The truth begins to emerge, at last, about the Max Planck Society's smear campaign against archaeologist Nicole Boivin. Boivin tried to play by the rules, but underhanded motivations have led to her removal as a director at Jena for the second time. [Updated June 9, 2022: Boivin's open letter to education/research minister gets coverage and traction]

Nicole Boivin

For nearly five years, Canadian archaeologist Nicole Boivin has been fighting attempts by the Max Planck Society and a couple of former colleagues to remove her as archaeology director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. They succeeded once; then a court intervened and restored her to her post; and now she has been removed again, by the Max Planck Society's Senate.

That leaves the Jena institute with no directors. In effect, the Max Planck Society has gutted the research center it created, after putting millions into it. That's because the two other founding directors, geneticist Johannes Krause and linguistics/animal cognition researcher Russell Gray, flew the Jena coop a couple of years ago. They are now in scientific residence in Leipzig, Germany, where the powerhouse Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is located.

Boivin objected to the effective dismantling of the Jena institute, and that is the source of her troubles. Krause and Gray mounted a behind-the-scenes smear campaign against Boivin, and because of their prestige in the scientific community--and, many would argue, because they are men and Boivin is a woman--they have come close to succeeding. In doing so, they were able to magnify small issues and complaints into major accusations of scientific misconduct and bullying by Boivin (see below.)

I have been reporting on these events from the beginning. But because Boivin wanted to go through the Max Planck system, despite its proven bias against women scientists--who form a small percentage of the powerful directors corps--she tried to fight this battle without publicizing it (even as her adversaries told their "story" far and wide.)

More recently, however, the story has received considerable coverage, especially in Science and Nature, although their coverage have often bought into the Max Planck administration's line to a considerable extent. Boivin has had great difficulty telling her story, not surprising when a woman is going up against a male-dominated institution.

But Boivin is finally beginning to tell her story. One of the most detailed accounts has just been published in the Ostthuringer Zeitung (March 30) in German. A pdf of the article can be accessed here.

And below is an English translation of the article, which I have had confirmed as accurate. The story told here conforms with my own reporting on the matter. Unfortunately, because they had personal reasons for wanting to abandon the Jena institute and move to Leipzig, Krause and Gray were willing to throw a colleague under the bus--a colleague who was fighting to maintain the integrity of a new institution, where important research, by Boivin and her colleagues, continues to be carried out.

This is an ongoing story, and I will update it as necessary.

Dismantling of a top researcher (by Sibylle Göbel)

Society funded with tax billions again removes renowned Jena scientist from office

Jena. Despite massive criticism from renowned scientists of the previous procedure, the Senate of the Max Planck

Society (MPG) has now removed the only remaining director of the Jena Max Planck Institute for the History of Man

(MPI) from office for the second time. The senate of the MPG approved the decision on Friday by an "overwhelming

majority," the MPG spokeswoman confirmed on request. There was only one dissenting vote. The Canadian Nicole

Boivin, who came to Jena from Oxford University in 2016, is accused of "scientific and non-scientific misconduct" as a

result of lengthy investigations. The case is raising a lot of dust, especially because there have been several removals

of female MPG directors in the recent past. This has solidified the reputation that the MPG, which receives billions in

taxpayer funding, is hostile to women.

Revolt of the former professors

At the same time, the MPG - precisely because women are heavily underrepresented in its ranks as executives -

should have a special duty of care toward them. Among female employees and MPG members, however, the current

case has spread fear and terror. And it is hardly likely to inspire women to join the MPG. The decision by the MPG

Senate, which includes Thuringia's Science Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee (SPD) as a guest, is the culmination of a

conflict that has been simmering for a long time. The starting point: Nicole Boivin did not agree with her two director

colleagues who wanted to relocate the Jena institute, which was only established in 2014, to Leipzig. Leipzig,

Johannes Krause and Russell Gray argued in October 2017, was far more suitable as a location - partly because it had

an international airport. Instead of investing the available funds - in the double-digit millions - in Jena, a completely

new institute could be built in Leipzig.

