APS News | Opinion

Productive Scientific Discourse Demands Respect

Published May 03, 2022

APS strives to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all those engaged in physics. Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is essential to advancing and diffusing knowledge in an interconnected world and effectively addressing global scientific challenges. Yet these goals are thwarted by routine reports of harassment and intimidation directed at members of our community 1, 2.

Many physicists working to address DEI issues are members of the physics education research (PER) community. APS values this branch of physics, as evidenced by policy statement and our support of the Topical Group on Physics Education Research. Like other disciplines in physics, PER employs a variety of methodologies, frameworks, and collaborations from and with other disciplines. These approaches are well represented across the breadth of papers published in Physical Review Physics Education Research (PRPER).

A recent article published in the journal investigated diversity and inclusion through the lens of Critical Whiteness Studies, a subfield of Critical Race Theory 3. While we neither endorse nor challenge the paper's findings, we condemn the highly inappropriate and harassing emails and social media responses to the paper, some of which appear to have little basis in the content of the article.

Like all research, physics education research, both in general and related to DEI, invites constructive criticism. Such conversations are critical for advancing knowledge in any scientific field. However, productive discourse requires all participants to exercise intellectual humility and willingness to listen, especially when conversations cross disciplinary boundaries.

As Charles Henderson (Lead Editor, PRPER) and Michael Thoennessen (APS Editor in Chief) make clear in an editorial, “The Physical Review invites constructive and respectful criticism of published articles in the form of Comments. Harassment and intimidation against authors are not acceptable behaviors and have no place in scientific discourse” 4. Not only are these actions unacceptable, the editors write, but they also violate our standards of ethical conduct.

The APS Guidelines on Ethics define harassment as “disrespectful behavior of any kind with the intent or effect of humiliating and controlling another person. It can include verbal and physical interactions, and display or circulation of written materials or images, including those communicated via digital devices, such as interactions via text messaging or social media. Harassment creates an atmosphere in which productive scientific discourse is not possible, and harms the victim as well as the progress of physics.”

The APS Ethics Committee regularly reviews and responds to allegations of harassment and related misconduct. In some cases, these behaviors may lead to the revocation of APS awards, prizes, leadership positions, and/or disqualify candidates from consideration. Individuals who violate the APS Code of Conduct may be excluded from participation in APS meetings.

We encourage the physics community to approach physics education research as they would any field outside their immediate area of expertise: with curiosity, skepticism, and an open mind. Progress in research requires critical examination; ideas and results are often challenged; immediate consensus is not expected. Constructive criticism is a way to support researchers and promote their efforts, but harassment and personal attacks have no place in scientific discourse. We must provide inclusive spaces that empower all individuals to thrive, especially those who are marginalized. Our community must engage meaningfully and substantively with new, often complex, ideas to ensure all people have full and equitable access to physics.

This article was written in consultation with the Executive Committee of the Topical Group on Physics Education Research (GPER).

Frances Hellman

APS Past President Hellman researches the properties of novel magnetic, semiconducting, and superconducting materials.

Robert Rosner

APS Past President

University of Chicago

Young-Kee Kim

2024 APS President

University of Chicago

Sylvester James Gates, Jr.

Sylvester James Gates, Jr., investigates the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field and string theories.

David G. Seiler

APS Treasurer

National Institute of Standards and Technology (Retired)

Robin Selinger

Past Speaker of APS Council Robin Selinger serves on the Council Steering Committee and works as a professor of chemical physics at Kent State University.

Jonathan A. Bagger

APS CEO Jonathan Bagger is a particle physicist who has served as a leader of scientific organizations in the United States and Canada.

  1. Sexual harassment reported by undergraduate female physicists, Lauren M. Aycock, Zahra Hazari, Eric Brewe, Kathryn B. H. Clancy, Theodore Hodapp, and Renee Michelle Goertzen, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010121 (2019)

  2. Commentary: Disentangling anti-Blackness from physics, Charles D. Brown II, Physics Today (2020)

  3. Observing whiteness in introductory physics: A case study, Amy D. Robertson and W. Tali Hairston, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 18, 010119 (2022)

  4. Editorial: Research on Advancing Equity is Critical for Physics, Charles Henderson and Michael Thoennessen, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 18, 010001 (2022)

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