Archive for Bullying

Unprofessional Astronomy – arXiv:1711.02090

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 8, 2017 by telescoper

It is essential to the way that science works that published results are challenged by independent scrutiny and by confrontation with rival analysis. New facts and new theoretical explanations are often established and previously existing misapprehensions eliminated through this form of critical dialogue. More often than not this process of claim and counter-claim is carried out in a collegiate spirit because all parties are mindful that this kind of debate is part and parcel of the scientific method. To behave otherwise as a scientist is unprofessional.

Regrettably, however, sometimes scientists overstep the mark and engage in behaviour which falls short of this expectation, particularly when it is by a senior scientist directed towards a junior colleague because then unnecessarily aggressive criticism can take on the mantle of bullying.

Today I saw a paper on the arXiv by Bouwens et al. that contains criticism of a previous paper by Livermore et al. (2017) (arXiv version here) which I think oversteps the mark in this way, especially because the lead author of the first paper, Rychard Bouwens, is an established (male) academic and the first author of the second, Rachael Livermore, is a (female) postdoctoral researcher.

Two footnotes from the Bouwens et al. paper suffice to give a flavour of the tone. This is footnote 8:

This is footnote 9:

There are a number of inappropriate aspects of these comments (and others made elsewhere in the paper). I’ll mention just two.

First, note the highlighted `claimed sample’ in Footnote 8. The only way I can read this phrase is as an insinuation that the Livermore et al. sample has somehow been fabricated. In other words, it is a snide allegation of research misconduct. This may not be what Bouwens et al intended to say, but that’s certainly how it reads. And the phrase `claimed sample’ appears more than once in their paper. If they don’t mean it that way then I strongly suggest they edit the paper to clarify, as it is potentially extremely defamatory.

Second, note that the Livermore et al. results are published in the Astrophysical Journal. That means that they have therefore passed peer review and are in the public domain. That does not mean that they cannot be challenged, of course, but note that in Footnote 8, Bouwens et al. refer to an article that is not public, not refereed and not even finished.  I don’t think this it is fair to include this in the current paper as the evidence to back up the criticism is simply not available. Note also the implication in Footnote 9 that the referee of this paper did not understand the issues presented in the paper, either.

Now I don’t know who (if anyone) is right about the luminosity function results in these papers. Luminosity function determinations are difficult, being prone to all kinds of selection biases and other problems. I am not going to side with either set of authors on the technicalities. I just think it’s extremely regrettable that Bouwens have adopted this tone towards another group of authors whom they should regard as colleagues. It is perfectly reasonable to criticise the work of another group in the literature, but in my experience this usually only happens after the two teams have discussed the issues in private and failed to reconcile their differences. That can and does happen, but here there does not seem to have been any attempt to sort this out amicably before going on the offensive. I find that deeply regrettable.

By the way, this is the AAS Policy on Professional and Ethical Standards for its journals (including the Astrophysical Journal, to which the Bouwens et al. paper has been submitted):






The Zurich Letters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post following up my previous piece on the Bullying Scandal at ETH Zurich.

As pointed out in a comment on that post, a letter of support for one of the named Professors (Marcella Carollo) has been signed by a number of astronomers, including some prominent senior professors. That letter can be found here (PDF).

A version of that letter which has been annotated by Chris Lintott to draw attention to some of its shortcomings can be found here. I won’t add much to Chris’s comments, but will mention that a dropout rate of 30% of students funded by the UK  Science and Technology Facilities Council would lead to financial penalties on the institution responsible. Moreover, ETH Zurich is a prestigious institution with a highly selective admissions policy for postgraduate students and a high level of funding. It is not unreasonable to expect a high completion rate under these circumstances.

Other than that, the two main messages of the first letter seem to be (a) `some people did well so it must all be OK’ and (b) `the ends justify the means’. I can’t agree with either of these points. Reaction I have seen on social media to the letter have been overwhelmingly negative, to the extent that Prof. Bryan Gaensler has drafted an alternative letter, in support of the ETH Researchers, and is collecting signatures. You can find that letter here, where you can also find a list of more than 300 nearly 700 signatories across all walks of astronomical life. You can add your name to this letter at any time until 2359 UTC on Wednesday November 1st, after which the letter and list of signatories will then be delivered to the researchers affected by this sorry affair.

P.S. I’ll just mention that as well as attracting a very large number of visitors (hopefully not all of them lawyers), my original post on this matter is the first I have written to generate over a hundred comments. The previous record was 98.

UPDATE: There’s an item about the second letter here.

The Bullying Scandal in Zurich

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 23, 2017 by telescoper

Yesterday I came across a story about bullying in the Institute of Astronomy at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich in Switzerland (known universally as ETH Zürich). You can find details here (in German) or here (in English, as produced by Google translate).

The allegations contained in this piece are so serious that they have resulted in the closure of the Institute of Astronomy. Two senior members of the faculty are currently on sabbatical and have had their positions transferred to the Department of Physics. You can read the substance of this case in the link I’ve provided so I won’t elaborate further here and will restrict myself to making a couple of points.

First, while this is not the type of case of sexual harassment with which we are becoming regrettably familiar in Astronomy and elsewhere, it does seem to be a product of the same systemic problem: an excessively hierarchical management structure that places far too much power in the hands of prominent individuals at the expense of junior colleagues. Moreover, as in so many other cases, the institutional response seems to be to protect the senior staff rather than to deal with the underlying issues. The institution has allegedly taken over a decade to respond to the accusations of bullying. What compensation or other redress is being offered to those who have been bullied in the Institute of Astronomy during this time? I suspect the ETH just wants to keep the lid on this scandal and hopes it goes away by the time the individuals involved return from `gardening leave’. That is not an adequate response to a situation so serious that it necessitated the closure of an entire Institute. Ironically, just a month ago, ETH Zürich hosted a meeting on `Equal Opportunity at Work’.

That brings me to my second point. The article describing this case changes the names of the principal protagonists, perhaps for legal reasons. The allegations are directed at `Gabriella M.’ who arrived at the Institute at the same time (2002) as her British husband `Paul F.’. This information is sufficient to allow anyone working in Astronomy to identify the two immediately. Anyone not familiar with the Astronomy world could arrive at the same conclusion in a few minutes with a little bit of googling (as a non-astronomy friend of mine proved on Facebook last night). I don’t know why the report I’ve linked to felt the need to disguise the identities of these people, but I see no reason to play along with the attempted anonymity even if it were not so badly botched.

The (female) Professor against whom the allegations of bullying have been made is Marcella Carollo and her husband is Simon Lilly. You will see if you look at the Wikipedia page for Marcella Carollo that it has been edited a number of times to include the news presented in the report I linked to, but the editors have been undoing the changes on the grounds that they represent `vandalism’ of a biographical page. Nowadays telling the truth is `vandalism’, apparently.

I might get into trouble for posting this information, but I feel I’m acting in the public interest and anyway I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble…