Exploitation in scientific spaces is often an open secret, which is perhaps why one group of research assistants collectively referred to their lab as “the slave pits.” While the nickname is jarring and the comparison inappropriate, they referred to it as such because in this lab, undergraduate RAs were required to perform a minimum of 10 hours of unpaid, menial work every week for the entire semester, mostly consisting of rote data entry. RAs rarely had the opportunity to learn the craft of research through meaningful participation in its design or execution, and as you would expect from a place with such a nickname, it was not a friendly or inclusive place to work. Why, then, would so many students spend over a hundred hours working in such a place? Because RAs who tolerated this exploitation received a coveted letter of recommendation signed by a well-known faculty member (but written by one of their graduate students or postdocs).
Beyond the direct human cost on those who suffer from such mistreatment and exploitation, do you think that this lab—or others run like it—produces research of the highest integrity? Probably not. While the past decade has seen a sea of change in the social and behavioral sciences that has been rightfully called the credibility revolution, scholars advocating for increased transparency and research integrity have focused primarily on the outputs of science while overlooking the processes that govern how labs are run. We have to stop thinking of labs like the one described above as singular, regrettable instances of unfair treatment and start calling them what they really are: threats to the integrity of the social and behavioral sciences as a whole.
These conditions are not unique. Surveys of researchers in STEM labs find widespread hostile work environments and discrimination, especially toward women and members of racial minorities. There is no reason to believe these experiences are not shared in many labs, but the social and behavioral sciences have yet to grapple with the unfair conditions of how we produce research. We have all heard stories of places like the aforementioned lab, but these labs’ actual prevalence across the social and behavioral sciences is unknown.
Scholars advocating for increased transparency and research integrity have focused primarily on the outputs of science while overlooking the processes that govern how labs are run.
While we behavioral scientists cannot change the structure of our universities overnight, we can begin addressing these issues by integrating (small d) democratic principles into our labs. To this end, I recently founded the Union of Democratic Laboratories (UDL), a scientific society that advocates for the establishment of clear standards for fair and humane lab practices and the democratization of scientific workplaces. While we know practices like those described above take place, as a community we need to better understand the scale at which they occur and the damage they cause. The UDL is currently at work on the Humane Labs Project—a large empirical endeavor examining inhumane laboratory practices, how they negatively affect scientists and the rigor of the science they produce, and how to better combat them.
Beyond benevolent dictators
In considering the case for democratizing scientific spaces, it is important to properly describe the status quo: a model of (hopefully) benevolent dictators. Many laboratories (and indeed, most modern universities) operate like a feudal system: stark hierarchies of absolute power where resources and credit flow upward while systems of control flow down the hierarchy. Like other employer-employee relationships, lab members are entirely subordinate to those above them. But unlike at-will employment, students and researchers in labs have few realistic prospects for leaving a lab and finding another, as students are tied to enrollment in their university and researchers compete for a tiny set of lab-based jobs across the entire globe.
In this model of science, the best hope an RA, graduate student, or postdoc can have is a benevolent adviser. Such advisers are caring mentors who support the research of their students and mentees, make sure students are credited for their work, treat them with respect and dignity, and help guide them into careers as successful scholars. However, when considering the hopefully benevolent model of mentorship and science as a whole, hopefully is an essential part of the description. Benevolence is a chance benefit, not a guarantee. There are far too few mechanisms in place to protect students and guarantee that those in power don’t act in malevolent ways.
Benevolence is a chance benefit, not a guarantee. There are far too few mechanisms in place to protect students and guarantee that those in power don’t act in malevolent ways.
Even in these best-case dictatorships, social norms are obscure and hazy, leading to a “hidden curriculum” that solidifies the need of those entering such spaces to defer to the graces of those above them. This creates a culture where one’s freedom and respect are determined by their prestige and insider familiarity with unspoken norms. Resources—such as student stipends, research grants, and access to teaching or research assistantships—are also controlled by those at the top of the hierarchy, further guaranteeing the deference of those with little power to those with all the power. This protected status quo also fails to produce good science. The lack of accountability and concentration of power inherent in the benevolent-dictator model creates an environment where questionable research practices can proliferate.
