Australian academics muzzled and journal papers altered: survey

Self-censorship, fuelled by fears of media misrepresentation and overstepping expertise, is more problematic than external suppression

September 9, 2020
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Almost one in 10 Australian ecology academics have been barred from speaking freely about their research and one in 20 have had their work “unduly modified” by employers, a study suggests.

However, self-censorship is a bigger impediment to their public communication than active suppression by bosses or funders, with academics wary of being misrepresented by the media or drawn out of their areas of expertise.

The analysis, published in the journal Conservation Letters, was based on a survey of 220 ecology and conservation researchers including 88 employed by universities. It tracked their willingness to engage publicly about their findings and the impediments they faced.

Public servants and privately employed researchers proved far more likely to be gagged than academics. Fifty-two per cent of government respondents and 38 per cent of those working in industry claimed to have been barred from communicating publicly about their research.

A relatively low 9 per cent of academics said they had been blocked from speaking out, while 68 per cent thought constraints imposed by their universities’ written policies were “reasonable”. The survey also found that academics were less likely than government or industry researchers to hold their tongues because of workplace policies or meddling by managers or political staffers, with most also untroubled by the risk of losing their jobs or appearing disloyal.

But stress was a significant barrier, as were fears around funding. One respondent claimed to have proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining. “The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from [the mining company],” they said.

Five per cent of academic respondents also reported having their work modified to downplay or mask findings about environmental impacts. Unlike government researchers, who said their internal communications were frequently amended, academics were more concerned about tampering with their media commentary, conference presentations and even scientific publications.

“Journal papers are being modified or suppressed within universities,” said lead author Don Driscoll, director of Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology. “That’s pretty startling.

“These stories are going under the radar because universities want to protect their funding. Extreme constraints on discussion of controversial topics in government spills over into the university sector via contracts [with] gag clauses. Any public media you want to do has to go through the funder. They have the right to deny permission, including for publishing papers. It’s very insidious.”

He said universities needed to adopt a unified front and refuse to sign gag clauses. “There’s a real argument for collective action. Any university going it alone will just be cut out of that revenue stream.”

The survey also found that academics were more likely than public servants or industry researchers to refrain from speaking out for fear of being misrepresented or overstepping their expertise. Professor Driscoll said they were worried about making mistakes or stepping on colleagues’ toes.

He said academics must be prepared to “take risks and encourage other ecologists to accept that doing media is hard”.

“You don’t get it right 100 per cent of the time but it’s more important to get the fundamentals of the story out than get every detail correct on every occasion. There’s an overwhelming feeling that ecologists should be in this game, but certain fears need to be overcome before most are confident in doing it.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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