Bullied abroad: how foreign researchers can fight back

From Nature Careers

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Man looking at his phone and holding his headIn many leading scientific nations, early-career researchers who arrive from other countries are playing a growing part in research. The proportion of postdoctoral researchers on temporary visas in the United States, for example, rose from 39% in 2009 to 56% in 2019, while that of research assistants working in the United Kingdom but born elsewhere increased from 43% in 2013 to 50% in 2021. That’s good for science, because, according to some studies, researchers who work outside their home nation are disproportionately productive, at least when measured in terms of publications and patents1.

That life can be hard for junior scientists is hardly news. Research going back many years shows the ways in which poor job security, low pay and intense competition for permanent positions can lead to disenchantment. Junior scientists face other problems too. One 2021 survey of more than 2,000 — mostly early-career — scientists found that most of the respondents had either witnessed or experienced bullying by academics in positions of authority, and that bullied researchers working abroad reported more-severe impacts than did their domestic colleagues, including threats to cancel their visas2.

According to the study, carried out by Morteza Mahmoudi, a nanoscientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and Sherry Moss, an organizational-studies researcher at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, most targets of academic bullying do not report their experiences, because they fear retaliation. For international researchers, the stakes are often even higher. Complaints about their treatment at the hands of more-senior academics can put both their professional prospects and their residency in the host country at risk. That makes quantifying the problem difficult, although it is highly likely that most of those who are affected by bullying suffer in silence.

An accompanying article features accounts of PhD candidates and postdocs working abroad being verbally abused, threatened, made to work excessive hours and being financially exploited. Nature agreed to their requests for anonymity because the researchers feared the potential negative career impact of speaking out. In this second article, they join researchers who study bullying in academia to share perspectives on why bullying happens, what bullied researchers can do to protect themselves and how the exploitation of scientists who work abroad can be addressed.

Read the full article on the Nature Careers Website – https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-02155-3

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