The Limits of Academic Freedom

Author: Dr Jacqui Hoepner, who completed her PhD in Science Communication at ANU in 2017 but under the peerless supervision of Professor of Anthropology Simone Dennis. She now lectures at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU. You can listen to her podcast You Need to Shut Up here

Academic freedom – as we know it – does not exist. There, I said it.

But how did I get to this dark and cynical place?

(Not so) humble beginnings

When I first started my doctoral research in 2013, I was not cynical at all. I believed I alone could bring nuance, sensitivity and understanding to the debate around wind turbine syndrome.

At the time, the issue was starkly polarised: you either believed wind farms caused debilitating health problems or you believed those who thought that were crazy or just making it up.

To cut through the tribalism, I wanted to understand why it was happening. Why would people believe that something ‘science’ insisted was harmless, could be making them sick? What could have gone wrong in the development process to create these conditions of fear, hostility and ill health?

But before I could get anywhere, the key players in the anti-wind movement turned against me in a major way. The gatekeepers of the community said I wouldn’t be allowed to speak with anyone. I couldn’t be trusted. If any of their subscribers heard from me, they should delete my emails and hang up on me. An Australian broadsheet joined the fray, telling their readers I was a mouthpiece for the wind industry.

Some fields are not open to every researcher. I was young, well-educated and from one of Australia’s most prestigious universities. Of course I was never going to be ‘one of them’.

So, now what?

At this point, I was faced with a choice. Should I quit, walk away with my proverbial tail between my legs? Or should I ‘lean in’ to what was happening, and let my experience take me in a new direction? I chose the latter.

I wanted to know whether this ever happens to other researchers. Why, and under what circumstances, would a researcher be told that a particular line of enquiry was unacceptable?

I started interviewing academics whose work had been attacked, silenced or constrained in some tangible (or intangible) way.

Me: “I’m not here to hurt you”

It’s important to note at this point that who I am, my experience, my position as a spurned academic, was central to these interviews.

The researchers I spoke with had been through a lot. Some had been trolled on Twitter; others had faced long, drawn-out research misconduct enquiries. Some were demoted, censored or even terminated by their employer. Others had had lies told about them, and their work, in peer-reviewed journals, mainstream press and even on their Wikipedia pages.

It was essential that I build trust with them, let them know that the last thing I wanted to do was perpetuate that trauma.

At the beginning of many of my interviews, I could sense unease, distrust, skepticism. Replies were short and terse, closed even.

At this point, I would tell the researchers my story. What I went through – the disappointment, shame and impostor syndrome that plagued me for so long afterwards.

After this, responses were longer, honest, considered and open. It became a process of commiseration.

What I’d been through was central to building trust and security. I was one of them and they could see that. We shared the disbelief, incredulity and pain that come with having your work, integrity and credibility brought into question.

All the things that made me untrustworthy in the wind turbine syndrome field allowed me to be trustworthy in this field of ostracised academics.

Engaging in a reflexive process, where I was able to critically examine my position, my experience and my biases allowed me to see my research in a completely different way. For once, I was the right person to be doing the research. While there were things I had to be more careful of and open about, I never would have drawn out the rich, nuanced data I did, had I not been me.

They could tell I was not there to hurt them or make it worse. I genuinely wanted to know why we all experienced these things. What was going on here? Why are some lines of enquiry, or answers to questions, considered so dangerous or taboo?

My research participants: “I thought I did all the right things…”

Many of the researchers I interviewed were completely thrown by the responses to their work. They had been trained to identify a gap in the literature, to pursue anomalies or light bulb moments until they figured out something closest to ‘the truth’.

So when they did this (particularly when they met all the requirements along the way: ethics clearance, departmental oversight, funding applications, peer review), and were punished for it, they didn’t understand.

They believed what their institutions had told them: academic freedom is fundamental to the role of universities within society. Only through unfettered enquiry can we solve society’s most pressing problems; hold truth to power; progress. Even–maybe especially–controversial or unpalatable lines of enquiry must be protected.

Just because it’s the status quo, doesn’t mean it’s true.

But this is exactly what provoked these responses. The researchers I interviewed had upset the apple cart. They’d found things that didn’t sit well with people – whether it was challenging the link between sugar and obesity; the link between obesity and early death; the cost-benefit breakdown of mammography; the danger of e-cigarettes.

It wasn’t that they’d engaged in demonstrable research misconduct – fabricating results, flouting ethics protocols or skewing the randomisation process (though that wouldn’t stop their opponents from accusing them of such).

Rather, their research was unacceptable for its moral implications. It was too dangerous, too risky; it was confusing people or muddying the waters; it was killing people.

But these responses are coming from the public though, right? What does that have to do with academic freedom? It is just ‘laypeople’ who don’t know any better, yeah?

Well, no. Most of the people attacking the academics I interviewed were their colleagues and friends within their research community. These are people who have been trained in responsible research practices, who work within the very universities who espouse the importance of academic freedom. 

“Some ideas are so bad they can’t be thought about analytically…”

So, what’s going on here? How can we all simultaneously believe academic freedom is real and protects an academic’s right to pursue even controversial enquiry and feel good about attacking a colleague for their ‘dangerous’ findings?

There are a few things going on here.

First is the phenomenon of moral disgust.  This is the notion that ideas we find morally reprehensible trigger the same physical, psychological, emotional and semantic responses as physically disgusting things.

Mary Douglas’s ‘structural-functionalist’ work on disgust and boundaries can be applied here. When these visceral, ‘gut responses’ to research we find dangerous are felt, a boundary has been crossed. Something isn’t right and it must be removed or destroyed. The boundary transgressor must be punished.

These ideas were both implicitly and explicitly explored in my interviews. My participants spoke about ‘knee-jerk’ reactions. About ‘unacceptable ideas’ that ‘must be destroyed’.

They also spoke about matter out of place, that their research was attacked so severely because it had been published in a prestigious, highly ranked journal: ‘it should never have made it in there.’

The moral disgust literature also supports this tension between supporting academic freedom, on the one hand, and attacking ideas we don’t like, on the other. A systematic review and synthesis confirmed moral disgust responses happen on a visceral level, not a cognitive one.

This means we don’t need to process the tension. We have the reaction, and everything after that is an attempt to justify why we had the reaction.  We know the idea is bad, it is self-evident. We don’t need to think about it.

And I know I do this. I’m sure we all do. There are some ideas we don’t have to think about. We just know they are wrong, such that even entertaining the discussion feels like a betrayal or injustice to someone.

Why doesn’t academic freedom exist, then?

Academic freedom is a lovely ideal. We want it to be ‘just there’, giving us our own special brand of intellectual independence. It is one of the few perks we academics enjoy. Yes, we have to fight for car spaces, time off, forks, job security, broader metrics, pay rises and more research hours. But the ability to pursue lines of enquiry we consider important and interesting is something we can all take pride in.

Unfortunately, the lived experience of many academics I interviewed does not reflect this.

Academic freedom is there, but bureaucracy, ethics committee hoops, ever-narrowing funding priorities, government whims, public pressure, journal politics, Twitter trolls and our own peers shackle it.

When written on paper, it sounds great. But there are boundaries that reveal themselves only once they’ve been crossed.

But it’s still worth fighting for. It can be defended. We just need to admit it is more complex, more subjective and contingent, than it seems.

We need to acknowledge the role we all play in silencing research. Consider the times we have dismissed a colleague’s idea because it ‘isn’t worth it’, or immediately assumed a paper must be faulty in some way because we don’t like its conclusions.

What we need is an open, reflexive and honest discussion around the role we academics play in society. Why should anyone else defend us if we won’t defend each other? If we won’t defend the one thing we can all (theoretically) agree on?


[Image is the logo of Jacqui’s podcast, used with permission] 

One thought on “The Limits of Academic Freedom

  1. Nice article! I would also add a certain pathologisation of a conflict to it – as a trend in modern information bubbles society. Anything challenging mainstream believes creates a conflict… a conflict of interests, a conflict of theories, or at least – a conflict between the colleagues. People who bring conflict in are shunned, removed, silenced… rather ruthlessly, until only those who agree are left. But what is the point of discussing, if everyone already agrees? We forgot how to argue, we forgot how to argue when we are very angry about something very dear to us – and it is a BIG problem.

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