American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City conducted three investigations of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who has now resigned from his position as curator of human origins. 

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Museum curator resigns after investigations of sexual misconduct

Paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who allegedly sexually assaulted a research assistant and harassed trainees in a field school, has resigned his prestigious position as curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, the museum said this week. Richmond will continue to work off-site until 31 December, and will be paid 1 year of salary, as his contract, which included tenure, requires.

Museum spokesperson Anne Canty declined to say whether Richmond resigned under pressure, although he has been the subject of repeated investigations over the past 2 years for violating policies on sexual harassment. Earlier this year, Richmond wrote to Science that the museum asked him to resign in December 2015, but that he “had never assaulted anyone,” and that he had “sincerely apologized” to the assistant. This week he told Science that the details of his departure are confidential and stressed that only one formal complaint had been lodged against him. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he wrote in a statement, including “to publish the outstanding discoveries that my colleagues, former students, and I made.”

Richmond’s case convulsed the field of paleoanthropology, and reaction to the news of his resignation was swift. “Woo-hoo! This is a positive step in the direction of there being consequences for perpetrators,” said biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois in Urbana. Clancy co-led a high profile survey called SAFE, which reported numerous cases of sexual harassment at field sites. She and other anthropologists hope that the case marks a shift in how their field deals with harassment.

The formal complaint against Richmond was made by the research assistant. She alleged that he sexually assaulted her in his hotel room in Florence, Italy, in September, 2014, after sessions at a scientific meeting. Richmond has said the encounter was consensual. An initial investigation by the museum’s human resources staff found that Richmond “had violated the Museum’s policy prohibiting inappropriate relationships between supervisors and their subordinates,” according to a memo obtained by Science. The research assistant was assigned a new supervisor, but she and Richmond both continued to work at the museum.

Unhappy with this outcome, the research assistant publicly shared her story at another meeting. This sparked paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C., to explore Richmond’s actions at that university, where Richmond worked until mid-2014, and at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, which was jointly run by GWU. AMNH then did a second investigation, which uncovered allegations that Richmond had sexually harassed students at the field school. Richmond resigned from the field school but continued to work at
the museum.

After Richmond refused to resign, the museum last December hired an outside firm, T&M Protection Resources in New York City, to conduct a third investigation. The museum also asked Richmond to work offsite starting in January, according to the research assistant. The results of this third investigation, which concluded when Richmond resigned this week, have not been released. But Canty said the firm also helped the museum revise its sexual harassment policies and provide training for all employees, students and volunteers.

The research assistant, who remains employed by the museum, told Science the day after the resignation that she was “just glad it’s over and that justice prevailed. The museum did the right thing.” Other museum employees echoed that sentiment, saying that the human origins program was without direction during the stressful investigations. The museum plans to eventually hire a new curator of human origins.

Although Richmond co-authored several high-profile papers last year and says he plans to continue publishing, researchers are fiercely divided over whether others should share authorship with him. Last April, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Atlanta, Clancy and others argued that researchers should stop all collaboration, including joint publication, with colleagues under investigation for sexual harassment or discrimination, or urge such colleagues to withdraw from joint papers. At least one young researcher mentored by Richmond says a journal editor reported recently that some researchers refused to review papers with Richmond’s name on them.

But removing Richmond from publications after the work was done would be “plagiarism,” says paleoanthropologist David Strait of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri, a long-time collaborator with Richmond. “I can’t agree with removing someone from authorship on a paper that began in good faith before allegations of misconduct became known.” 

There are no professional standards on how to proceed, notes paleoanthropologist Leslie Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City, but she and journal editors agree that the priority should be to avoid penalizing junior scientists who need to publish their research.

The whole affair leaves Wood, who once mentored Richmond and later encouraged investigation of his actions, with an “overwhelming sense of sadness and some hope.” He regrets the harm done to women in science, and hopes the episode “will mark a watershed in all of our efforts to make the scientific workplace welcoming to all.” 

*Update, 6 December, 3:17 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional comment and information.