Researchers face increased levels of harassment

February 08, 2022

People working on computer; Photo by Thirdman from Pexels

Story by Rob Rombouts; Photo by Thirdman from Pexels

“The problem has always been there, but the tools have changed,” said Howard Ramos, chair of the department of Sociology, and co-author of a Royal Society of Canada briefing “Protecting Expert Advice for the Public: Promoting Safety and Improved Communications

Ramos and his co-authors considered growing levels of harassment faced by researchers, and laid out recommendations on what funding agencies, the federal government and the post-secondary sector can do to address the issue.

The panel considered the changing online media environment as well as the increased expectations for academics to engage in knowledge mobilization and translation. The increase in social media has increased the number and scope of people who can easily comment on or share research.

“In many ways, it documents a problem that people have known about for some time, but haven’t named publicly or at a national scale,” said Ramos. “What’s changed is the scale and how easy it is to harass people on so many platforms. It has become internationalized, and the harasser could be a bot or person from anywhere.”

Female researcher, along with Indigenous peoples and people of colour, are more likely to face harassment, and it is often misogynistic and racist in nature, he said. “It’s become much easier for people to complain or harass in ways that are far more personal than it would have been a decade or two ago.”

Researchers doing work related to public debates will also be the target of more harassment and the pandemic has increased the level of harassment and led to a decrease in the public’s trust in science.

“With the pandemic, there was a lot more pre-peer reviewed work sent out. The media picks up on it, and then later find out the science changed. This is a challenge when doing science in real time,” said Ramos.

To better respond to the harassment, universities need to record and track the harassment experienced by researchers, “rather than just accepting that it is happening, and believing it is benign.” Adequate response will require more coordination across units, as well as clear guidelines for how researchers should report harassment.

“When someone is harassed, they may end up not knowing where to go, or they find out there are holes in the support system,” said Ramos. Reports to campus police may be passed on to local police, or to IT services, and no party or office will take responsibility.

Universities and funding agencies need to provide more support and training for faculty members, including discussion of the norms for engaging the public, the best practices, and potential pitfalls.

“We find there’s been an increase perceived pressure from early career researchers to engage in knowledge mobilization when they don’t feel comfortable,” he said. “Academics increasingly feel pressured to weigh in on issues which they may not have expertise on.”

“Universities are doing a much better in their role of engaging the public but haven’t thought about what is needed to support such a shift in mandate,” said Ramos. “There is expectation for experts to be there, but at same time experts may say things people don’t want to hear. The value of a university is that it offers impartial advice.

The full policy briefing report is available from the Royal Society of Canada website. On February 11 at 2:00 pm EST, the RSC is hosting an hour-long free virtual Webinar convening the authors to discuss recommendations outlined in the Policy Briefing. Register here for this free event today.