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The new policy would apply to participants at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting.

Ebbi Roe Yovino/

Scientific society defines sexual harassment as scientific misconduct

Sexual harassment is a form of scientific misconduct under a new policy adopted last week by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve seen and heard of too many instances, stories, and studies that show harassment in the sciences is happening and that the problem is significant,” AGU leaders wrote in a 15 September post announcing the change, part of an update of the society’s ethics code. “Research has shown the destructive effects harassment, discrimination, and bullying can have on not only the people directly involved but on the research, institutions, students, faculty, or colleagues surrounding the misconduct.”

The new policy applies not only to the society’s members and staff, but also to nonmembers participating in the society’s activities. AGU President Eric Davidson calls it “a major step forward” in addressing the issue.

AGU member Rebecca Barnes says she welcomes the change and admits that she didn’t initially see the connection between harassment and research misconduct. “My gut reaction is they’re not the same level,” says Barnes, a professor of environmental program at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. But she agrees that plagiarism or failing to give due credit for a piece of research can have the same negative consequences as harassment and bullying. “Those actions can result in a lot of the same feelings and push people out of the field because you’re sending a signal to them that they are not valued.”

Davidson hopes AGU’s move will motivate other scientific societies to look more closely at their policies relating to sexual harassment. Paleontologist Alycia Stigall, a professor at Ohio University in Athens, says she will have AGU’s new guidelines in mind as she works with colleagues at the Paleontological Society to finalize its harassment policy. She especially admires AGU’s mechanism for enforcing the policy and providing support for actions that might not rise to the level of formal complaints.

The new policy culminates a yearlong effort by AGU to rethink its guidelines on ethical behavior. A draft policy was released last spring for member comment. The final wording, with minor changes, was adopted on 14 September and goes into effect immediately.