Boivin, however, who had just settled in Jena with her family and built up her department, was against this plan. A

falling out with Krause and Gray ensued, culminating in Boivin's accusations of bullying against her two colleagues at

the end of 2018 and a complaint about the lack of duty of care on the part of MPG President Martin Stratmann. An

audit and misconduct investigation began posthaste. And because that presumably did not lead to the desired result,

MPG Vice President Ulman Lindenberger questioned Boivin's doctoral students. "During these investigations," says

Boivin's lawyer, Sascha Herms, "essential procedural rules of the MPG were disregarded." Boivin, for example, was

not heard in the manner that is customary in a constitutional procedure. In addition, the investigations were

conducted in a completely non-transparent manner. Furthermore, the many positive feedbacks from employees and

doctoral students were not taken into account, but only complaints about Boivin were collected. In a letter to MPG

President Martin Stratmann at the end of 2021, even emeritus professors at the MPG expressed irritation that

exculpatory objections in favor of Boivin were "not taken seriously". They themselves had only learned of the case

from the press. In their letter, they also complain that the MPG leadership allowed the conflict in Jena to escalate

further instead of mediating it.

As a result of the investigations, Nicole Boivin was relieved of her function as director in October 2021 in an

emergency decision by the MPG president. But she was not satisfied: the scientist went to court and in December

2021 obtained a temporary injunction to reinstate her until the facts of the case were finally clarified. The MPG

immediately filed an appeal.

Principal investigator becomes acting director

Now, then, another dismissal - this time by the Senate. The decision is said to have been preceded by heated debates

in the sections. For MPG spokeswoman Christina Beck, however, it underscores "the confidence in the work of the

commissions, which pursued the clarification of all allegations and the recommendation of how to deal with them

with great care and neutrality". The head of Boivin's department was again appointed on an interim basis - and again

with Ulman Lindenberger, the principal investigator. Boivin herself was allowed to remain a scientific member of the

MPG, which continued to allow her "independent research work". Beck does not want to go into the question of

whether - as is currently being rumored in Jena - the current Jena MPI is to make way for an MPI for Geo-

Anthropology and Nicole Boivin stood in the way of this with her reconstruction plans. The consultations

on the Jena MPI have not yet been completed, she says. The MPG will retain the Jena site in any case. Thuringia's

Ministry of Science is more explicit: According to a spokesperson, the MPG has informed the federal/state

community, as the financial supporter of its research activities, about its plans to found an MPI for geoanthropology.

Discussions are currently underway within the MPG regarding the scientific orientation, but also the future location

of such an institute. "Jena is being considered as a location because of its expertise and the existing institutes.

The chairman of the geo-anthropological commission, which decides on the future of the site, is: Ulman


Update April 2, 2022: Science story on the above events gets some things right, some things wrong.

Late last night, Science posted its story on the above events, with reporting by my colleague Andrew Curry. This latest in a series of reports by Science is better than previous ones, which failed to seriously give Boivin's side of the story, in that it raises questions about the Max Planck Society's process (or at least quotes those who have done so.)

Some thoughts:

1. The article makes clear that the Max Planck Senate voted to remove Boivin with a very limited knowledge of the allegations against her and possible exculpatory facts. However, it accepts without question the Society's contention that it could not have given the Senate the commission's report because otherwise the identities of complainants and other witnesses would be revealed. As most know, this is nonsense, because it is routine to redact names in such documents.

2. While Curry quotes scientists who question the Max Planck process, it is very odd that he did not identify Christiane Nusslein-Volhard as a Nobel laureate. During the 25 years I was at Science, we routinely did so, and I do not believe that practice has changed. Either Curry did not know this (he can tell us if he wants) or he left out this identification, which would have added weight and prestige to what she had to say. Nusslein-Volhard is, by the way, the only woman from Germany to have received a Nobel in the sciences.  [Update: See below]

3. Curry refers to "conflicts" between Boivin and the other two Jena directors, Krause and Gray, without giving readers any idea what those conflicts were about--even though, I have reason to believe, he knows full well, and even though the German press has already discussed those origins of the Nicole Boivin affair publicly. This is a real failure by Science (it's entirely possible that Curry has tried to tell that story and been nixed by the journal's editors, but he can tell us if so), especially as there is considerable evidence that Krause and Gray launched a smear campaign against Boivin after she resisted moving the Jena institute to Leipzig. In other words, there is evidence that Boivin, in her attempts to defend the integrity and future of the institute she had just joined, interfered with the career plans of the two men.

4. Finally, Curry does not, in this story, provide readers with any evidence that Boivin actually bullied colleagues or plagiarized their work. This is problematic because Curry is no doubt aware of evidence that Krause and Gray poisoned the well early on, and thus allegations against Boivin have to be evaluated in the context of an internecine war in which younger researchers were forced to choose sides. Two men against one woman: I don't need to spell out how the power balance weighed out, especially in the clear context of Max Planck's serious problems with gender discrimination.

Let's hope that future stories by Science, Nature, and other English-language publications catch up with what the German press has already explored in some detail.

Further update: I have since learned that Andrew Curry did indeed know that Christiane Nusslein-Volhard was a Nobel laureate. He included that information in an earlier story. During my 25 years at Science, I cannot recall an incident in which a Nobel laureate was not referenced that way, since it is considered a key and critical part of a scientist's identification (rightly or wrongly.)

Why would Science engage in apparently biased reporting about the Boivin case? Here I am going to engage in some informed speculation, and clearly label it that. Please recall that I was a member of the journal's anthropology/archaeology reporting team for nearly 20 years. Both Gray and Krause, but especially Krause, were the subjects of many important stories we did--I did a number of them myself. Knowing how the reporting and editorial processes at Science work, I can state confidently that its editors and reporters would not want to antagonize Krause by delving too deeply into the origins of the Nicole Boivin story and how her troubles at the Max Planck began. In other words, Science's anthropology team has a potential conflict of interest in its reporting on the Boivin case.

That may sound like a serious charge, but actually it is par for the case for much of science journalism. To a large extent (and I am speaking here as someone who taught the subject for many years, at the graduate level, at two major universities) science journalism is access journalism. Relatively little real science investigative journalism is actually done, at least in fields like anthropology (I was lucky enough to do a fair bit of it when I was at Science, but it was the exception to our usual practices.) In other areas of science, such as environmental journalism, investigative stories are more common. This is a subject I will explore more in the near future.

June 9: Boivin's open letter to Germany's minister for Education and Research attracts media coverage

Yesterday, June 8, Nicole Boivin posted an open letter to Bettina Stark-Watzinger, Germany's education and research minister, calling for her ministry to begin conducting oversight of the autonomous Max Planck Society, which oversees an annual budget of about 2 billion Euros in public funds. Using her own case as an example, Boivin pointed out that female directors--who make up only 18% of the total--have been subject to gender-based harassment in recent years, and that three have been demoted under questionable circumstances.

The letter has received coverage in the German press, and also in an important piece in Nature by its German correspondent, Alison Abbott. (Abbott had earlier reported on an open letter signed by 145 female scientists around the world expressing concern about the Max Planck's penchant for dismissing female directors. Meanwhile, male directors who have brought lots of prestige to the Society often have their sins forgiven.)

Abbott's new piece is worth reading in its entirely, because it includes some disturbing details. As Boivin has claimed in her own case, Abbott cites the concerns of current and former Max Planck Society scientists that due process was repeatedly violated in a number of misconduct investigations the Society carried out, and that an atmosphere of intimidation and fear has made it difficult for scientists to speak out.

"The run of demotions has led to an atmosphere of fear among MPI directors, says developmental biologist Herbert Jäckle, an emeritus director at the Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Sciences in Göttingen. 'They are concerned about how the investigations are going, but afraid to speak out,' he says."

And when the Max Planck Senate finally voted to demote Boivin, Abbott reports, there was no discussion of the documents it had been given on which the decision was supposed to be based. A number of observers have told me that the Senate vote was basically a rubber stamp of what the Max Planck and its president, Martin Stratmann, wanted it to do.

As further evidence of the atmosphere of intimidation within the Society, Abbott writes:

"Nature spoke to six Max Planck directors who had been demoted, were under investigation for non-scientific misconduct or who had raised concerns about procedures internally. All had similar criticisms about the lack of transparency and perceived bias in MPS investigations, which they say involve too few independent arbiters. (All the directors asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.)"

I find it amazing that some directors, who had almost unlimited power over their institutions, have been reduced to a state of fear and cowering. That means Boivin is one of the few directors who has been willing to speak openly about the due process issues. 

I've talked to a number of scientists about all of this, some of whom say they know someone who was "bullied" by Boivin or know someone who knows someone who was. The problem is that these bullying allegations, and another allegation that Boivin appropriated someone else's work, actually have nothing to do with the reasons that she came under investigation by the Society. Rather, as Boivin describes in her open letter--and as I have independently verified--she came under attack as part of a smear campaign against her by two "colleagues" at the institute in Jena, as described above.

(We once again see the damage done by the perennial "whisper network" in science, which protects not only the truth but also rumors and gossip.)

Martin Stratmann is now the lame-duck president of the Max Planck, and a new president should be named very soon. Stratmann has left the Society discredited and in a muddle about its priorities and its commitment to encouraging women in science; many scientists are expressing hope that a new president might be able to breathe new life into what has become an aging dinosaur of an institution, in which men rule and those who step out of line can be ex-communicated with little chance to mount a defense.

Post a Comment


William Moss said…
Pleased to see a more in-depth analysis of this. All earlier English-language reports don’t pass the smell test.
Anonymous said…
Having suffered injustice and unfair proceedings at the hands of employers who should know better, I sympathize with Nicole Boivin.
Anonymous said…
Speaking of Science Magazine not being entirely independent from team "Johannes Krause", it should be mentioned that Johannes Krause has published many papers with David Reich of Harvard. Anyone who has been closely tracking ancient DNA papers for the last ten years would be aware that Science Magazine has uncritically published and promoted many of David Reich's and Johannes Krause's papers.

This went on for many years until in 2019, journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote a critique of this Johannes Krause/David Reich paper:

Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific

Lewis-Kraus's critique was published in New York Time Magazine:

I will not recount here the many methodological and ethical problems that Lewis-Kraus points out in David Reich's and Johannes Krause's papers. But one problem that Lewis-Kraus mentions is that many archaeologists are concerned that Reich and Johannes Krause (and their other collaborators) are not bothering to reconcile very limited paleogenomic data with the archeological record.

Nicole Boivin is an archaeologist. Her name is not on the above mentioned 2016 paper "Genomic insights into the peopling of the Southwest Pacific" that Lewis-Kraus critiques.

Her name is also not on other papers that Krause published that make sweeping generalizations from limited paleogenomic datasets. Notably, her name is not on the widely read 2015 paper:

Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe

After 2014, as Johannes Krause, David Reich, and their co-authors increasingly made sweeping poorly supported statements about human pre-history, without reconciling with the archaelogical record, it is possible that Nicole Boivin raised concerns.

I find the Krause accusations about bullying to be questionable. What might be legitimate dissent on the part of Boivin may have been distorted by Krause and reframed as "bullying". And the exit of Krause from Jena to Leipzig surely enabled him to avoid Boivin's concerns about reconciliation paleogenomic data and results with the archaeological record.

Krause's collaboration with David Reich was paying the bills for many researchers after 2015. It has only been since Lewis-Kraus' 2019 critique in the New York Times Magazine that some of these papers with grand over-generalizations have been questioned more readily.

It is interesting that complaints about Boivin increased just as critics about the Johannes Krause's and David Reich's research methods were published in 2019.

To my knowledge, even after the Lewis-Kraus New York Times Magazine article, Science magazine has largely been silent on the issues raised by Lewis-Kraus in his 2019 article.

In short, I agree that Science Magazine has no business writing an article about the situation at the Max Planck Institute. They have been complicit in uncritically publishing David Reich's and Johannes Krause's work for many years.
Michael E. Smith said…
Thanks for this reporting. As William Moss suggested, the Science article about this really didn't pass the smell test, and they really seem beholden to Krause and Reich. Boivin doesn't deserve this kind of nonsense.
Anonymous said…
I agree that there's a lot of murkiness surrounding the way the Boivin case was handled, but I think it's important to note that she was well known for her "difficult" mentoring style, particularly with female grad students and postdocs LONG before her work at the MPI in Jena. As an emerging scholar I was warned about this by multiple people at different academic institutions, and I've heard some horror stories from women who've worked with her in the past. While I can't say with certainty that she has actually done the things she's been accused of, she does have a history of harassment and academic misconduct complaints that pre-date her work with MPI-SHH which should not go unmentioned.

Unfortunately, as Balter mentions, these proceedings are often extremely opaque to the general public so the paper trail is unlikely to clarify anything, if it even exists. This is a broader problem with academic institutions in my opinion: they tend to keep these kinds of proceedings in-house to avoid negative publicity, but that often results in bad actors getting the benefit of the doubt (like when someone leaves a TT position because of Title IX issues in the US, there's no mandate for them or their institution to disclose that to potential future employers) or unfair accusations going unchallenged and impacting their career prospects (like when a case gets a lot of publicity despite a committee finding no evidence for misconduct). We need a system that is designed to protect research and the scholars who undertake it, not one that is designed to protect the institution.