geomagnetic field reversals have an effect on Earth's climate? Cooper et al. created a precisely dated radiocarbon record around the time of the Laschamps geomagnetic reversal about 41,000 years ago from the rings of New Zealand swamp kauri trees. This record reveals a substantial increase in the carbon-14 content of the atmosphere culminating during the period of weakening magnetic field strength preceding the polarity switch. The authors modeled the consequences of this event and concluded that the geomagnetic field minimum caused substantial changes in atmospheric ozone concentration that drove synchronous global climate and environmental shifts.

Science, this issue p. 811


Geological archives record multiple reversals of Earth’s magnetic poles, but the global impacts of these events, if any, remain unclear. Uncertain radiocarbon calibration has limited investigation of the potential effects of the last major magnetic inversion, known as the Laschamps Excursion [41 to 42 thousand years ago (ka)]. We use ancient New Zealand kauri trees (Agathis australis) to develop a detailed record of atmospheric radiocarbon levels across the Laschamps Excursion. We precisely characterize the geomagnetic reversal and perform global chemistry-climate modeling and detailed radiocarbon dating of paleoenvironmental records to investigate impacts. We find that geomagnetic field minima ~42 ka, in combination with Grand Solar Minima, caused substantial changes in atmospheric ozone concentration and circulation, driving synchronous global climate shifts that caused major environmental changes, extinction events, and transformations in the archaeological record.

2021 Mar 22.
 doi: 10.1038/s41559-021-01408-0. Online ahead of print.

Widespread Denisovan ancestry in Island Southeast Asia but no evidence of substantial super-archaic hominin admixture



The hominin fossil record of Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) indicates that at least two endemic 'super-archaic' species-Homo luzonensis and H. floresiensis-were present around the time anatomically modern humans arrived in the region >50,000 years ago. Intriguingly, contemporary human populations across ISEA carry distinct genomic traces of ancient interbreeding events with Denisovans-a separate hominin lineage that currently lacks a fossil record in ISEA. To query this apparent disparity between fossil and genetic evidence, we performed a comprehensive search for super-archaic introgression in >400 modern human genomes, including >200 from ISEA. Our results corroborate widespread Denisovan ancestry in ISEA populations, but fail to detect any substantial super-archaic admixture signals compatible with the endemic fossil record of ISEA. We discuss the implications of our findings for the understanding of hominin history in ISEA, including future research directions that might help to unlock more details about the prehistory of the enigmatic Denisovans.

The coauthors of these two papers include a number of leading figures in the field of human evolution research. What kind of example are they settling for the movement to end abuses, including sexual harassment and bullying, in academia and the sciences in particular? And what kind of example are they setting for the younger researchers who were most often the victims of abuses by Cooper and other abusers?

(Note that Cooper is publishing in part under the auspices of the South Australian Museum in Australia, where he apparently has an honorary position that allows him to claim an institutional affiliation.)

For the past several days, I have been making this point on Twitter and Facebook. A few people have taken notice of it, but so far I have seen no response from the authors of these papers, nor from other leaders in science who are in a position of influence and power and could do something about it.

In recent years, many feminists and anti-racist activists have begun drawing a distinction between “allies” and “accomplices” in the fight against abuse. To put it perhaps somewhat harshly, allies give lip service, but accomplices perform real services to these movements, by taking action even if it is risky.

Of course, not everyone is in a position to take action. Some are more vulnerable than others, and some are very vulnerable. But well-established, tenured academics are most certainly in a position to act—including by drawing a clear line between themselves and abusive collaborators.

It's time for them, at least, to do better, starting now.

Update April 6, 2021: At the upcoming 2021 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, the presidential session will deal with some of these issues. Perhaps archaeologists at the meeting will adopt some kind of action plan that goes beyond just guidelines.

Update April 7, 2021: I have now had some Twitter exchanges with two of the authors of the second paper, in Nature Ecology and Evolution, including the first author, which have revealed more of what went on behind the scenes. It is clear that at least some of the authors tried to do something about the situation, including publishing a statement with the paper--which the journal reportedly refused to allow. 

Recently the first author issued a Twitter thread explaining more about the circumstances, which I had not seen when I published this post. Clearly the terrible burden of this situation should not fall on a young researcher just finishing his PhD, which is why I have emphasized that there need to be clear rules and standards based on moral principles and not just on situational ethics. The journal's editors need to explain publicly why they would not allow a statement to be published, and why they could not have taken Cooper's name off the paper themselves. We have a way to go on all this, but I think just by having this discussion, we are making progress.

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Anonymous said…
It all boils down to research funding. Cooper is the lead author on the Science article, so I bet his name is on whatever research grant this cluster got. Pressure those agencies to pull their funding, and you’ll see his colleagues throw him under the bus posthaste (that is, if the funding doesn’t go with him). After years of institutional cover-ups, this is the only thing that finally worked in the case of Alan Lopez: