‘Publish and perish’: Despite ‘shelter-in-place,’ grad students cite pressure to continue lab work

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As California “shelters in place,” graduate students at Stanford have reported feeling pressure to continue in-lab activity due to the power dynamic with their labs’ principal investigators (PIs) and widely varying interpretations of “essential research.” 

Officially, Stanford maintains that “graduate students and postdocs should continue attending to their research activities,” but “all non-essential personnel should be working from home.”

“Research is an essential function of the University so research can be preserved or, in some cases, continue, especially certain medical research,” wrote Vice President and General Counsel Debra Zumwalt in the University’s most recent guidance regarding on-campus work.

For those conducting research in laboratories, the University announced on Tuesday that non-essential laboratory research functions should be discontinued.  

Those working in laboratories ought to “stay away from [their] on-campus workspace, with rare exceptions to perform essential research functions,” wrote Vice Provosts Kam Moler and Stacey Bent and Chair of Faculty Senate Tim Stearns. 

According to updated guidance issued on March 17 for researchers in laboratories, “essential research” includes lab shutdown procedures, conducting critical regular maintenance procedures to maintain lab viability (such as providing animal support or maintaining equipment) or research related to COVID-19. 

“Essential” research

Despite Stanford’s request for most personnel to stay away from their workspaces, graduate students are still continuing non-essential lab research, according to several graduate students currently conducting research in on-campus labs. 

“After the ‘shelter-in-place’ order went in, [principal investigators] (PIs) are still pressuring trainees to come into labs to do non-essential research,” said Kat Gonzales, a fifth-year earth systems Ph.D. candidate. “I have friends who feel really pressured and really vulnerable, and they can’t speak up.” 

Gonzales referred to a “culture of overwork” in the research community, as well as a power dynamic between PIs and graduate students who work in their labs. Gonzales said that the “toxic workaholism” is a pervasive issue among members of academia at many institutions, not just at Stanford.

A sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at the School of Medicine and researcher at an on-campus medical lab agreed that they felt pressure from their PI to continue research as normal, even though their lab is not conducting research considered essential by the University guidelines. The Daily granted anonymity to this student and others quoted in this article due to students’ fears of repercussion for speaking out against their PIs. 

Given that Stanford’s guidance considers research an essential function of the University, several grad students said that their PI deemed the lab’s research as essential. 

“One of the biggest issues in the last week or so has been Stanford’s definitions of research,” said a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate researching in a biomedical lab. “They’ve been using very broad terms for things like ‘essential research’ –– every PI thinks their research is essential.”

“There has been a lot of unclear language from Stanford and some loopholes that [my PI] used to take advantage of the situation,” the medical research student said. The PI instructed their researchers to continue ongoing research, but not start new experiments, according to the student. 

Similarly, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate conducting research in a biology lab said that their PI “does not agree that we’ve received guidance to stop all [non-essential] experiments.” 

PJ Utz, professor of medicine and associate dean for medical student research, told The Daily he was aware of the concerns regarding the continuation of non-essential research within the School of Medicine. 

In response to those concerns, Utz sent an email on Monday evening to all Stanford medical students and their faculty mentors reiterating the University’s definition of “essential research” and urging students and faculty to shelter in place.

“We ask that Faculty comply with these guidelines and that they not ask medical students to violate the guidance,” Utz wrote in the email, which was forwarded to The Daily by a grad student. 

Utz also said that — in a Tuesday morning walk-through of the Center for Clinical Sciences Research (CCSR) building where his lab is located — he did not observe any personnel conducting non-essential research in any lab.  

Utz asked students who are conducting essential research to contact him directly. 

“[Students conducting essential research] made it very clear that they’re doing it voluntarily and not being coerced to do it,” Utz said. 

On Tuesday evening, Bent and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole released additional guidance to graduate students reiterating the county’s shelter-in-place orders, saying that “failure to comply with these orders constitutes a violation of the law and will be considered a violation of the Fundamental Standard.” According to University guidance, a violation of shelter-in-place may also result in immediate removal from housing, yet students will remain responsible for paying rent. 

“I think this is just grossly off-base and tone deaf for what is going on,” the medical research student said. “It puts the burden on students to risk their housing and standing with the University, or risk their relationship and standing with their advisor.” 

The PI power dynamic

The graduate student researchers attributed much of the pressure to the balance of power between a lab’s PI and its researchers. Because PIs have substantial influence over a student’s future career, students are fearful of disappointing their PIs. 

“Grad students and postdocs are 100% at the mercy of their PIs,” the biomedical research student said. 

Several grad students said Stanford’s shelter-in-place guidelines for research have varying interpretations among PIs. 

“There’s this really unfair power dynamic where [my PI] has interpreted guidance from the University in a certain way, and we can’t really have a discussion about it and raise our concerns,”  the medical research student said. “Every PI is going to say that their research is essential, and the problem is all of the power is in their hands.”

The biology research student said that many faculty are well-intentioned, but are unaware of the unspoken pressure that they place on their grad student researchers. 

“I think that the faculty don’t all realize that if you tell graduate students, ‘It’s your decision whether you come into lab or not,’ that because of the power differential, most grad students will interpret that as ‘I really want you to be coming to lab,’” the biology research student said. 

