Thursday, 3 May 2018

Power, responsibility and role models in academia

Last week, Robert J. Sternberg resigned as Editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science after a series of criticisms of his behaviour on social media. I first became aware of this issue when Bobbie Spellman wrote a blogpost explaining why she was not renewing her membership of the Association for Psychological Science, noting concerns about Sternberg’s editorial bias and high rate of self-citation, among other issues.

Then a grad student at the University of Leicester, Brendan O’Connor, noted that Sternberg not only had a tendency to cite his own work; he also recycled large portions of written text in his publications. Nick Brown publicised some striking examples on his blog, and Retraction Watch subsequently published an interview with O’Connor explaining the origins of the story.

In discussing his resignation, Sternberg admitted to ‘lapses in judgement and mistakes’ but also reprimanded those who had outed him for putting their concerns online, rather than contacting him directly. A loyal colleague, James C. Kaufman, then came to his defence, tweeting:

The term ‘witch-hunt’ is routinely trotted out whenever a senior person is criticised. (Indeed, it has become one of Donald Trump’s favourite terms to describe attempts to call him out for various misbehaviours). It implies that those who are protesting at wrongdoing are self-important people who are trying to gain attention by whipping up a sense of moral panic about relatively trivial matters.

I find this both irritating and symptomatic of a deep problem in academic life. I do not regard Sternberg’s transgressions as particularly serious: He used his ready access to a publishing platform for self-promotion and self-plagiarism, was discovered, and resigned his editorial position with a rather grumbly semi-apology. If that was all there was to it, I would agree that everyone should move on.  

The problem is with the attitude of senior people such as Kaufman. A key point is missed by those who want to minimise Sternberg’s misbehaviour: He is one of the most successful psychologists in the world, and so to the next generation, he is a living embodiment of what you need to do to become a leader in the field.  So early-career scientists will look at him and conclude that to get to the top you need to bend the rules.

In terms of abuse of editorial power, Sternberg’s behaviour is relatively tame. Consider the case of Johnny Matson, Jeff Sigafoos, Giuliano Lancioni and Mark O’Reilly, who formed a coterie of editors and editorial board members who enhanced their publications and citations by ditching usual practices such as peer review when handling one another’s papers. I documented the evidence for this back in 2015, and there appear to have been no consequences for any of these individuals. You might think it isn’t so important if a load of dodgy papers make it into a few journals, but in this case, there was potential for damage beyond academia: the subject matter concerned developmental disorders, and methods of assessment and intervention were given unjustified credibility by being published in journals that were thought to be peer-reviewed. In addition, the corrosive influence on the next generation of psychologists was all too evident: When I first wrote about this, I was contacted by several early-career people who had worked with the dodgy editors: they confirmed that they were encouraged to adopt similar practices if they wanted to get ahead.

When we turn to abuse of personal power, there have been instances in academia that are much, much worse than editorial misdemeanours – clearly documented cases of senior academics acting as sexual predators on junior staff – see, for instance, here and here. With the #MeToo campaign (another ‘witch-hunt’), things are starting to change, but the recurring theme is that if you are sufficiently powerful you can get away with almost anything.

Institutions that hire top academics seem desperate to cling on to them because they bring in grants and fame.  Of course, accusations need to be fully investigated in a fair and impartial fashion, but in matters such as editorial transgressions, the evidence is there for all to see, and a prompt response is required.

The problem with the academic hierarchy is that at the top there is a great deal of power and precious little responsibility. Those who make it to positions of authority should uphold high professional standards and act as academic role models. At a time when many early-career researchers are complaining that their PIs are encouraging them to adopt bad scientific practices, it’s all the more important that we don’t send the message that you need to act selfishly and cut corners in order to succeed.

I don’t want to see Sternberg vilified, but I do think the onus is now on the academic establishment to follow Bobbie Spellman’s lead and state publicly that his behaviour fell below what we would expect from an academic role model – rather than sweeping it under the carpet or, even worse, portraying him as a victim. 


  1. I'm sure that someone of your age and level of accomplishment can understand that James's comments were in relation to the venom with which people are going after Sternberg. No one is saying that Sternberg didn't site himself too much. It's the fact that his "crime" doesn't justify the nasty end to his accomplished career and he doesn't have much time to redeem his legacy.
    Also, how could anyone who has had a career long relationship with their mentor not jump to his defense when they're being personally attacked online. I hope your mentees would do the same for you should you ever fall out of favor with the mob.
    You're a couple days late on posting this blog to have achieved the web traffic you're clearly hoping for by jumping on this bandwagon- be a little faster with posting next time.

    1. Goodness me, I've read some zero-value comments in my time but this is a doozy. Sternberg's career has come to a "nasty end" has it? Lost his job did he? Forced into early retirement was he? Had any of his publications retracted? Awards taken away?

      You're performing all kinds of bizarre gymnastics here to turn this around on Dorothy for this very reasonable and restrained post. You've also tripped rather stupidly over the irony of moralising about the "venom" of the "mob" while accusing Dorothy of publishing clickbait.


    2. Defending a friend is a fine motive, but not when there is unambiguous evidence that the friend has done something wrong. Then the best way to help them is to advise them to make a full apology and then keep quiet until things die down.
      Stirring things up by defending the indefensible, and then accusing those who draw attention to the problems of bad motives just exacerbates the situation. It also suggests that anon's view of science is sadly cynical - as if everyone is just engaged in self-promotion, which is OK only if done by Sternberg.

  2. CC -- you beat me to it, and said it better, as usual.

  3. Central idea weak and poorly supported; secondary argument supports could have been more forceful. Submission read more like ventings of the spleen than anything produced by the brain. Suggest author provide more examples from primary reference ("Twitter") to provide a better picture of the issue discussed rather than cherry-pick responses and terms used therein. Please resubmit with suggested edit.

    1. Ah, I wonder what journals you review for.

  4. Anonymous, this is a blog, not a blind review.

    Who are you?

  5. Geoff Hammond5 May 2018 at 03:24

    The Democrat and Chronicle's review of the unpleasantness at the University of Rochester should be considered with the independent review:

    Let me emphasise: I take no side in this matter.

  6. I do not regard Sternberg’s transgressions as particularly serious

    I do not see these as egregiously bad but recycling materials, without acknowledgement, seems to me to be quite detrimental to younger researchers who do not have a ready corpus of material to toss into the pot whenever an opportunity arises.

    Does it not help reduce publishing opportunities for junior researchers? And, indirectly suggest that these younger researchers who do not have 'slightly used" materials ready to submit to a special issue or call for chapters in a book, and so on can then be judged as less productive than the older researcher.

    This may be my misunderstanding of what Sternberg was recycling but it strikes me as unfair competition.

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