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Scientific Stockholm Syndrome

In response to unprofessional behavior by another scientist, a marine science colleague recently stated that they were so used to bad behavior in their area of research that they just accepted it as normal, and that they basically had “Stockholm syndrome”. Sadly this all too common, that unprofessional behavior in some fields and areas is so common (whether it be academic bullying and hazing, plagiarizing and stealing ideas and data, or sexism and harassment see The Dark Side of Academia) that it becomes the accepted norm. This is particularly prevalent in fields that are small and insular.


Stockholm, despite its associated syndrome, is really quite lovely

My own field of marine mammal science is a good example of small insular community where ethical norms are somewhat skewed. It’s a field where many researchers last century worked within the whaling/sealing or military research industries, relatively few working within universities with professional oversight. Even today, many researchers, once they have their graduate degrees, are not regular university faculty. Many early researchers routinely conducted studies on high cognitive functioning species that today would frankly, be considered animal welfare violations (e.g. invasive brain surgery of marine mammals and feeding dolphins large quantities of LSD to allude to just two studies). Many of the key scientific bodies for the field were historically set up by pro-whaling/pro-captivity / anti-welfare/anti-conservation scientists, whereas arguably the large majority of scientists in the field are currently the complete opposite. It’s a small field that where research is expensive, and funding is limited, which leads to a lot of competition. As animals are hard to find and observe, there are a lot of assumptions and uncertainty when marine mammal science is done – as such it sometimes leads to accusations by other scientists as not being rigorous, which leads to those within the field becoming defensive.  The subject receives a lot of public and media interest and attention, which can lead to ego inflation.  Although the younger generation of scientists in the field are predominantly female, senior scientists and decision makers in the field tend to be predominantly male (although this is slowly changing). Marine mammal scientists tend to work in uni-disciplinary, marine mammal focused labs, go to specialist marine mammal science meetings and often publish in specialist marine mammal journals, which can lead to insularity and lack of awareness of how other academic field operate. These various factors can frequently combine to lead to standards of behavior that are accepted in the field, which would be considered to be inappropriate, unprofessional or unethical in others. As an example, in a recent discussion about the need for professional ethical standards within the society, someone commented, oblivious to the irony, “that’s the great thing about marine mammal science, we don’t have ethics like [other academic fields]”. However, many in the field have noticed the problem and there have been efforts to introduce ethical guidelines – there are now ethical guidelines for the largest professional society in the field , even if some members are not aware of them. Other sister societies are considering similar guidelines.

I’m highlighting the marine mammal science community not to shame the community, but to give an example of an academic field where some members have recognized there is a legitimate problem, have attempted to have an “intervention” and are working from within to try to fix that problem, for the betterment of both their colleagues and students, and also for their study species. There are many scientific fields which are similarly insular, and have as big, if not much bigger, problems. Some of you reading could probably name one or more fields that fit that description within the marine sciences alone, without struggling too hard.

So how do you avoid scientific Stockholm Syndrome?

  • One easy way is to not be so insular. Go to inter-disciplinary conferences where different fields may mingle. Find out how they function. Read about professional practices in other disciplines and see how they address problems.
  • Look at professional guidelines and standards produced by other academic societies. The Society for Conservation Biology (see https://conbio.org/about-scb/who-we-are/code-of-ethics) was an early adopter of professional ethical guidelines (which have subsequently been adopted by several other societies).
  • Hold workshops within your society to discuss issues in a safe environment. Have trained facilitators from outside of your field to help promote discussions and try to develop strategies for resolving problems. Be careful not to name names or point fingers at specific people or organizations, or the discussions could quickly degenerate and become acrimonious instead of cathartic.
  • Seek help from an official arbitrator. For example, the Society for Conservation Biology has a societal ombudsman and conference harassment contact persons who can help arbitrate professional problems.
  • In the worst case scenario, perhaps consider shifting to a lab that specializes in your technique, taxon or ethos instead, for example moving your GIS project from a lab focusing on taxon ABC, to lab that specializes in GIS rather than said taxon.

A happy, secure scientist is a productive scientist, and these days having to work in a hostile scientific environment is both unacceptable and unnecessary.

Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) for nearly a decade and also served two terms as the president of the SCB Marine Section. and he's currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society, the Society for Marine Mammalogy and the SCB Contravention Marketing Working Group. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 135 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation and co-edited a book on marine wildlife conflict resolution.

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