It is now well-documented that academic bullying, mainly driven by power differences, affects all disciplines and academic people with various positions (from students to senior faculty) of all levels of experience. Our aim is to probe whether academic bullying, in its specific forms, manifests differently across disciplines.
We analyzed discipline-specific data from our global survey on academic bullying, which was collected since November 2019. The survey was a cross-sectional global study that was administered via Qualtrics. It reflects responses from 2122 individuals whose participation was solicited through various means including advertisements in Science and Nature magazines and the American Chemical Society.
The main finding is that academic bullying does not affect all scientific fields equally. Our cross-sectional global survey of targets of academic bullying indicates that bullying behavior depended strongly on the scientific discipline. Specifically, our comparison of the three major scientific categories, including Applied Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences revealed significant differences (p < 0.05) in four (out of ten) of the contextual behaviors. Further comparison of the bullying behavior among specific disciplines (e.g., Chemistry, Engineering, Life Sciences, Neuroscience, and Social Sciences) revealed significant differences (p < 0.05) in five of the contextual behaviors. We also noticed that, among the top five disciplines analyzed, respondents in Engineering experienced the highest rate of bullying behaviors.
The variation in contextual bullying behavior across disciplines suggests the need for specific and nuanced training, monitoring, and actions by stakeholders in addressing academic bullying in a context-specific manner.
Table 1 shows the Geographical distribution of the survey participants.
Table 1Geographical distribution of the survey participants. Percentages calculated by using the midpoint of the range for each country as the numerator and the midpoint of the total as the denominator. The provided range of participants is because not all participants responded to the entire checklist.
gave me a bad/unfair recommendation;
canceled or threatened to cancel my visa;
unnecessarily lengthened my stay in his/her lab;
took away my funding or threatened to take away my funding;
encouraged others to mistreat me;
used my data in papers/patents without acknowledging my contribution;
violated authorship contribution guidelines (if existed);
forced me to sign away my rights;
violated my intellectual property rights; and/or
canceled or threatened to cancel my current appointment/position.
After conducting an overall ANOVA which suggested there were differences in the level of contextual bullying behavior among the 14 disciplines represented in the study, F (14, 907) = 2.314, p < .004, we then grouped the disciplines into 4 major science categories: Applied Sciences (including Biotech/Pharma, Clinical Science, Engineering, Cancer Research, and Immunology), Formal Sciences (Maths/Computational), Natural Sciences (including Life Science, Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Physical Science, Genetics, and Earth Science) and Social Sciences (including Neuroscience and Social Sciences) because there were several specific disciplines with very few data points (e.g. Maths/Computational, Biotech/Pharma). Next, we compared differences among the five disciplines with the highest number of respondents (i.e., Chemistry, Engineering, Life Sciences, Neuroscience, and Social Sciences). We removed Formal Sciences from further analysis of the four major science categories because of the low number of participants (N = 15).
ANOVAs and Chi-Square Tests were used to determine if the observed frequencies of specific bullying behavior in each category were equivalent. Frequencies of bullying behavior across categories were considered significant when the p-value was < 0.05.
We also reported the full outcomes in line with the Strengthening Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) guidelines.
Role of funding source
There was no funding associated with this study. All authors had full access to all the data in the study and had final responsibility for the decision to submit for publication.
Perpetrators disrupting the career paths of subordinates (e.g., through bad recommendations and/or violation of authorship/intellectual property rights) and mobbing (i.e., ganging up against an individual) are the most common types of academic bullying across disciplines and represent a widespread threat to scientific integrity and organizational health in general.
Most of our participants were from the United States (48.5%). While we received responses from 60 countries, the number of responses from other countries was not sufficient to draw a robust analysis from them. As the guidelines, actions, regulations, and interdependencies among various stakeholders (e.g., funding agencies and institutions) are highly dependent on the country, our data most likely reflects bullying behavior in the US. As such, more geographically targeted surveys need to be conducted to better understand the relationships between bullying behavior and disciplines in each country. Such information would be crucial in designing discipline-specific guidelines, monitoring systems, and effective actions to create safe and healthy organizational environments across disciplines and cultures.
A global study would identify the most effective legislation regarding bullying, and support subsequent advocacy for its implementation in other countries. An additional advantage of a coordinated global survey would be that universities or National Academies of Science could be involved in recruiting respondents, reducing the self-selection bias that may have been an issue with our smaller survey. In sum, a coordinated global study would deliver valuable insights into more effective policy-making and enforcement for the global scientific community and its stakeholders.
, , , However, recent systematic reviews of harassment in academia reveal that anti-harassment and non-discrimination policies over the past 30 years have had no discernible effect.
Our findings suggest that this could partly be due to policies being too generic and not paying sufficient attention to discipline-specific bullying behaviors. Our study provides quantitative evidence of disparities in contextual academic bullying behavior across scientific disciplines, valuable input for more effective policies and interventions to combat and discourage bullying. For instance, most universities feature general anti-harassment policies. Our findings suggest that faculties might benefit from additional discipline-specific policies that account for increased vulnerability to forms of bullying particular to that discipline.
We acknowledge the following limitations of this study. The results of this analyses may be biased due to the selection effect as people who were abused were more motivated to participate in our survey. Our data has been collected globally from different countries with different rules and regulations as well as cultural differences. Specially, demographic data such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, income, education, and employment play a significant role both for perpetrators and targets. Our results demonstrated the proof-of-concept of the critical role of scientific disciplines in contextual behavior of academic bullying; however, further studies need to be conducted to systematically investigate the role of demographics of participants on the profiles and contextual behavior of academic bullying. We have 2122 participants in this study, but not all of them answered all questions. Lower response rates for some disciplines cannot be actually due to low occurrence of bullying but to our recruiting methodology and moreover due to the lower number of candidates in these disciplines compared to more populated disciplines. Additional measures are needed to ensure that data collected from participants in future studies are representative of the eligible population of participants in each geography.
Our valuable findings extend earlier research, by pointing towards the necessity for considering both discipline-specific and more generic forms of academic bullying. Future work expanding our understanding of the role of scientific disciplines on contextual academic bullying behavior across different countries will be needed to determine if there are country by discipline interaction effects (though we saw no evidence of this in our data). This type of data is important to be able to effectively promote psychologically safe workplaces for scientists across disciplines and geographies. The variation in contextual bullying behavior across disciplines suggests the need for targeted and nuanced approaches to address academic bullying in an effective manner.
Sherry Moss: Conceptualization, Supervision, Methodology, Analysis and investigation, Writing – Review and editing
Susanne Täuber: Analysis and investigation, Data curation
Shahriar Sharifi: Analysis and investigation, Data curation
Morteza Mahmoudi: Conceptualization, Supervision, Methodology, Analysis and investigation, Writing – Review and editing
All authors have read the final version of the manuscript.