Sexual and gender harassment, whenever they occur, are detrimental to the research environment and damaging to the research integrity of a laboratory, to the organizational unit, and to the wider community. They violate not only the person so treated but also the integrity of the research environment. It is this issue that is the subject of Frazier Benya’s excellent article, “Treating Sexual Harassment as a Violation of Research Integrity” (Issues, Winter 2019).
As articulated by Benya, the real issue is how to evolve our policies and processes so as to deal with sexual harassment. She proposes two broad categories of activities. The first step is to expand responsible conduct of research (RCR) training to include problems of sexual harassment. However, as she states, and as pointed out in the National Academies report Fostering Integrity in Research, published in 2017, RCR training, although necessary, is not in its current form as effective as it needs to be. The question that must be continually asked is how can we do better. The issue of RCR training in fact will be the topic of several workshops being organized by the National Academy of Engineering, with the first set for October 2019.
The second, and more challenging, step is to integrate sexual harassment into the broader framework of the fostering of research integrity. To do this will be complex and not easy, and this integration will require a number of important changes and/or additions to what we now do. It should be noted that the recent National Academies report on sexual harassment did not recommend including it in the definition of research misconduct but rather to hold it as being equally important as research misconduct. On the other hand, the American Geophysical Union has a very much broadened definition of research misconduct, one that includes sexual harassment.
If we stay with research misconduct being defined as falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism, then sexual harassment is in the category of a detrimental research practice (DRP). Any DRP is a form of misconduct; however, one might argue that some DRPs are more severe than others, with sexual harassment violations of research integrity being one of the most damaging of the DRPs. Benya identifies six changes or additions to the current system that need to be implemented. As an example, she indicates that there may need to be penalties for sexual harassment violations of research integrity. If there are to be penalties for sexual harassment violations, maybe there should be some type of penalty for other DRPs.
Clearly there are many issues that still need to be worked out when it comes to research integrity. In a recent commentary in Nature (Gunsalus et al., 2019), the authors propose the establishment of a Research Policy Board. Its purpose would be to provide a continuing organizational focus for fostering integrity. The board would work with all stakeholders in the research community, with the goal being to share expertise and approaches for addressing and minimizing research misconduct and also detrimental research practices such as sexual harassment.
Just recently the National Academy of Sciences at its annual meeting held a symposium on “Establishing the Trustworthiness of Science,” and it was encouraging that this topic is getting this kind of attention. The trustworthiness of science is fundamentally based on research environments having a culture of integrity. To continue efforts to foster such a culture, the next step as indicated in the Nature commentary is to bring together representative stakeholders in a workshop in order to further assess the need for a Research Policy Board and to look at what models might exist for such an entity, what strategic partnerships would need to be built, particularly with groups that already have “pieces” of the integrity space, and how such a board would be funded and sustained.
The bottom line is how can the research community address the various factors—whether it be actual research misconduct or the misconduct of a detrimental research practice such as sexual harassment—that are needed to foster research integrity. It is not simply that we as a community can do better. We need to do better, and we must do better.
Robert M. Nerem
Institute Professor Emeritus
Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience
Georgia Institute of Technology