Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Randy Townsend. Randy is a Senior Program Manager in the Publications Department at the American Geophysical Union where he has worked for more than 13 years. His career focuses on the execution of the department’s strategic goals, and the performance and development of an expanding portfolio of scholarly publications, requiring oversight of peer review operations and content integrity. He has been a leader in policy implementation and manages allegations of misconduct and ethical violations.

The spark around diversity and inclusion that caught our attention at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) was not from a fire burning in what could be considered ‘our house.’ There were no scandalous headlines or firestorms of allegations against AGU leadership that required a public relations campaign and media spin. It was the silence, so loud and constant, that you could almost forget that it was present. The patterns of muted voices were somehow woven into the fabrics of tradition, and those who felt rejected and marginalized had long stopped hoping for change. For an organization with a global membership that includes more than 60,000 Earth and space scientists, the reflection in our mirror needed some honest adjustments.

So, after an organizational journey that started three years ago, the AGU recently launched the Ethics and Equity Center, a milestone achievement to help advance science, and promote ethics, integrity and inclusive practices for all. Supported by committed partners that are working with us towards improved workplace climates, it’s been shaped by a diverse body of contributions that must remain actively engaged in order for the Center to be successful.

ethics respect honesty, code of conduct. Signpost on wooden table

Public reports of sexual harassment against a high-profile member of our scientific community led AGU to reexamine ourselves, using organizational values as a framework to guide our activities.  At our 2015 annual meeting, AGU members held a late-breaking town hall session to discuss the role that scientific societies play in responding to harassment and listen to expectations of members in organizations like AGU. Because AGU does not exist in isolation, it was important to identify and collaborate with strategic partners whose visions are similarly aligned with challenging long-ignored systemic abuses of power and other issues around marginalization and exclusion. Several months after that town hall session, the AGU partnered with the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Earth Science Women’s Network, American Geosciences Institute, and the Association for Women Geoscientists to host a National Science Foundation-funded ‘Sexual Harassment in the Sciences: A Call to Respond’ workshop. The focus of the workshop was to generate common principles and identify resources and best practices to address the challenge of sexual and gender-based harassment on campus, in the field, and at scientific meetings, and helped us map out our next steps.

AGU Leadership recognized the importance of protecting both scholarly research and the researcher and convened a task force to propose measures that safeguard against bad actors. In 2017, the AGU Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics Policy was updated to include harassment, discrimination and bullying in its formal definition of research misconduct. While this action has been debated by some, as it deviates from traditional forms of research misconduct that include fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, it has served AGU well, and has been applauded by AGU members and many across the scientific spectrum.

Updating the policy was a step in the right direction. Assessment of AGU activities and implementation of the policy in all engagements remains a continuing effort. Our annual meeting regularly attracts more than 25,000 attendees., Based on AGU Ethics Task Force recommendations, we launched the SafeAGU program designed to ensure a welcoming environment and offer support to AGU members who may feel harassed, threatened or unsafe when participating in AGU meetings. Volunteers are provided special training in advance of the meetings to ensure proper measures are taken when inappropriate behavior is observed or reported. This initiative has been expanded for partnering organizations, and a similar approach has been taken at the Ocean Sciences Meeting (SafeOSM).

Additionally, the expanded definition of misconduct is also applied to staff, volunteers, contractors, and nonmembers who participate in AGU activities and the AGU governance structure, and has become a key factor in our Honors and Awards programs. Nominees are required to self-disclose any incidents of professional misconduct or improprieties throughout their careers and to share any official rulings. Those disclosures are confidentially reviewed, and actions are determined following a strict process.

Building a no-tolerance culture is only credible and effective if the process is transparent, and standards are applied consistently across all sectors of operation. In our publications program, the AGU has been studying implicit bias in peer review across our suite of scholarly journals for years, actively working to diversify our editorial boards and expand the pool of referees. We are also gathering and publishing data on how scientists collaborate, shedding new light on practices across career stages that influence diversity and inclusion in research.

AGU’s leadership both recognizes and highlights the strategic importance of attracting and retaining the most brilliant, creative minds regardless of background. The Ethics and Equity Center, our updated policies, and our work to better understand the challenges around diversity, equity, and inclusion across all our programs are all steps in the right direction. AGU members and staff are working to ensure that the silence around these issues fades away, and those who have felt marginalized or abandoned will feel comfortable, excited, and proud to make AGU their scientific home, creating new paths highlighted by those once missing voices.

Randy Townsend

Randy Townsend, MPS, (he, him, his) is President of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) and has served in leadership positions for the Council of Science Editors, and AM&P Network’s Association Council, and has co-chaired DEIA Committees for AM&P Network and SSP. He has actively supported C4DISC and contributed to the development of many of their freely available resources. At Origin Editorial, Randy takes innovative approaches to lead and implement peer review strategies. Randy was the inaugural Editor in Chief for the GW Journal of Ethics in Publishing and is an Associate Professor of the MPS in Publishing program in the College of Professional Studies at George Washington University.


2 Thoughts on "Guest Post — One Society’s Journey towards Equity"

Randy, thanks for sharing the important work the AGU has been doing. I am sure it’s made a difference to your community.

What a great post! Thanks for sharing — it’s always great to learn about concrete examples of organizations tackling these issues and making progress towards equity.

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