9 things researchers can do if their work is under attack

Jacqui Hoepner

3 July 2018

Some of the negative responses to academic work I’ve described in the podcast might sound extreme, but they do happen and can be incredibly traumatising for those on the receiving end.

I’ve compiled* a list of practical things researchers can do if they find themselves or their work under fire. These tips cover everything from Twitter trolling to academic misconduct enquiries. They are drawn from the collective wisdom of my experience and the academics I interviewed.

In no particular order:

#1: Confirm if it’s just trolling or legitimate critique

From very personal and painful experience, I can say that having your integrity, qualifications and motivations called into question can deal a huge blow to your confidence and self-worth.

But it’s important to ask yourself and those you trust to be honest (as soon as you’re mentally up to it) whether the criticisms have any merit. Is there something you could have done differently, or better? Can you take any lessons from this?

This will help inform your response. If there is legitimate constructive criticism somewhere in there, you can take it onboard and politely thank the person for raising the issue. If you are sure (and those around you have confirmed) you haven’t done anything wrong, feel free to ignore it and not let it get you down (too much anyway).

#2: Judge the stakes

Likewise, it’s important to establish what’s actually at stake. Is it just a blow to your ego, or are you actually in danger? Is your integrity or career in jeopardy?

If the former, get some tea and sympathy and let it pass. But if you’re genuinely worried, read on.

#3: Be safe and get help

One of the first things you need to do is make sure you’re as safe and supported as possible.

Make sure your address and personal contact details aren’t publicly available. Put your Twitter account or other socials on private temporarily.

Tell your close friends, family and colleagues so they can look out for you.

Seek mental health services to help you through it and devise practical strategies.

If you’ve got some annual leave or sick leave stored up, take a break to get your mind off it, and surround yourself with people and things that make you feel happy.

#4: Tell your department

Even if it seems trivial and you expect it to blow over soon, it’s important to ensure your supervisor or boss is aware (and onside) as early as possible.

They can offer support services and advice and hopefully provide some peace of mind that your job isn’t at risk. They might even be able to respond on your behalf or issue a statement to defend you. They should also have contacts in the relevant comms team if a press release is necessary.

If you are at all in doubt about whether or not they will support you, ensure your correspondence is in writing or the presence of a witness.

This might sound extreme, as there’s a good chance they will back you anyway, but don’t take the risk. It’s possible that if they eventually come under pressure too, you might become a tempting sacrifice.

If you can demonstrate they supported you early on, it makes their position look a lot more self-serving, and a lot less tenable.

 #5: Document everything

Whether it’s Twitter replies and DMs, threatening emails or warnings from colleagues, make sure you hold onto it.

Take screenshots, save copies of emails and and back them up.

While documenting the worst things people have ever said about you is never pleasant, you never know when you might need proof, whether for a police statement, misconduct inquiry or defamation suit, trusttt.

 #6: Establish your position publicly

If you are copping a lot of flak, particularly if it follows a similar pattern ‘Just admit you’re being paid by the x industry’, ‘You’ve behaved unethically’ or ‘You must have fabricated this data to come to y conclusion’ it is a good idea to set up a website outlining your position.

This could include the background and rationale of the research, a funding disclosure statement, details of your ethics protocol and a clear, evidence based statement about the controversy. You could also dispel any myths or confusion here.

This allows you to carefully control communication, meaning you don’t have to reply to every email, Tweet or comment thread personally. You can just provide a link, safe in the knowledge that your position is as clear and defensible as possible.

You could even set it up as an auto-reply if you decide to take a break (see #3).

#7: If it gets scary, enlist help

If you are a person of colour, female, LGBTQI+, disabled, overweight, Muslim and/or other under-represented or marginalised group (or some combination of the above) there is a good (read: awful) chance attacks on you will be even more personal and vicious.

This is especially the case if you are from an underrepresented group and working in a polarised or controversial field.

If you are getting death or rape threats among the general vitriol, you are not obligated – and nor should you be expected – to trawl through these threats on your own. Ask a few trusted friends or colleagues to monitor your messages and only alert you if there is a credible threat, so you can inform the appropriate authorities.

#8: Pick your battles

Having been in the middle of a couple of backlashes, it can be tempting to righteously and indignantly respond to every slight on your character. But you will go mad and it probably won’t help.

My rule of thumb is to only respond to genuine questions or critiques, where I can clarify something or contribute to the debate meaningfully. I don’t bother responding to ad hominem attacks, deliberate misinformation or otherwise pointless messages.

Everyone will have a different threshold for this, but the main thing is to know within yourself when to hold ‘em, and when to walk away.

#9: Find and be a mentor

If you’re on the receiving end of attacks against you or your work, it’s important to seek out people who have been through it themselves. They will have practical advice and coping strategies, and most importantly, empathy.

The first time I encountered research silencing, I was devastated. My supervisor was supportive, but took a bit of a ‘water off a duck’s back’ approach. Thankfully, Dr Lindy Orthia let me wallow, assuring me I had every right to be shattered and making sure I had the support I needed.

Likewise, if you’ve been through it, pay it forward. If you see a colleague or friend copping flak, offer them a sympathetic ear and some strategies that helped you. Don’t let anyone deal with this traumatic experience on their own.

*Thanks to my colleague Dr Lindy Orthia for providing some of these suggestions.