What is power abuse in academic practice?

Abuse of power is a social phenomenon from which science is not exempt. With the DFG Code of Conduct, which came into force in Germany in 2019, abuse of power is also considered scientific misconduct. It is true that an idealized picture is often painted in which science is purely objective and performance is the only thing that counts. In our experience, however, abuse of power is also widespread in various forms in science.

Abuse of power is facilitated by steep hierarchies and strong dependencies between the involved persons. This is particularly the case in academia, which is traditionally characterized by considerable power imbalances between employees and their superiors. The common practice of setting fixed-term employment contracts plays an important role in this context, because this makes the possibility of continuing one's own scientific work permanently and essentially dependent on the goodwill of the respective research group leader. Not infrequently, this situation is exploited, for example, to demand additional labour or coerce employees into questionable scientific procedures. Other factors that enable or promote the abuse of power in the academic environment are the mixing of roles (e.g., the regular coincidence of the role of personnel manager, scientific cooperation partner, and/or reviewer) in a system that is based on self-control, and, on the other hand, a pronounced lack of effective, independent control and enforcement mechanisms. 

Here we document cases of abuse of power.

Why is a network against abuse of power in science necessary?

Abuse of power is increasingly being addressed by institutions in science, as shown, for example, by the DFG Code of Conduct adopted in September 2019 and the Guidelines for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice of the Leibniz Association. The ombuds system, a system of confidants introduced more than 20 years ago, is a generally reliable, institutionally locally anchored structure for dealing with suspected cases of scientific misconduct, which is supported by a national body in the form of the Ombudsman of Science. Nevertheless, the ombudsman system as a self-control mechanism seems to be reaching its limits when trying to resolve the complex and interpersonally difficult cases of power abuse.

In addition, it is not uncommon for affected persons to be reluctant to turn to the ombuds system, especially when it comes to the abuse of power. There are many reasons for this, such as (a) lack of knowledge about forms of abuse of power, one's own rights and procedures, (b) uncertainty about one's own assessment of possibly problematic behavior (e.g., isn't this simply common, "normal" and must be tolerated? ), (c) doubts about the neutrality and the seriousness of the will of such institutions to clarify, (d) concern that the information passed on will not be treated with the necessary confidentiality, and consequently (e) fear of possible retaliation by persons accused. 

In such situations, our network would like to provide support. 

Our network aims to be a point of contact and advocacy for those who feel they have been affected by abuse of power or who have dealt with cases of abuse of power and who are looking for an independent point of contact.

Contact us