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The Role of Research Societies in Combatting Bullying in Academia

Bullying is a global problem that exists in all areas of society, including education and the workplace. It is increasingly becoming a concern for academia and is threatening the health and well-being of researchers and others working in academia.

Cactus Communications conducted a mental health survey two years ago to better understand researchers’ mental health. The sample included more than 13,000 researchers from over 160 countries.

The survey results indicated that 37% of the respondents had experienced discrimination, harassment, or bullying, with 60% of mixed-race researchers, 45% researchers self-identifying as homosexual, and 42% of female researchers reporting this. Similar results were found in another 2021 study, where 84% of the research participants reported that they experienced abusive supervision in scientific institutions.

Based on this survey and other studies, it is clear that an alarmingly large proportion of researchers in academia are experiencing or have experienced bullying during their career.

As organizations designed to create communities and provide support for scientists working in a specific discipline, research societies are in a unique position to help address the problem of bullying in academia. Many societies are already calling attention to the issue and are taking actions to increase awareness and help ensure safe work environments for their members. A few of the initiatives taken by these organizations are briefly described here.

Policies/position statements

According to the Cactus Communication survey, the presence or absence of strong organizational policies on bullying seems to have an impact on whether respondents reported being bullied. In fact, two-thirds of those indicating the lack of such a policy in their institution reported having experienced discrimination, harassment, or bullying. Research societies can and should help address bullying by enacting policies or position statements that bring awareness to the issue and set rules for conduct within the organization’s sphere.

Several societies and associations have taken steps toward this. The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) has enacted a Code of Conduct that includes the following requirement for ASCB participant activities: “Actively avoid discriminatory, harassing, bullying, defamatory, abusive, threatening, disrespectful, offensive, and illegal communications and actions.” This policy applies to members of the ASCB as well as other participants in organizational events. The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) has issued an Anti-Harassment Policy that states in part, “In all activities, TMS is committed to providing a professional environment free of harassment, disrespectful behavior, or other unprofessional conduct.”


The survey results also indicate that the mental health of researchers can improve when those who experience toxic environments are able to talk with someone about it, whether that is a supervisor, a colleague, or a mental health professional. One way of providing researchers with an opportunity to develop a relationship with a person working in the same field is through mentorship. Many research societies support and enable mentoring relationships. For example, Australia’s Research Society, the country’s largest professional organization, sponsors a mentorship program for the personal and career development of its members. A similar mentorship program is offered by the African Academy of Sciences.

Continuing education

Some research societies include diversity and bullying issues in the workplace in their continuing education opportunities for their members. For example, IEEE offers a wide range of continuing education opportunities, including a webinar dealing with the creation of a more positive workplace culture.

Legal support

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) goes a step further in promoting a safe work environment. It offers free legal consultation with a legal advisor for members experiencing harassment, discrimination, or bullying in the workplace. This does not apply to those accused of harassing behavior. Such steps can help highlight concerns and incidents of bullying and take action to counter them.


Research societies can join together and create communities that work to wipe out discrimination, harassment, and bullying. One such venture is the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM, which recently published a post entitled “Open Letter to Societies Consortium Members: No Room for Bullying in Science – Together We Can Make a Difference.” This group represents more than 120 academic and disciplinary societies in STEMM fields.

Through these and other initiatives, research societies can increase awareness and encourage academic institutions to eliminate discrimination, harassment, and bullying and provide all researchers with positive and productive work environments.

Cactus Communications has launched THINK Academia – a global initiative against bullying in academia. THINK is an acronym that stands for what we believe an ideal academia should be – Thoughtful, Humane, Inclusive, Nurturing, and Kind. Click here to learn more.

Jennifer Ulz

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