The word gossip conjures up images of high school rumor mills, or maybe workplace drama in a corporate break room — we don’t exactly think of prestigious biologists whispering among their microscopes about a colleague’s latest research blunder. However, academic science is no different. Sociologists know that any workplace can have its fair share of gossip, particularly among frustrated colleagues who feel otherwise powerless.
Drawing from interviews with 251 academic scientists in elite and non-elite departments in the United States, United Kingdom, and India, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Simranjit Khalsa, and Elaine Howard Ecklund found that scientists use gossip to police their colleagues. This gossip is often about someone’s sloppy data analysis, unethical research methods, faked co-authorship, or misused funds. It may even warn about a colleague’s tendency to exploit or abuse students, with one interviewee describing a faculty member as “so, so unethical that [they] bea[t] people up and … abus[e] them…throw[ing] sandals and what not!”
The researchers argue that this gossip is not just a way to make small talk around the water cooler, either. In a profession where many are hesitant or unable to formally report, let alone prove, professional transgressions, scientists use gossip as a means to warn newcomers about untrustworthy colleagues and even tarnish the ever-important reputation of a researcher. A sullied reputation can have serious consequences for a scientist, affecting their ability to secure funding, publish in top journals, and even prevent them from receiving promotions.
But gossip’s influence is limited. As with many hierarchical organizations, senior researchers often continue enjoying their power and prestige even when their shoddy work becomes common knowledge through the grapevine. On the other hand, junior faculty are more vulnerable to the harms of gossip, as well as the risks of being labeled untrustworthy should they get caught gossiping themselves. The study ultimately serves as a warning to scientists: gossip may not be as effective as you’d hope, and it can easily backfire. Tread lightly.