Towards combating the abuse of power in science

Doctoral student network “N2” develops mechanisms to prevent conflicts through abuse of hierarchy

The story of the young doctoral candidate Tao Chongyuan ended in tragedy – with a fatal leap from the sixth floor of his university in Wuhan, China. As the international press reported in 2018, this event was preceded by personal confrontations with his mentor, caused by coercion and the abuse of power by the mentor. This incident is only one of a number of similar events, including at German research institutes, such as the settlement of a patent dispute between doctoral candidates and their group leader and cases of sexual harassment. These publicly reported cases all have one thing in common: The one-sided abuse of the power gap destroyed communication and led to a loss of trust between doctoral candidates and mentors. Some of these cases resulted in lengthy legal disputes without a solution-oriented outcome.

What assistance is currently available to doctoral researchers in such situations?

In cases such as these, the affected party can turn to the ombudspersons at the relevant research institution – in the hope of support and an investigation. However, the prospects for successful conflict resolution are not always promising, as ombudspersons are only responsible for monitoring, uncovering and sanctioning scientific misconduct. They are not trained in the mediation of interpersonal conflicts, nor is this task stipulated in the DFG Rules of Procedure for Dealing with Scientific Misconduct. This means that ombudspersons are generally appointed from among the staff and are therefore, in some cases, deeply intertwined in the institute’s structures. This makes unbiased assessment of the situation difficult. Victims of abuses of power can also contact doctoral researcher representatives, members of the thesis committee, colleagues and the works council. But not everyone has the courage to approach these people, because their attachment to the institute and employees can also prevent a victim from opening up.

List of actions for solving power-related conflicts

In May 2019, the “N2 – network of networks” group, a collaboration of doctoral researcher representatives from the Helmholtz Association (Helmholtz Juniors), the Max Planck Society (Max Planck PhDnet) and the Leibniz Association (Leibniz PhD Network), published a position paper entitled “Power Abuse and Conflict Resolution”. In this paper, the representatives describe the mechanisms that, in their view, encourage the abuse of power and the emergence of conflicts, and invite directors, works councils and graduate schools at the research institutes to a thematic dialogue.

The multi-layered dependence on doctoral candidates, steep hierarchies and the all-round immense pressure to publish all pose an especially high potential for conflict. In addition, the multi-cultural and highly diverse working environment in science poses extraordinary challenges for management. The N2 network proposes, for example, supervision agreements and mandatory courses on good scientific practice for new doctoral researchers. With regard to managers who are responsible for training the doctoral candidates, N2 calls for mandatory and ongoing training in the development of leadership skills. In the event of conflict, the protection of the victims and their work should have the highest priority. This includes support in the event of a new supervisor, potential contract extensions in significantly more difficult circumstances and access to a trained mediator or psychologist. Assessing cases of abuses of power should be undertaken by an independent committee that is not connected to the institute based on a previously agreed code of conduct. After final evaluation by the committee, appropriate action should be taken against the offender where appropriate.

The Helmholtz Juniors welcome the fact that discussions and workshops were held at several Helmholtz centres after publication of the paper. This will hopefully lead to structures that enable doctoral candidates to complete their studies in safe and trustworthy environments. In view of the current survey of all doctoral candidates in the Helmholtz Association, the doctoral researcher representatives now hope that the issue of abuses of power will be addressed at other Helmholtz centres.

Documents (Download)

PrintSend per emailShare