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There is a person who is a very big name in a certain field of a certain science subject. He is a professor at a top German university and also runs a research institution.

He gets his postdocs and PHD Students to write "free" papers for him. And it has been happening for years. Meaning that he does not actually contribute anything but still makes them feel pressured enough to add his name onto the paper and there is no footnote that says what his actual contribution is. His institution subscribes to the Leibniz Association's code of conduct. By these standards (See the section on Authorship), he practises academic and scientific misconduct.

It is clearly known (to many of the Professors at his own institute and university) that he does this but nobody has made a formal complaint or reported him. He also commonly humiliates his students and postdocs and treats them like they are his personal assistants. He does not supervise his students either and many of them are struggling and very depressed.

My view:

To me, the moral thing to do is to expose his behavior and bring it to light to those who do not know about it and he should lose his Leadership positions. He has harmed many people and this should be exposed. At least this is what I feel.

My questions to you:

  1. What, other than reporting him to his institute's ombudsman can be done? Will the umbrella organizations like the Leibniz institute genuinely care? What about the DFG?

  2. Can this be done anonymously?

  3. What are the consequences that he will actually obtain?

  4. What do you recommend or suggest to a person who wants to bring this to light and will no longer remain silent?

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    Thank you for not mentioning the person's name here. Since it's been a while, let me remind everyone of this policy against making specific, severe accusations against named individuals.
    – cag51
    Aug 29, 2023 at 18:42
  • You wrote that many professors at his institute know about this. Do these professors think he is doing something immoral or do they see it as acceptable behavior?
    – quarague
    Aug 30, 2023 at 11:53
  • @quarague Some of them do think it is immoral but they don't say anything because there is nothing to gain for them. They are not the ones that have to deal with him.
    – user176284
    Aug 30, 2023 at 12:05
  • Wrt authorship: Does this affect you personally, i.e. did this happen to a publication you were an author on ? Because if you make allegations about other people's publications, the most likely outcome is that they will not support your allegations as otherwise they would have brought them up themselves. (And no, complaints over a beer down the pub do not make admissable witness statements.) Aug 30, 2023 at 17:32
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    @Marianne013 Yes it happened to me in 5-6 papers.
    – user176284
    Aug 31, 2023 at 18:01

2 Answers 2

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I agree with your premise that this is a severe breach of ethics and, in ideal world, something should be done about it. I also totally agree with Dr. H that it will be an uphill battle.

Authorship issues are subtle: you claim they did not contribute, they claim they contributed their general vision and expertise in shaping the project when chatting with you in the elevator. Therefore, if it's just you, you are probably getting nowhere. At the minimum you need multiple victims willing to speak on record, and they need to confirm that there was no contribution at all, and that they were pressured. Again, the testimony is the only way to prove anything, and there's a huge difference between "we felt he did not contribute enough" and "the first time we discussed the project at all was when the manuscript was ready and he demanded authorship".

More generally, details matter a great deal; for example,

makes them feel pressured enough to add his name onto the paper

what does it mean, in practice? Does he explicitly demand that? Is there a record of people trying to refuse and the professor pressuring/threatening them?

He also commonly humiliates his students and postdocs

This is potentially serious, if there is a clear-cut verbal abuse that happens in public, and there are witnesses to corroborate. Again, the difference between creating a hostile work environment and being a strict boss may be subtle.

and treats them like they are his personal assistants.

This, I'm afraid, leads nowhere, the worst that may happen to them is someone tells them to stop. Even that would require for subordinates to refuse to do assistant tasks, and to escalate.

He does not supervise his students either and many of them are struggling and very depressed.

This is also nothing, unless there's a clear record of recurring negligence. He has a hands off supervision style, offers challenging but high reward research topics, or just unluckily took on inept students.

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This is a very delicate issue as academia is a tightly closed society and very protective of its own. From your question it seems the individual may even be a Leibniz Director and these people are top level and excellently connected internationally, with just about everyone in their field as well as with the DFG and industry. Also for the Department Head to be on his or her department's papers for "free", while not strictly adhering to Good Scientific Practice, is somewhat an acceptable misdemeanor. So, while your intent is admirable, I see it as unlikely you will be able to generate any real momentum to change anything but you may be risking seriously harming your career.

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    is somewhat an acceptable misdemeanor - no, it is not "somewhat acceptable", it's a severe, despicable violation of academic ethics, please stop downplaying it. It's similar to plagiarism - both constitute appropriating credit for someone else's work - but worse, in the same way as robbery or extortion is worse than theft.
    – Kostya_I
    Feb 2 at 6:43

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