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My precious! How academia’s Gollums guard their research fields

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 14 Jun 2022

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It is well established that many academics feel precious about their research fields, but now there is a name for how some go a step further and try to wreck colleagues’ attempts to encroach on their areas of expertise – the “Gollum effect”.

Scholars who examined “research opportunity guarding” – how some professors have lied, threatened and sought to sabotage the careers of those seeking to move into their topic – liken the behaviour to that of the maniacally possessive guardian of the Ring of Power from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth chronicles.

“Like the greedy Gollum, many researchers believe they have the sole right to particular aspects of research,” explained Jose Valdez, a postgraduate researcher at German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, who has studied the phenomenon with the University of Newcastle’s John Gould.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the pair describe how an animal science researcher had contacted an expert to ask advice on using their methodology to study a different species. When the expert claimed that he was considering doing that same experiment, the researcher desisted, but the research was never undertaken.

In another case, a research team focused on wildlife refused to allow others access to a research site despite completing their own studies. While the new team was eventually given permits to undertake the work, they feared repercussions from defying the more established team.

Other examples of “unjustifiable roadblocks” included a peer reviewer writing a disparaging review to block the publication of work that could expose the limitations of his own research.

“Under these scenarios, the victim has to make a difficult choice to either risk retaliatory behaviour by continuing with their research pursuits or simply back away, to the detriment of scientific knowledge,” explains the paper.

It advises researchers to “learn to protect yourself and fight back” but warns that “there may sometimes be no ideal outcome or resolution with the perpetrator; the Gollum may keep his ring in the end”.

With competition for research funding, jobs and prestige publications growing ever fiercer, the Gollum effect was increasingly evident, believed Dr Valdez, with “new researchers who find themselves inadvertently stepping on the toes of established researchers who are not willing to move out of the way”. International scholars and minority groups are particularly affected.

“This phenomenon is pervasive but rarely discussed and finally deserves to be in the open,” Dr Valdez said.