Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS) was founded a few years ago and is the largest and primary international member organisation for open and replicable science in psychological science. I have attended three SIPS conferences: the second (Charlottesville, 2017), the third (Grand Rapids, 2018), and the fourth (Rotterdam, 2019). I have co-organised a small Psychology and Law conference in Indonesia sponsored by SIPS (OPLS 2019), and I have been a member of SIPS since 2017.
On August 6th, 2019, SIPS banned Jordan Anaya, an active metascientist who left the PhD program at University of Virginia to avoid continued bullying into bad science. He was banned for tweeting “fucking retards” about an unconference session on diversity that took place during SIPS 2019 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Jordan was not a member of SIPS and he was not present during the conference. He was a concerned citizen and researcher who read the session notes and materials published in a public digital repository. He reacted on what he read with a series of tweets shared from the other side of the Atlantic (in USA), several hours after the diversity session had closed.
In a letter to Jordan Anaya, the SIPS Executive Committee describes Jordan’s tweet as “hostile, inflammatory, and ableist”. They conclude: “Insults like yours are unacceptable at or about SIPS events. We are therefore informing you that you are not welcome to participate in events organized or sponsored by SIPS […]”
The letter from SIPS to Jordan Anaya (published with permission from the latter):
An updated version of SIPS’ Code of Conduct (CoC) was published on their website on December 31, 2019. This version is more detailed than the previous one (see e.g. here), which is in line with their explicit aim to become harder on behaviours they interpret as harassment (this aim was expressed e.g. in an email to the SIPS community on August 15, 2019, days after the ban of Jordan Anaya).
Below I will explain why I find SIPS’ CoC problematic, why I find the ban of Jordan Anaya wrongful, and why I find the CoC and the ban to be outright harmful to the scientific community.
1. The CoC is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The purpose of the CoC is very clear: “[The] purpose […] is to protect SIPS event participants from harm.” This is a reasonable goal. But the means used to reach the goal are not always proportionate. A few examples:
- The SIPS Executive Committee does not accept anyone – including non-members – to express insults about SIPS events. (From their letter to Jordan Anaya: “Insults like yours are unacceptable at or about SIPS events.”) This means that SIPS does not allow anyone in the world, members or non-members, to insult a SIPS event. That is, one may not speak bad about – at least not in an insulting manner – any event organised by SIPS. I find this counterproductive to academic discourse: having different opinions will always risk evoking strong emotions in speakers and audience, and most people will occasionally cross the line between what should and shouldn’t be said. If we want (academic) discourse, we need to accept a certain level of communicative mistakes.
- The CoC is to be effective not only for SIPS’ own events, but also for events sponsored by SIPS. (From the CoC Purpose and Scope: ““Events” include […] activities […] sponsored by SIPS.”) This is an especially crucial point that I will get back to later in my post.
- The CoC is to be effective also for virtual discussions. (From the CoC Purpose and Scope: ““Events” include […] online platforms controlled by SIPS”.) I would argue that virtual participation could be a great way to allow attendance and scientific discussions in a safe way even with participants who otherwise might cause a scene or harm at the non-virtual event. Treating all types of events equally seems to be a sledgehammer to me, and the purpose of it seems to be mere punishment of a transgressor deemed to be at risk of re-transgressing rather than a genuine concern of the event participants.
- Criticism against the CoC or interpretations of it can be considered a breach of the CoC. The CoC lists behaviours they consider to be unacceptable, for example: “Intimidating, harassing, lewd, demeaning, bullying, stalking, or threatening speech or actions; Unwelcome sexual attention; Unwelcome physical contact; […]”. At the end of the list we find the following: “Advocating or encouraging any of the above behaviors”. This sentence is included in the updated CoC published on December 31, 2019. It basically means that if I say that I don’t like the ban of Jordan Anaya then I myself can be punished by SIPS, e.g. by being banned. This again is counterproductive to academic discourse and the social consequences are likely to be severe (e.g. self-censorship).
2. Bans and other restrictions are to be effective also for all events sponsored by SIPS.
This point requires its own headline because of its potentially very severe consequences for the whole psychological community, and potentially also for other social science disciplines. From the CoC Purpose and Scope: “Th[e] purpose of this code of conduct is to protect SIPS event participants from harm. “Participants” are any people present at a SIPS event, regardless of registration or membership status. “Events” include conferences (both organized activities and associated informal activities like going out to dinner), preconferences, meetups, online platforms controlled by SIPS, and other activities organized or sponsored by SIPS.”
Thus, anyone insulting SIPS or an event sponsored by SIPS can be banned from participating also in events sponsored by them. For example, I would not be allowed to invite or even accept Jordan Anaya to attend an event I’m organising if the event is to be sponsored by SIPS. The generally more harsh approach against harassment that SIPS has taken lately (e.g. expressed in an open letter to the SIPS community on August 15, 2019, from the SIPS Executive Committee, as well as in their New Year’s letter to members on December 31, 2019) implies that we can expect additional people to be banned for similar reasons.
My main concerns with the CoC being effective also for events sponsored by SIPS are the following:
- Organisations and individuals interested in some day organising a SIPS sponsored event may become overly cautious. Being sponsored by SIPS currently means that one should be prepared to remove someone from an event even if they have done no harm to the event in question and even if they are crucial contributors to the event. One might feel safe in inviting someone who has nothing to do with SIPS, but non-members can also be banned from SIPS (as in the case of Jordan Anaya). Thus, if the invited person come to criticise a SIPS event (at least in an insulting way), then one might have to choose between keeping SIPS as a sponsor or banning the person who insulted them. Consequently, people might start adapting their plans, actions, and collaborations to not risk being turned down by SIPS. One may for example choose not to even consider speakers or collaborators known to speak freely on controversial topics, such as defending conservative people such as Jordan Anaya. Whistleblowers will likely be a significant risk group here, as will people with a working class background (according to my experience, both these groups tend to speak more freely than other academics, and they might often even be the same individuals).
- SIPS’ ties to Center for Open Science (COS) and Open Science Framework (OSF) pose a potential threat to anyone using OSF or other services from COS. Arguably, SIPS has close ties to (COS) and (OSF), which are the other two primary open and replicable science organisations in psychology. For example, the senior founder of COS and OSF was one of the founding members of SIPS, the first two SIPS conferences were hosted and logistically supported by COS, and since the very first conference has OSF been used actively as a repository for materials and unconference logistics. COS is also hosting a number of preprint services, such as PsyArXiv. If SIPS were ever to sponsor COS, OSF, or any of the preprint services, then these organisations/services will be bound to follow SIPS’ CoC, which includes adhering to any bans or other measures SIPS has chosen to take on members or non-members. Organisations and individuals need to be aware that these risks nowadays exist if accepting sponsorship from SIPS.
3. Definitions of the unacceptable behaviours are (likely to) hit against some of the populations SIPS aims to protect.
SIPS’ CoC begins with the following sentence: “The Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS) aims to provide a harassment-free event experience for everyone, regardless of […] caste, national origin, citizen status, age, […] disability, appearance, […] socioeconomic status […]”. So far so good, I agree that everyone has the right not to be harassed. However, when we take a closer look at the case of Jordan Anaya we can see how the Executive Board has chosen to interpret harassment: Jordan tweeted “fucking retards”. I would argue that this interpretation of harassment can exclude individuals simply due to them, for example, having a working class background. I personally come from such a background, and where I come from, these exact words are used more frequently than in academic settings. I could right now name (but I won’t) at least 5 or 6 people I know who would use “retards” as a swearword without blinking. Only 2-3 of them have taken university courses, and only one has completed a university degree. What unites them is their working class background and continued socialising primarily with working class people. Most people probably don’t use “retards” any longer, regardless of socioeconomic status and background. The word is obsolete and should not be used. But not all populations have yet updated their jargon accordingly, why claiming the word to be harassment is to add harmful intent where there may not be any. This is likely to be the case in other populations as well, not only in certain socioeconomic groups.
4. Unacceptable behaviours and their consequences are (likely to be) defined by political views rather than by what actual harm they do.
While Jordan Anaya was banned for tweeting “fucking retards” about a SIPS unconference session on diversity and inclusion, I’m not convinced the severe consequences of such a tweet had been the exact same had the person behind the tweet been someone else. Neither am I convinced the consequences had been the same if the session topic had not been diversity. Jordan Anaya was not a member of SIPS, he was not present at the conference, and he was far away from Netherlands and the conference venue when posting his tweet. I personally don’t see why such a tweet, during such circumstances, would be considered harmful enough to deserve a ban. (That said, it was absolutely foul language.)
During one of the SIPS conferences I attended, I shared room with a number of other women attendees. I had never met them before and none of them knew who I was, and none of them were familiar with the research institute I’ve founded (IGDORE). One of them continuously ignored me throughout the conference. She looked only at the others in the group when speaking. When I spoke, she seemed to pretend that she didn’t hear me, consequently interrupting me repeatedly – always without looking at me. She did not behave like this toward the others in the group. Only a few times did she look at me for a brief moment and that was when all the others were focused on me; I guess she then found no way to ignore me without coming off as rude also to the others.
Why did she behave like that? The truth is I don’t know. But I do experience this a little now and then in academia, in particular since I left traditional academia to start IGDORE, and I do have a theory: I believe (but cannot be sure) the reason was my lack of status. People can lack status in academia in many different ways. I would argue that I personally lack status due to (a) not having the proper manners expected by someone in academia (I have a working class background & I dress & speak accordingly), (b) having left traditional academia, (c) being an early career researcher, (d) not having a physical appearance that is considered beautiful in this part of the world.
However, there could also be other reasons for her behavior. For example, maybe I made her uncomfortable somehow or maybe she had a severe issue with social anxiety (this can make people appear arrogant without knowing it). Regardless of reason, I’m not interested in her being banned or otherwise punished for her behavior. But SIPS’ CoC says I should report her, and if I did, the consequences would likely be severe because her behavior toward me was far more demeaning and hostile than Jordan’s tweet was. Jordan’s tweet targeted a whole conference session and was posted over 6400 kilometers from the conference venue by a non-member who did not attend the conference. In contrast, my room mate was a SIPS conference participant, her behavior lasted through several days and was targeting me personally, and she is a member of the SIPS Executive Committee. The consequences of her behavior, according to the CoC and how it has been interpreted in the case of Jordan Anaya, would most likely be nothing less severe than a ban. (Unless the accused in this case should be judged in a more lenient way due to possibly having political or ideological views in line with SIPS’ mission, in contrast to the views Jordan held.)
Thus, if the SIPS Executive Committee want to continue their harsh interpretation of their CoC, then they should first clean up among their own. But I would strongly advise against continuing that route and I will therefore never name the person who misbehaved against me or participate in any investigation concerning the incident. We cannot throw out everyone who misbehave, SIPS would quickly become very empty if everyone started to report each other for everything that happens. We are all far from perfect. And that should be OK.
SIPS claims to work toward increased inclusion, but the truth is that they rather seem to be working toward increased inclusion of certain people with certain political and ideological views. The rest of us are not only ignored (which would have been OK), but at risk of being actively punished (which is not OK).
I came to the SIPS conference in Charlottesville in 2017 and for the first time in my academic life felt like I belonged professionally. I could finally speak openly about my experiences of being bullied into bad science. After several months of pondering about the values I believe in and how I want to prioritise them, I have now left SIPS. I do hope new member organisations will rise to defend scientific integrity, knowledge accumulation, and advanced academic discourse in psychological science. You have an enthusiastic potential member here; do call me.
Acknowledgements: I want to thank Daniël Lakens for his generous feedback on this text, and Jordan Anaya for kindly providing clarifications and the letter from the SIPS Executive Committee.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are those of my own and are not necessarily representative of IGDORE or its affiliated researchers and organisations.