The victory of a doctoral student over his thesis director: the university admits that he took advantage of his work



It is a more moral victory than anything else, but a victory after all, and in an opaque world that rarely allows itself to be defeated. The researcher Jacobo Abellán denounced his thesis director for abusing him at work and taking advantage of his work. He won. Since the complaint was filed with his university and not his judicial one, it had no consequences other than the satisfaction of knowing that he was right, and that the center recognized him. He also managed to get a magazine that published an article that was his but did not sign him to admit that it was plagiarism and force him to compensate him.

Abellán began his thesis at the Autonomous University of Madrid, directed by Michael Janoschka, in 2014, with a Research Staff Training contract (FPI) from the Ministry of Science in the field of Sociology. Shortly after starting the thesis, his director suggested that he do a series of projects for the Ministry of Economy. Abellan accepted. "He put more pressure on me to do his projects than my own thesis. You accept and remain silent because of the pressures when it comes to publishing papers and the necessary recognition in a research career," he says by telephone a situation that many researchers have experienced in their flesh.

The problem came in 2018, when his FPI contract ran out – it lasts four years, which the ministry considers should take to write a thesis – and he began to collect unemployment. "I kept doing his project without even having finished my thesis," under Janoschka's promise that "it would benefit him in the future." After a few months, the also geographer from the University of Leipzig offered Abellán a job on another project, this time paid. "I accepted innocently. I couldn't refuse either," he acknowledges.

In June it was time to collect. They were about 1,400 euros agreed for the two months, Abellán says, but they paid him 490 euros "and in black." It was too much for him and he complained. Janoschka offered him 977 euros for the two months and the department sided with the director. Abellán asked to be paid for the first project as well, but he was ignored. Exploded. "I started taking action." Together with members of the CGT, they organized an escrache for his thesis director in a public act in which he was precisely giving a conference on one of the projects in which Abellán had participated, but he was neither summoned nor did they intend to do so, says Abellán. .

When the article was published in 2020, he reported it to the Ethics Committee of the Autonomous University of Madrid, which finally agreed with him in a statement: "These bad practices have led the doctoral student to a very tough process of confrontation that has had serious academic and personal repercussions," they acknowledge in the document to which this newspaper has had access.

The magazine in which the project had been published, Urban Studies, also acknowledged academic plagiarism and forced authors to apologize and acknowledge authorship. Abellán ended up receiving the 977 euros that his director had offered him for one of the two projects. Neither Janoschka nor the research management team received any type of sanction, since the Ethics Committee is not a punitive body or a court of law. This newspaper has contacted Michael Janoschka to obtain his version of events, but has not received a response.

"It was our mistake because I should have gone before the Court of Justice, but I was afraid of the consequences," Abellán assumes. Today, this project is denounced by the UAM before the labor jurisdiction, as indicated in a report to which this newspaper has had access. For his part, the young researcher has changed his thesis supervisor. He is still unemployed and is finishing it thanks to his family's help, but he says that "it has practically been like starting from scratch". Eight years later.

Although the research career is complex in itself and the Spanish scientific system is considered "underendowed", To this is added "usually" – as Abellán and many other researchers say – labor exploitation, especially in the beginning. It is common for doctoral students to take on the tasks of their thesis directors (teaching, correcting exams, etc. ) because of the power that they accumulate, since they act both as a boss for the researcher and as an evaluator before the university.

This situation has also happened to Sara—fictitious name—with her thesis supervisor. "I have done practically an entire project: I have written articles, field work, research... And my name is the last in the authorship, always behind my directors," she says. "My director sent me tasks that he didn't want to do. He ran the social networks and even helped him with computer problems," she laments. Sara says that she has felt like "the errand person" when she was on an investigator contract.

Sara filed complaints with the investigation department. "But in the end it's as if in a factory you alone complain to the owners of the company," she explains. She did not report him to justice either. "Once you do it there is no turning back and I was shy about the thesis." "If you rebel, you run the risk of never entering the University, neither in your department nor in any other", she laments. "Remember who gets fired from a company for being unionized."

María, a doctoral student in the area of ​​Biology, had a conflict due to workplace harassment. "I was constantly hammered," she recounts. "Because of the hierarchy, they believe that you are at their service, not that you are working together." "The clashes worsened when I stood up. I think she also has a gender bias," she criticizes. After this situation of constant stress, María decided to change her thesis director and start, like Abellán, from scratch.

Although the existence of these practices have a professional cost, the sources consulted point to another greater one: mental health. Article Prevalence and Related Factors among Spanish PhD Students, from the University of Cambridge, reinforces this idea, pointing out that "doctoral researchers have a higher risk of suffering from mental disorders than the rest of the population". The study highlights the alarming situation of Spanish doctoral students.

Jacobo Abellán points out that his situation has been "something very hard." "Seeing your director use you for his own benefit is very negative and you feel mistreated," he acknowledges. "We work a lot with the intention that he will serve in the future, but without certainty. It is natural to work from ten to twelve hours a day," laments María. "You look humiliated and devalued," adds Sara.

For Ermengol Gassiot, university professor and also thesis advisor, this is a problem that has happened before. However, "now these cases are beginning to come to light." "It is clear that this situation leads to serious mental problems," he says. "There is no questionnaire from the competent university that raises it at the end of the thesis." He also sees a problem in the structure of the scientific system in Spain. "Everything starts from a budget deficit. People in the position of thesis director reproduce what they have lived. Many times they work with minimal resources," he criticizes.

Gassiot makes ugly that the lack of technical and administrative personnel is displaced to the young people who prepare their thesis. "Surely the university system is aware that there is a part of the scientific academic system in the Spanish State that works thanks to the research of predoctoral researchers", she points out. "The hierarchy in which predoctoral researchers are the lowest echelon and assume tasks that do not correspond to them must be reduced. Their activity is work by law, they cannot do anything".

Abellán explains that "the trap is that since you have to pursue an academic career, it seems that you have to put up with these things." "That this happens means that the project is badly planned from the root", thinks María. "The worst thing about these situations is that it is not anecdotal and we see how it reproduces structurally. Research in Spain encourages these situations. Not having resources leads to labor exploitation. There are people who end up exploiting without bad intentions."

"Doing the thesis does not have to be a traumatic process," says María. "The academy of science is a machine for exploiting people. It is a problem that, in the first instance, needs more collective denunciation and for us to associate. Those of us who speak are those who have denounced it. But, what happens to those who no longer Do you want to know anything about the research career?" asks the biologist.

For the Ministry of Universities, "the universities are responsible for ensuring that this type of practice and behavior is avoided." In relation to the financing of research projects, they remind past governments: "The current situation is given for many years, after the previous economic crisis, in which cuts were made that have affected their operation." For its part, from the UAM they emphasize that they act "with diligence whenever they become aware of possible bad practices in the research activity". "These are processes that require a deep and guaranteeing investigation, due to the great importance they have for all the people involved," they stress in statements to this newspaper.

By lengthening working hours, and in projects that do not correspond to researchers, thesis directors are breaching the Workers' Statute, in Royal Decree 103/2019 that regulates the predoctoral contract, according to Mireia Bazaga, a labor lawyer. "They must report to the Social Court and the Labor Inspection to be paid for those hours," explains the lawyer.

The predoctoral students are recognized under a contract with the legal form of work and service, so there is an employment relationship. In fact, it took years of protest for these grants to go from being scholarships to contracts. However, many complain about the difficulty of denouncing abusive practices because the tasks and rights that investigators have are not well defined in the contract. In addition, the thesis is continued many times after the contract ends, while unemployment is collected, as in the case of Abellán. "This is a fraud of law that would have to end in an indefinite contract. As the situation of science is what it is, it is allowed", denounces Ermengol Gassiot.

"Everything is very broad traces of 'collaborating and participating in research tasks'. There are no specifically defined objectives in the contract" criticizes Sara. "It's the very form of FPU and FPI contracts," she explains. Yes, there are codes of good practice, but "measures are not stipulated in the event of labor abuse," she explains. "Labor inspection should have more workers to be able to act ex officio in cases like these. It is underfunded. The inspectors should go beyond the evidence provided by the complainants," adds the labor lawyer.

Without being the same although it seems in the spirit, several universities have been denounced by the Inspectorate for using interns to cover administrative positions that should be structuralaccording to Labor, although at the moment the Justice is not giving them the reason.

For María, one of the big problems when it comes to denouncing these cases is that doctoral students "still find it difficult to conceive of themselves as workers and not as scholarship recipients." As for the Labor Inspection complaints, she believes that "they take a long time and it is likely that they will not do anything because they seem normal situations, but they are not."

"Researchers are helpless," says Ermengol Gassiot. "There is a power relationship between the director and the researcher because the former has the ability to decide on the continuity of the work of the latter," he explains. "It is very difficult to denounce your director when you need his signature to continue your professional career," criticizes María.



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