Utz agreed that faculty PIs have paramount influence in establishing a culture of lab safety, and that they are responsible for promoting such a culture.   

In an email to The Daily, Moler reiterated that no researcher should be physically present in campus laboratories or research spaces except for essential research functions. While Moler did not address a question about the unspoken pressure grad students say they face due to PI expectations, she wrote, “no student or postdoctoral scholar should be required to go into the laboratory.”

Moler encouraged students with concerns to contact their department chair, student services staff or the associate dean for student affairs in their school. 

Continuity planning 

To mitigate the number of personnel continuing research, the University required all PIs to submit a lab-level continuity plan: a list of essential functions, staff, tasks and equipment necessary for critical lab maintenance. 

So far, the continuity plans have not been activated, and card access has not been restricted, according to Stanford’s FAQ for lab researchers and grad students. The University plans to notify each PI should enacting the plan become necessary: “In extreme circumstances, which are not currently foreseen, access may be restricted to critical personnel,” the FAQ reads. Currently, Stanford remains open as normal for research and researchers. 

However, the medical research student said that their PI’s continuity plan was not an accurate reflection of essential procedures or personnel. 

“I know that my PI falsified that plan and said that we need to come in more frequently than we really do, and said that a lot more people are essential than really are,” the student said. 

The biomedical research student agreed that PIs have not adhered to the University’s definition of “essential” personnel and research. The student said that most PIs had listed every member of the research group as essential personnel. 

The number of personnel who continue to come into the lab make it impossible to maintain social distancing, the medical research student added. 

In an email to The Daily, Bent wrote that Stanford has implemented a plan review process. Department chairs and faculty directors in all schools are responsible for validating that the tasks listed are truly essential. 

“That work is underway,” Bent wrote. 

Bent did not respond to The Daily’s question about whether the University was aware of PIs creating lab-level continuity plans that extend beyond the scope of essential research. 

However, Utz said that he had not heard concerns regarding lab-level continuity plan inaccuracies.  

Utz said he has elected to perform critical lab maintenance personally to reduce the risk of his lab personnel’s exposure to the virus. He said he hopes other faculty members will consider doing the same. 

According to the medical research student, while potentially removing keycard access will reduce the number of non-essential personnel conducting research, it will not protect those with access from being pressured to perform research beyond maintenance. 

The medical research student said they hope that the University recognizes that researchers are entering labs to conduct non-essential work, and for the University to clearly state that this behavior is not authorized. 

The medical research student suggested that the University employ security to monitor the entry and exit of essential personnel, but acknowledged that it might put security personnel at risk of being exposed to COVID-19. The student also proposed that the University monitor timestamps indicating when a researcher has swiped in or out of buildings to monitor the frequency with which they are attending to lab activities.  

Next steps

Students said they hope Stanford acknowledges the widespread attitude toward continuing on-campus laboratory research. They also urged the University to maintain clearer communication with PIs, create a more definitive expectation for continuing research in labs and enforce those expectations more strictly. 

“I think it would be great if the research deans could send out additional communications to faculty reiterating what the policy is, and maybe include an explanation of what types of conversations are often viewed by graduate students as pressuring,” the biology research student said. “Faculty often apply pressure in ways that they don’t understand, and I think that more awareness of what constitutes pressure could be helpful in changing behavior.” 

Utz also said that he would monitor lab activity in the CCSR building for non-essential research activity. Should he observe any research that violates Stanford’s guidance, Utz said he plans to report such behavior to University or School of Medicine leadership. 

“Your contribution to our teaching and research community is central to the University’s mission,” Bent wrote in a letter addressed to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars on March 10. “We are taking prudent precautions to protect our community and communities beyond our campus, while continuing our daily education and research activities in ways that are appropriate under the circumstances.” 

Utz echoed Stanford’s commitment to protect students during the COVID-19 pandemic, urging students to adhere to University guidance. 

“We want everyone in the country to be safe, and we want everyone on Stanford’s campus to be safe,” Utz added. “The University has put out guidance and the expectation we have of our medical students is that they’re going to follow that guidance.” 

Utz also said that faculty bear the onus of protecting the health of researchers: “Stanford faculty have an obligation to lead efforts to promote a culture of laboratory safety by following, and promoting, the University guidance released last week by Vice Provost Moler.” 

The medical research student said that the University’s inaction regarding the continuation of on-campus research sends a worrisome message.

“Nothing matters more than your ability to publish for your PI, and the value that you can add to their portfolio,” the medical research student said. “Your quality of life, your wellness, your health doesn’t matter. It’s a huge problem at Stanford and in academia in general.” 

“This takes publish or perish to a new level,” Gonzales said. “Now it’s about publish and perish.” 

A previous headline of this article indicated that postdocs had also cited pressure to continue lab work, but no postdocs are quoted in the article. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Alex Tsai ’21 is a senior staff writer for The Daily. Previous roles at The Daily include news desk editor and mobile app developer. Alex is majoring in Computer Science and is a member of the varsity lacrosse team. Contact her at aotsai 'at' stanford.edu.