When your research is attacked

By Alex Zahara

Discard studies scholars intervene in the status quo of how wastes are defined, produced, managed or otherwise dealt with. We question and historicize popular beliefs about how to understand and deal with waste, toxicity, and pollution issues, including popular solutions presented by industry lobbyists, governments, and environmentalists alike. Often, we aim to ensure waste is framed and addressed as a systemic, justice-related issue. Because of this, however, our research and even our characters are frequently targets for attack.

As STS scholar Brian Martin writes, ‘attacks’ on research can involve a range of practices, including “ostracism, petty harassment, excessive scrutiny, blocking of publications, denial of jobs or tenure, blocking access to research facilities, withdrawal of research grants, threats, punitive transfers, formal reprimands, demotion, spreading of rumors, deregistration, dismissal, and blacklisting, and threats of any of these” (1998: 610). According to climate change scientist and victim of research attacks, Michael E. Mann, attacks differ from critiques or challenges to research in that their purpose is “to dismiss, obscure, and misrepresent well-established science and its implications” (Mann 2017: 33). To do so, attackers typically target specific individuals or research projects rather than an academic society or scientific community as a whole.  What is common about research attacks is that they are ultimately an attempt to maintain a status quo.

Wastebook Senator Flake

Figure 1: The cover of U.S. Senator Jeff Flake’s ‘Wastebook’ report, which attacks government funded research. Screenshot, Flake 2017

Attacks on research matter because they have become routinized and institutionalized. In the United States, for example, former Senator Jeff Flake’s annual “Wastebook” reports name and mock specific research projects, including those funded by the National Science Foundation. In 2017-2018, the Australian Minister of Education, Dan Tehan, went even further, secretly vetoing funding to 11 humanities projects nominated for award by the Australian Research Council. He later mocked the titles of specific research projects via Twitter. On social media, popular Twitter profiles like Real Peer Review tap into the anti-science, anti-research zeitgeist, targeting humanities scholarship by cherry-picking and ridiculing particular sentences from abstracts and articles. Each of these instances has resulted in researchers, including graduate students, being attacked, either in the news or on social media for engaging in supposedly frivolous, wasteful, or unimportant research.

Importantly, attackers often target the scholarship of junior scholars, women, Black, people of color, Indigenous, queer, Two-Spirit, trans, and disabled folks that are already more vulnerable in research institutions. They contribute to the ‘leaky pipeline’ of ongoing disenfranchisement, where scholars with markers of difference are forced out of academia. Yet it is precisely these folks whose research questions, ideas, and standpoints need to be heard, elevated, and listened to.

So what do you do if you and your research are attacked?

1. Identify an Attack

Not all forms of criticism are attacks, and audiences, including taxpayers, journalists, fellow researchers, and especially community members where research is taking place, have a right to question or even reject the claims of a given researcher.  In some instances, it can be difficult to determine what is a legitimate complaint or criticism (See Step 5) versus someone whose aim is to bully and silence. While many resources suggest responding to ‘valid inquiries’, determining exactly what constitutes a valid inquiry can be difficult to do.

Science philosophers Justin Biddle and Anna Leuschner (2015) distinguish between what they refer to as ‘beneficial’ and ‘detrimental’ dissent. While they argue beneficial dissent can lead to greater understanding of a given issue, detrimental dissent occurs when those with vested interests attempt to slow down a research agenda at the cost of a particular community. These interests may be financial, for example, when chemical companies attempt to stop research on pesticides, or political, in instances where governments try to suppress research that makes their policies look bad. Vested interest can also manifest from anxieties, where those with markers of privilege fear losing that privilege if certain scholarship is allowed to persist. This is why men’s rights advocates often attack feminist scholarship or why white settler academics gaslight the work of Indigenous theorists and people of color. In many instances, attacks from within the academy are attempts to prevent new ideas or scholars from entering a field (Martin 1998; Peña et al. 2014). This also occurs when physical and natural scientists rally against humanities scholars from studying their findings or engaging in scientific debates (see, for example, the controversy surrounding Mark Carey’s work on feminist glaciology).

Some tactics that are commonly used to attack researchers :

  • Publishing a critique in a venue, like a personal blog or company website, where the researcher is unable to or not given adequate time to respond (Martin 1998).
  • Threatening to sue or filing a lawsuit (Martin 2016a). Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPP lawsuits are a common tactic used by interest groups to silence critics through threat of financial burden. Note: Many states and some Canadian provinces have anti-SLAPP legislation in place that may protect researchers.
  • Filing access to information or ATIPP requests to retrieve a researcher’s emails. These are usually attempts to dig up potentially incriminating information (Union of Concerned Scientists 2012; AAUP 2013).
  • Publishing private information, like phone numbers, home addresses and e-mail accounts, or embedding specific Tweets in order to enlist others to harass you. This technique is referred to as ‘doxxing’.
  • Including names of researchers on public watchlists (AAUP 2013). ‘Professor Watchlist’, for example, is a popular right wing blog that lists the names of what they refer to as “radical” or leftist academics (Drier 2016).
  • Publishing fragments of research online on Reddit threads or social media accounts like Real Peer Review for the purpose of mocking or misrepresenting academic research.
  • Contacting a supervisor, Department Head, or Administration rather than speaking to a researcher directly. Brian Martin has referred to this technique as ‘calling the boss’, which he describes as  “obviously an attempt to intimidate or hinder the scientist’s work or career…rather than engage in dialogue” (1998: 611).
  • Taking up acute amounts of time, bandwidth, or researcher energy to ask questions that do not support a better understanding of an issue with the intent of wasting time, bandwidth, or energy (“trolling”).
  • Aggressive or consistent messaging of imposterism, implying that the researcher is not properly a member of a valid research community (or even an identity community).
  • Quoting researchers back at themselves in continual fragments rather than engaging on overall questions, messages, or research.
  • Uninvited contact at home, in public, or otherwise outside of work time and against collegial social norms.

If any of these things happen, particularly if  the perpetrator has a vested interest, you are likely being attacked. Move on to Step 2.

2. Ignore the Attacks

Responding to attacks can take significant time and energy. This is often what the attacker is hoping for. Trolling is a form of attack specifically designed to waste your time, slow you down, and use up your resources.

If an attacker is not likely to have a significant impact on your research, reputation, partners, or allies, ignore them. Remember the old adage and ‘don’t feed the trolls’.

Troll Under Bridge

Figure 2: Trolling is a common method of attack. Photo credit: Holly Victoria Norval, CC BY 2.0. Cover image edited for fit.

The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that attackers often seek ongoing correspondence to use as evidence against you (2012). They are hoping to frame you with ‘gotcha’ type questions, which is another reason not to engage: don’t throw fuel on a fire.

Because attackers are actively seeking to harass you, ignoring them can require action. Suggestions for effectively and safely ignoring attackers include:

  • Keeping a record of harassing emails or Tweets. These can be used later as evidence if an attack escalates or if you later wish to name attackers (see step 4).
  • If attacks are taking place on social media such as Twitter, ‘blocking’ accounts will prevent them from engaging with you and  ‘muting’ them will prevent you from seeing their messages (though they will still be published).
  • Turning your account to ‘private’, particularly if you are being doxxed.

While the above solutions may be necessary to protect yourself, your mental wellbeing, and physical safety, they also put the onus on the victim of attacks to protect themselves. In addition, we suggest building long-term networks of solidarity and support to protect researchers and individuals prone to attacks in the first place (see Step 3).

3. Enlist help from support networks

As discard studies scholar Max Liboiron writes, “we [researchers] have to re-prioritize support for triage over the call for intervention until we know that researchers who take up the call will be cared for in solidarity” (2016: 70). That is, before we rush into the fire, we should have a fire department. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed similarly discusses the importance of building collectives when dealing with harassment and abuse (Ahmed 2018). Collectives may include, for example, unofficial whisper networks, where graduate students and faculty warn one another of abusers (Lee 2016), to graduate supervisors, faculty and professional associations willing to come to the defense of those being attacked.  Building collectives of support is important because traditional university channels for dealing with complaints often fail to protect victims of harassment or attack (Ahmed 2018; Ferber 2018; Gallahar 2018).

To begin, ensure your network is on your side. It can be risky to contact your department or administration about an attack unless you are sure it is safe to do so (Martin 2016a). Crucially, building collectives of solidarity and support requires that those in positions of power and authority (graduate supervisors, institutional admin, and academic societies) be in the trenches with those engaging in public or interventionist research. This means they must be willing to put themselves or their reputations on the line to protect and help victims of attacks.

Twitter Troll

Figure 3: An example of being trolled (and defended) on Twitter. Some tell-tale signs of an attack include ‘calling the boss’, quoting back, and not engaging with the questions or substance of a claim. For info on radionuclide contaminant concerns and wildfires, see here, here and here.

One approach to this is to develop a policy for dealing with attacks within whatever jurisdiction you have, whether it is your own work, your lab or research group, your department, or your institution. Having a policy in place prior to having students or junior faculty conduct research on seemingly controversial topics is a necessary part of triage. Examples of how institutions might protect researchers include:

  • Believing someone when they say they are being attacked.
  • Developing a policy for dealing with attackers on social media.  At Discard Studies, we respond to questions or queries once in good faith, and if attacks continue or escalate, we ignore or block those who are attacking across our social media account, our editor’s personal accounts, and author’s personal accounts. We will also come to the defense of guest authors particularly if they are graduate student researchers, or those from historically marginalized communities.
  • If you are an editor of a journal, allow a researcher to withdraw publications if they feel it will protect their personal safety (Lloro- Bidart 2018). Some journals, like Catalyst, have shown solidarity, writing editorials that acknowledge attacks when they happen, and standing by researchers and articles published in their journal.
  • Institutionally, supervisors and senior faculty should come to the defense of graduate students and junior faculty, since institutions are less invested in doing so. For supervisors, this might involve engaging in long, frustrating phone calls with attackers, while faculty might write counter articles or letters to publicly defend attack victims (Martin 2016b). This can happen in addition to sending private messages of support to students and colleagues (Ferber 2018).
  • Similarly, white settlers, non-LGBTQA2S* and able-bodied scholars should step up and respond when those from marginalized communities are under attack. This can take place at conferences, in meetings, social media or other venues where an attack takes place (Todd 2019).
  • Your department or research group might consider a having a social media policy for defending students on platforms like Twitter, when attackers ‘call the boss’ (see Step 1) by tagging a researcher’s School or Department on social media or contacting them directly. Having this sorted out in advance (who will respond, how, and in what way) can safeguard a researcher’s time and set a precedent for defending junior researchers.
  • For those in university administration, the University of Iowa suggests preparing in advance a template letter to defend university faculty (to which we would add students) from attack (University of Iowa n.d.). The statement might include: a commitment to academic freedom; a statement recognizing the faculty member’s standing in the field; a statement supporting the research being attacked.
  • Having structures in place to ensure public scholarship is given proper academic merit, since those who do so are likely to spend more time dealing with criticism and attack (Flood et al. 2013).
  • By universities foregrounding the safety of their faculty and students during an attack. This might include providing extra campus security or removing teaching locations from publicly available websites (Gallahar 2018).
  • Providing a researcher access to assistants to help document harassing correspondence, such as e-mails, letters and phone calls. Doing so can be traumatizing and exhausting for attack-victims to do on their own (Ferber 2018).

A second measure is to enlist help from academic societies. Academic and professional societies are particularly important for untenured or unaffiliated researchers because they “have access to resources that individuals do not and their statements hold greater weight” (Lloro- Bidart 2018). Professional societies can help researchers who are attacked by:

  • Making public statements in support of targeted academics– what may be particularly important, especially when the physical safety of academics may be put in danger by responding (Lloro- Bidart 2018)
  • Making sure their members are aware of supports that do exist (Lloro- Bidart 2018)
  • Providing legal, financial, or training services to their members (Liboiron 2017).

Some professional societies have begun to prioritize defending their members from attacks. The American Association of University Professors, for example, are developing a number of resources including strategies to combat against research attacks (you can contribute to this by reporting an attack here). The American Psychological Society (APA) has made Promoting and Defending Research one of its main advocacy objectives.