This status quo is also failing the next generation of social and behavioral scientists. How can graduate students, who experience increasing levels of depression and anxiety while they work for stagnant poverty wages, be expected to perform at a high level? Women, students of color, and first-generation students, among members of other marginalized groups, disproportionately suffer under dictators. Few mechanisms exist to help them overcome the additional barriers they face in scientific settings. This makes the scientific community as a whole less diverse, demographically and intellectually, which harms and constrains society’s scientific potential.
The current model of doing science has also failed to prevent myriad forms of unethical behavior, abuse, and misconduct. It failed to prevent the sexual harassment and rape of nine students by three Dartmouth faculty going back over 15 years. It similarly failed to prevent a Cornell professor from fabricating data for over a decade, leading to upwards of 40 peer-reviewed articles retracted. And both of these instances of misconduct occurred repeatedly, against and in view of multiple people, for over a decade, literally in the lab.
These failings are not the result of a few “bad apples,” and they won’t be fixed by hiring more benevolent dictators. The fundamental problem is not the disposition of the dictators, but that they exist in the first place.
Such flagrancy speaks to the futility of hoping the dictator model of science will be self-policing. These failings are not the result of a few “bad apples,” and they won’t be fixed by hiring more benevolent dictators. The fundamental problem is not the disposition of the dictators, but that they exist in the first place. Too often the institutional response to these problems is to construct bloated bureaucracies that only reinforce existing hierarchies. Rather than continuing to hope that people with absolute power won’t engage in bad behaviors, the UDL sees a better solution: to flatten scientific power hierarchies and to democratize labs.
Democratic principles are scientific principles
Expanding democracy into domains outside of capital “P” politics does not mean putting every decision to a majority vote. Rather, it means giving every person working in the social and behavioral sciences the power to exercise meaningful control over their circumstances and be part of decisions that affect them. If an undergraduate must unquestioningly provide 150 hours of unpaid menial labor in order to receive a needed letter of recommendation, then that student has neither meaningful control over their circumstances nor a say in the decisions that affect them.
We already structure the science outside of the lab—from scientific societies to peer review to academic departments—according to democratic principles of transparency, power sharing, egalitarianism, and consensus decision-making. Tenured faculty have immense intellectual and personal freedom precisely because such freedom facilitates better science. We all recognize that abolishing tenure and giving department heads complete control over the scientific work of faculty would be a threat to the integrity of science as a whole. Yet we pretend the same issues are not present when it comes to power asymmetries between tenured faculty and the growing legion of contingent faculty and students in laboratory settings. A system where a select few have maximum freedom while most have little is neither moral nor tenable.
In laboratories, democratization means decoupling hierarchies of scientific expertise from hierarchies of power. There is no question that faculty have more expertise than graduate students, who have more expertise than undergraduate students. Yet expertise should not be accompanied by the power to dominate and control those with slightly less expertise.
In laboratories, democratization means decoupling hierarchies of scientific expertise from hierarchies of power. Expertise should not be accompanied by the power to dominate and control those with slightly less expertise.
Democratizing labs also look means fairly compensating research assistants, graduate students, and adjunct faculty for their work, and allowing them to represent themselves and their interests through unionization. Graduate student funding should be separated from advisers and placed instead at the level of the department or school. Policies around mentorship need to be formalized (as many universities fail to stipulate the rights of graduate students in disputes with their advisor), as do independent grievance processes for students who are victims of misconduct. Democratic labs have student representatives with voting rights on faculty committees that make decisions affecting students. They also have collectively developed lab value-statements that are publicly posted. True democratization means departments and schools starting empowered diversity and inclusion initiatives that are able to affect change. If scientific publications can receive “badges” indicating the work is open, transparent and rigorous, then labs should be able to receive badges indicating that they are run in an equitable, humane, and accountable fashion.
The policies above are neither inclusive of all democratized lab policies nor necessarily applicable to every situation. Labs vary tremendously across cultures, disciplines, and universities, so a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. Instead, I started the UDL to catalyze conversations regarding how we can better integrate democratic principles into our labs. The benevolent dictator model of science fails to produce the best science, and it also fails to respect the dignity of those low on the academic hierarchy. Most social and behavioral scientists already agree that democratic principles of transparency, power sharing, egalitarianism, and consensus decision-making lead to the best science. It is time we extend those principles to the way we run our labs.