Student abuse by faculty

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, lately, which in part accounts for my relative silence over the past few weeks. However, in the course of traveling, I keep coming across a set of similar stories, from throughout the world, although principally from developing countries, in particular, China and those in Africa.

The stories tend to be similar, in terms of exploitation of doctoral or junior faculty members, and go like this:

“At our university, the senior faculty insist that their names go first on every paper I produce, even those that they have not contributed to, in any way”.


“At our university, doctoral students do all the data collection analysis, and writing, but our names are never put on the paper – only that of the senior faculty”.

When I hear these stories, as both a scholar and an editor, I am outraged.  How is it that faculty members can openly exploit students and junior scholars is such a blatant fashion?  Why is it that no professional organization exists to come to their defense? Unfortunately, we are collectively partially responsible, as the publish or perish norms and intense competition that we have helped develop only exacerbates this problem.  It is, after all, a collective problem.

Of course, the exploitation of students is not entirely new. The recent movie “the Stanford Prison Experiment” shows the extent to which Lombardo went during his study, and the expense those participants must have paid.  Zimbardo, then an ambitious recently tenured scholar, was a consultant on the film, and it reportedly accurately reflects what took place. His subsequent work was devoted to more pristine socially progressive causes, such as understanding shyness. No surprise there…

Our code of ethics does address these issues, although not as directly as one might think. For example, on the aspiration side, with regard to integrity:

  1. Integrity

AOM members seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of their profession. In these activities AOM members do not steal, cheat, or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact. They strive to keep their promises, to avoid unwise or unclear commitments, and to reach for excellence in teaching, scholarship, and practice. They treat students, colleagues, research subjects, and clients with respect, dignity, fairness, and caring. They accurately and fairly represent their areas and degrees of expertise.

Regarding specifically students:

  1. To our students. Relationships with students require respect, fairness, and caring, along with commitment to our subject matter and to teaching excellence. We accomplish these aims by:

Showing respect for students. It is the duty of AOM members who are educators to show appropriate

respect for students’ feelings, interests, needs, contributions, intellectual freedom, and rights to

privacy.  Maintaining objectivity and fairness. It is the duty of AOM members who are educators to treat  students equitably. Impartiality, objectivity, and fairness are required in all dealings with students.

1.6. Exploitative Relationships: AOM members do not exploit persons over whom they have evaluative or other authority, such as authors, job seekers, or student members.

And finally,

4.2.2. Authorship Credit AOM members ensure that authorship and other publication credits are based on the scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved. AOM members take responsibility and credit, including authorship credit, only for work they

have actually performed or to which they have contributed. AOM members usually list a student as principal author on multiply authored publications that  substantially derive from the student s dissertation or thesis.

I underlined the word “usually” under I assume that the exception referred to are situations where the student would not be listed as principal author, but would be listed as co-author (although what these would be, and why they would be exceptions, is a bit of a mystery to me). However, it appears that from the perspective of some of our international members, this ‘exception’ may leave open the interpretation that a scholar may occasionally NOT cite a student as co-author, even when they are  a principal author. Further, and unfortunately, there is no mention of adding authorship to work where the scholar did NOT make a contribution (although does seem to imply that such a deed would not be welcome).

So, what can we do collectively to eradicate this practice of exploitive advising? How can we get the message across different cultures and institutions that when an author submits a paper, the assumption by the editor – indeed, the social contract – ensures that an appropriate amount of work has been conducted by that author reflecting the order of authorship? Further, perhaps it is time our code of ethics become a bit more specific regarding some of these practices, in order to make it explicitly clear that exploitation of any sort is unwelcome in our profession.

5 thoughts on “Student abuse by faculty”

  1. Thank you for starting this important conversation. This goes beyond the issue of authorship, but also data ownership, and others. These issues are complicated by different perspectives on what is appropriate in terms of the supervisor, management school, university, as well as national guidelines. The increase in three paper thesis also has implications for the involvement of supervisors, and claims to work. In my own experience, sometimes what is ‘ethical’ is not clear to all involved. Ultimately, the academy will benefit from a “gold standard” on topics where doctoral students are abused. I hope to do more thinking/writing on these issues in the coming years. Best for now.

  2. The answer is simpler than what you may think: Laws.

    That’s how every industry has entered the post-feudalism era. Increasingly the rights of workers have been recognized and enshrined into law in order to protect them from abuses of the powerful. The rights of the citizens as well have been protected in the same way — that’s partially how democracy works. No amount of preaching will protect the students as long as there are no hard consequences for misbehaving, specially in a system that work-life balance and eventually the dignity of professors are being compromised under the self-imposed publish or perish tragedy. They are just passing on the consequences to the next level in the food chain.

    And you don’t have to go abroad to hear about stories of abuse. Student abuse is well and alive in North America. Every student knows a couple of stories from the neighbourhood. Coauthorship is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the most apparent case. In some cases it can’t even be called abuse… It is psychological warfare. That’s how low a profession can go when it doesn’t submit itself to the values, like transparency and lawfulness, it preaches to the others. I was surprised to learn that in my school almost all aspects of the advisor-advisee relationship are regimented by a single law: consensuality. I was as well ashamed of where I stand when l heard of some cases from students, many of them unreported to date. Out charter of student rights and responsibilities does, for sure, mention the responsibilities of an advisee, but it puts absolutely no burden on the advisor. It only advises the students to try to write up and sign an MOU with their professor before they start their collaboration. Guess what, I know of exactly zero cases that have benefited from this advice…

    It is not a code of ethics that will change that. We need clear laws with impartial enforcers. Consensual relationship may have worked (I doubt) before universities become paper factories with hundreds or thousands, and before the grad students become the main force behind the publication powerhouse the universities have turned into. We need proper supervisory laws, sitting somewhere between family laws and labor laws, with proper enforcement by proper courts with authority to properly persecute wrongdoings — including the authority to suspend or terminate the wrongdoers and ban them from profession if required. I will be the first to opt in such an apparatus, because it will as well protect me from my own temptations and deviation bebavior the day work pressure will push me to the extreme.

  3. Disagree about laws. I don’t want Big Brother in the middle of this. He will makes things worse, not better, on balance.

  4. In most countries there already exist laws that govern employment, human rights, and data integrity issues. In Europe these manifest as EU and national laws, and are quite detailed. I agree with Mahmood, who notes in some scenarios abuse violates employment and/or human rights law. New laws are likely not required, but an awareness of the law, a willingness to share and uphold them, and the development of a ‘gold standard’ of ethical codes and practices for academy members to ascribe to is a good first step.

  5. It seems to me that while laws are necessary, they are insufficient in solving this problem. We have had laws against rape, corruption, and and abuse for 100’s of years – but have turned our glance aside and elected ‘not to make a big issue of it’. There was a time when faculty thought it perfectly acceptable to have relationships with their students. Those days are, for the most part, gone. Our culture has changed – and that is reflected, to some extent, in our aspirational code of ethics. We should be discussing abuse as a profession, in order to clear the air regarding any possible misunderstandings. This blog is just one venue – I hope we can establish others. It really is important – as anyone who has suffered abuse will be the first to agree – that we begin facing our professional ethical lapses in order to validate higher consistent standards.

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