Wasteful Research CPR CNSF

Figure 4: The APAs efforts have included responding US government ‘‘Wastebook’ reports and attacks. In 2017, the APA sent representatives to attend the Report’s press release and defend projects listed in the report in the media. Along with the Consortium of Social Science associations, the APA co-hosted a congressional exhibit and reception, where victims of ‘Wastebook’ attacks were invited to present their research to US Senators and Congress-people. Screen Shot from CPR and CNSF 2016

The APA has a Science Government Relations Office set up to provide support and guidance for its members. In instances of an attack, they suggest contacting the office, followed by a researcher’s university or institution’s Public Relations office, and funding agents for advice. They also provide media training. They’ve suggested their members have on-file a 1-page, plain language write-up about the context and importance for their research.

The APA is just one example of a research society that has rallied on behalf of their members. Following in their footsteps, more established researchers and others calling for interventionist research might lobby their respective research societies to set up structures and protocols to pre-empt research attacks and protect vulnerable group members.

4. Fight back

When structures of support are in place, it may be appropriate to respond directly to attackers. This is particularly true if the attackers are spreading misinformation that may cause harm to you, your allies, or the causes through which you and your research are aligned. When responding to critics, you should:

  • Respond directly to misinformation or falsehoods, correcting factual errors concisely (University of Iowa 2017). Avoid going down the rabbit hole of what each side said and did. Make your points about the research.
  • Make your statement in plain language. Avoid using jargon that may confuse the situation or lead to further harassment.
  • Keep your audience in mind. If you are concerned about the opinion of particular researchers or members of the public, publish in a venue that they are likely read (e.g. a popular academic blog, a newspaper). Writing in the comments section of a fringe blog where an attack occurs might feel good, but is not likely to speak to your audience and may result in further harassment (Union of Concerned Scientists 2012; Martin 2016c).
  • Publish in a venue where your statement will be included in full and not altered. Venues may include your personal blog (if it will reach your desired audience), newspaper, newsletter or academic journal (again, keeping in mind your audience) (Martin 2016c).
  • ‘Name and shame’ (i.e. publicly state the names of) your attackers only if it is safe to do so. While it can be helpful to warn others about particular people or groups, it may also inflame the attackers. Do so only if you feel comfortable and have structures of support already in place.
  • Respond with basic courtesy. Use a response to de-escalate, rather than escalate, the situation.

Examples of responses to attacks include Josh Lepawsky’s response to claims made by the Basal Action Network (BAN)  and Brian Martin’s defense of his former graduate student, Dr. Judy Wilyman.

5. Apologize when Necessary

Sometimes criticisms may feel like attacks but are actually invitations (even angry ones) for greater researcher accountability. Members of the public or other researchers may have legitimate questions about methods or research findings. Importantly, responding to these concerns might involve admitting mistakes or acknowledging shortcomings that were not previously noted. When people make a complaint, voice criticisms or concerns about your research, avoid the urge to assume it is because they don’t know or understand a given issue (called the deficit model).

In some instances, public critiques may be about researcher conduct. This was the case when residents and water activists in Flint, Michigan coined a letter, stating that a prominent environmental scientist had violated rights to community self-determination by speaking, uninvited, on behalf of community members.

When it’s necessary, there are some useful discussions from the #metoo movement about how to apologize. According to some, apologies should:

  • Explicitly state what the action was that caused harm;
  • Provide an explanation (not an excuse) of why it was done;
  • Foreground the damage that was caused by your actions; and
  • Explain how and why it won’t happen again (Karson 2016). Doing so might include abandoning a research project entirely.

In responding to legitimate criticisms in this way, researchers show greater accountability and benefit from increased scrutiny to their research.


Alex Zahara is a PhD Candidate in Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research focuses on controversies surrounding wildfire management practices near his home community in Treaty 6 Territory in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada. He is thankful to his advisor (Dr. Arn Keeling), Discard Studies editors, and the MUN Geography department for coming to his defense at various times.


Works Cited

Resources, Guides, and Reports

Academic writing on being attacked

Discard Studies posts cited

2 thoughts on “When your research is attacked

  1. This is such a wonderful and thoughtful article! Thank you so much for this!

  2. Pingback: January readings – Uneven Earth

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