Fallout From an Accusation

A professor who brought misconduct charges against a colleague asks how to act while the process moves forward. C.K. Gunsalus considers how to handle this awkward, long period.

November 5, 2010

Dear Survival Guide:

I have recently accused a colleague of research misconduct. I did so only after serious deliberation and with strong evidence, and while I know I should keep my mouth shut while the internal review process happens, I have to pass by the person in my hallway, attend meetings with her/him, and pretend to work collaboratively. It's going to kill my dignity to keep up the pretense of collegiality for long. What do I do: disengage from work (leaving her/him more de facto authority), beg higher-ups to suspend some of her/his duties during the investigation, or come to work with my viking helmet, ready to do battle?

--Did My Duty

Dear Dutiful One:

Accusing a colleague about anything is a painful and difficult decision to make, and especially so when it’s about research misconduct. These proceedings are hard for everyone -- the accused (of course), the investigative panel, the witnesses, the people who are in the environment, as well as the accuser. Prepare yourself, no matter how certain you are and no matter how resolute you are that you did the right thing, for personal second-guessing, and, I’m sorry to say, second-guessing from others as your role becomes known. The chances are very high that it will become known because our environments are tightly interconnected and this will be a hot topic of conversation. No matter how much people intend to respect the confidentiality of a very serious process like this, the chances are good that either things will leak out, that you’ll be asked because people are surmising based on incomplete information, or both.

Before getting very far into this, let me note that I don’t know anything about the substance of this situation, and the only thing I do know about is your sincere belief that you’ve done the right thing. You could be completely correct, or you could be seeing only a piece of a complicated puzzle that leaves the answer as something different than you expect. Your good faith in bringing the allegation is important and so let’s go from there.

However this unfolds, the more dignified, restrained and professional you are throughout every single moment, the better off you will be in the long term. If you are happy the person is finally getting what he or she deserves, suppress the emotion and stay totally objective in everything you say and do. If the topic comes up, say, “My understanding is that these matters are confidential, and I’d like to respect the process. I have no opinion without full access to the facts,” or some such. If you are stressed and feeling ground down by the situation, ditto.

Long after the messy details of this situation fade from people’s memories -- and they will, no matter how horrifying and fresh they are now -- what they will remember is your affect and those of people around you: Did you rush to judgment? Do happy dances in the hallway? Or, were you serious, dignified and restrained, the consummate professional? The latter is the impression you would very much like to be associated with you in these memories, especially since you were the one who made the accusation. Restrained and sad that things came to this, is what you should be seeking to project, and feel, if you can.

You may be wondering why I’m harping so much about the feelings in this situation: it’s because those are what take people down, every time. Most researchers are prepared to do battle, as you put it, on the facts and have a full repertoire of analytical and rhetorical approaches for doing that. What most are not prepared for is the emotional tone and toll of misconduct proceedings, and misconduct proceedings that tend to play out at highest pitch, as central as they are to so much of the scholarly endeavor. It’s also important to remember that your colleagues may include people who personally like the person you accused, or people who may have no strong personal connection to the individual but simply don’t have the information that led you to make the accusation. They may not see you as a whistle-blower doing the right thing, but as someone who has hurt a friend or who has placed the department in an awkward situation. You may not win over these people, but any attitude beyond low-key will make it more difficult.

Every time I’ve worked with an investigative panel on a misconduct matter, at the second meeting, everyone has dark shadows under their eyes: what they say, more or less, is a variation on this: “I was up all night, going over in my mind everything I’ve ever published, trying to figure out if any of my work could be susceptible to an accusation of X (whatever the investigation is about).” There’s a real “there but for the grace of God go I” sense of identification about these proceedings, and they hit very close to home. My experience is that few are prepared for how heavy the toll can be. So, be prepared.

As for what to do in the hallways, etc., the very first rule is to say NOTHING about the matter except in official proceedings, and when asked by the body or authority managing the process. This applies to the accused and it applies to anyone else in the environment who wants to talk to you about it. One thing to be prepared for is the questions that suggest that, by not saying anything, you and others are trying to cover things up. Develop some deflection statements that leave you sounding dignified and objective and then shut up. Say nothing about the substance of the situation. While this is hard, think about it from the other perspective: if you were the one accused, wouldn’t you want a chance to present your side of the story before being convicted in the court of hallway chatter?

Anything you might say can have two detrimental effects: first, it could undercut or damage the ability of the process to come to a conclusion that will stand up to later review or challenge, which is always a tragedy when it happens. Second, it could damage you -- what will be remembered here is your affect in a time of stress: did you flip out and behave inappropriately, or the reverse. As a hint, the latter is far, far better for your long-term career and comfort.

There’s a rule about hard situations like this, which is, “what comes around goes around.” And here’s the part they always leave off when they tell us this stuff: it will take longer than feels just, unbelievably longer. Research misconduct proceedings have federally set deadlines that seem to be observed almost exclusively in the breach. While there are reasons that these investigations take a long time, including just how hard it can be to assemble and convene for meetings a disparate group of busy experts, most of these proceedings take way too long for everyone and every aspect of the goal. Three or four months is the usual target; up to two years is the unfortunate reality in all too many settings. Some of this is lack of experience: research misconduct investigations happen so rarely, even in large institutions, and the half-life of institutional memory is so short that it’s a rare place where you have a truly experienced person running the process. If that person has a sense of urgency and drives it along expeditiously, count your blessings.

What is critical is that nothing you do becomes the issue instead of the serious questions you have raised with evidence. Don’t let the focus shift to a battle of personalities or allegiances: do all you can to make sure the facts are always front and center in the investigation. If the investigation gets diverted to questions of “XX is doing YY in the department,” it will drag out what’s already likely to be a long and hard slog into something, well, even longer and even harder. That is an undesirable outcome, says a person who has seen it happen and seen the damage to all from that unhappy result.

What I’m trying to say here is that you really need to be prepared for this interim limbo state to last for a while. Withdrawing completely from the field, disengaging from work, will not be feasible for as long as this will take, while also keeping your own work on track. Thus, showing up and being emotionally remote -- leaving the bad actor as the de facto authority, as you put it -- during what will feel like (and probably be) an interminable process will be galling, hard, and the high road. I’ve said here before that the high road is longer, bumpier, harder and always, always better. Be the person on the high road. You recognize the cost in your inquiry, which suggests to me you already know the answer, and were just hoping there might be another one. There’s not... Hang in there.

--Survival Guide

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