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How to navigate toxic lab workplaces, according to UH research

Just like any workplace, labs can get toxic. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

There are many types of toxic bosses. The Micromanager. The Narcissist. The Incompetent Boss. The list goes on. But labs led by toxic PIs not only make for an abysmal workplace they can actually encourage research misconduct.

According to Charles Wood, author of “When lab leaders take too much control,” there are two types of toxic labs most at risk for this type of behavior: the executive model and the competition model.

Executive model

Wood described the executive approach to lab management as one where the mentor sets expectations for trainees, often with a particular goal in mind. In its negative form, this includes specifying experimental outcomes and instructing trainees on particular experiments to achieve a desired result.

It comes as no surprise that experimenting with the answer already in mind goes against scientific principles. Spiking biological samples, manipulating instruments – all these things have been suspected in labs according to the U.S. government’s Office of Research Integrity. The first line of defense is having the investigators replicate their experiment while being closely supervised. The consequences of misconduct, if the allegations are found to be credible, can include being debarred from further federal funding and having data sequestered.

Competition model

The competition model pits graduate students or postdocs against one another. In this case, whoever gets the result first is rewarded, while the others are punished. This makes a perfect breeding ground for misconduct. Imagine if a foreign student’s citizenship status is affected by whether or not they can produce the results their PI wants them to obtain. Of the competition model, Wood said that what students and postdocs learn can be catastrophic: “competition over collaboration and conformity over creativity.” He posits that researchers graduating from the PI’s toxic lab may be influenced to drop out of science completely or go on to run their own labs in a toxic way.

A correlation between mentors and ethical decision-making

Michael D. Mumford, et al. in “Environmental influences on ethical decision making: Climate and environmental predictors of research integrity” (Ethics & Behavior journal) found that for first-year doctoral students, “environmental experiences (including professional leadership) exert stronger effects on ethical decision making than the climate of the work group.”

Wood also noted that, regardless of the management style, certain scientists may be more prone to cheating. However, active involvement and openness by the principal investigator can serve as a preventive measure against this.

What can you do about it?

Chris Sowers in the “Toxic Boss Syndrome: How To Recover and Get Your Mojo Back” episode of his Better Humans podcast, shared how a few toxic bosses affected his job performance, self esteem and even interpersonal relationships. His first piece of advice is to get out quickly, even if you need to take a pay cut – he says a few thousand dollars are not worth the hit to your mental and physical health.

Vetting your lab’s PI will help enormously. Does the PI have a good track record of being a fair and kind mentor?

“If your principal investigator starts to exhibit toxic behavior, address this with him or her,” said Wood. He goes on to advise that “if you find yourself in a truly toxic environment, seek guidance from a graduate coordinator, assistant dean or other authority figure who oversees the pre- or postdoctoral training programs — and ask for help in finding another mentor.”

The Big Idea

No one has time or energy to dedicate to a toxic workplace. The costs are way too high to risk manipulating data. For one, all authors on a paper will be held responsible for the misconduct– not to mention the physical and mental stress a toxic lab will invite into your life.


This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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