Academic taboos #1: what cannot be said

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

what can't be saidAcademia is a community with conventions, customs, and no-go areas. These vary, to some extent, between disciplines. For example, in most STEM subjects it is taboo for research authors to refer to themselves in writing in the first person. This leads to some astonishing linguistic contortions. Conversely, in arts disciplines, and increasingly in the humanities and social sciences, it is permissible to use more natural language.

It seems, though, that some conventions exist across all disciplines. For example, conference “provocations” are rarely provocative, though they may stretch the discussion’s comfort zone by a millimetre or two. Then conference “questions” are rarely questions that will draw more interesting and useful material from the speaker. Instead, they are taken as opportunities for academic grandstanding. Someone will seize the floor, and spend as long as they can get away with, effectively saying: “Look at me, aren’t I clever?” I have found, through personal experiment, that asking an actual question at a conference can cause consternation. I confess it amuses me to do this.

Perhaps the most interesting conventions are those around what cannot be said. Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City University of London, UK, has noted the taboo around admitting how difficult, even impossible, it can be to cope with the pressures of life as an academic (2010:229). The airy tone when a colleague is heard to say: “I’m so shattered. The jobs on my to-do list seem to be multiplying. Haha, you know how it is.” Such statements can be a smokescreen for serious mental health problems.

A journal article published in 2017 by the theoretical physicist Oliver Rosten made a heartfelt statement about this in its acknowledgements, dedicating the article to the memory of a late colleague, and referring to “the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system”. Several journals accepted the article for its scientific quality but refused to publish the acknowledgements in full; it took Rosten years to find a journal that would publish what he wrote. He has left academia and now works as a Senior Software Developer at Future Facilities Ltd in Brighton, UK.

Another thing that cannot be said, identified by Tseen Khoo, a Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, is that some academic research doesn’t need funding, it just needs time. This is anathema because everyone accepts that external funding makes the academic world go round. But what if it didn’t? What if student fees, other income (e.g. from hiring out university premises in the holidays), and careful stewardship was enough? What if all the time academics spent on funding applications, and making their research fit funders’ priorities, was actually spent on independent scholarship? It seems this is not only unsayable but also unthinkable. One of Khoo’s interlocutors described this as “a failure of the imagination”.

Another unspeakable truth I’m aware of is for someone to say that the system of research ethics governance is itself unethical. Ethics governance is something to comply with, not to question. That has led us to the situation where most research training contains little or no time spent on research ethics itself. Instead, young researchers learn that working ethically equates to filling in an audit form about participant welfare and data storage. They don’t receive the detailed reflective instruction necessary to equip them to manage the manifold ethical difficulties any researcher will encounter in the field.

I wonder what role the lack of research ethics education plays in the increasing number of journal articles that are retracted each year? I would argue that we need to separate ethical audit from ethical research, because they have different aims. The former exists to protect institutions, the latter to promote the quality of research and ensure the well-being of all concerned.

These areas of silence are particularly interesting given that academia exists to enable and develop conversations. However, I think that as well as acknowledging what academia enables, we also need to take a long hard look at what academia silences.

6 thoughts on “Academic taboos #1: what cannot be said

  1. Oh Helen, you nail it again. This evokes the satirical comic strip and reminds me that academia can be an amazing place where new ideas are created, tested and shared, but it can also be a cruel and ugly place. The hierarchies and power dynamics, the inertias and the vices. Just as corporate life can be hell, so can be life in “whackademia” (w One has to be incredibly lucky to find groups that are more or less shielded from all the BS, but still the funding models, the rankings, the criteria for impact, and the wider research community interactions are impossible to avoid. A Professor recently approached me at an international conference to thank me for being kind when I was chairing a session, and then it hit me: very rarely we see kindness and even more rarely we see senior academics taking the time and effort to acknowledge it. I think work like yours is helping to make this paradigm visible and hopefully change it. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Helen for an excellent treatment of taboo topics in academia. Grandstanding at seminars is a longstanding problem. The reluctance to share personal feelings of inadequacy is exacerbated by the prevalence of the impostor syndrome in which academics worry that others will discover they aren’t the real deal. Research ethics processes are increasingly a bureaucratic ritual.

    I agree that some research doesn’t need external funding. Going further, it’s possible that some external funding doesn’t improve academic productivity. Even further, seeking to get ahead in the academic game can be detrimental to scholarly goals (

    Scholarly writing often seems designed to make it difficult for outsiders to understand it. However, first person pronouns are not banned in scientific publications ( In my former career in science, my co-author Dayal Wickramasinghe and I regularly used “we” in our astrophysics papers, and that wasn’t unusual. My impression talking to humanities PhD students is that many believe first person is to be avoided (at least in science) but have never looked at any scientific papers to see whether it is actually used. There must be an article to be written comparing beliefs and practice!

    There are other taboo topics that should be discussed, for example that lectures are a poor way for students to learn, that research on learning is seldom used by academics (, that many supervisors exploit their students, that many academics self-plagiarise, and that few tenured academics ever use their academic freedom (the justification for their tenure) to say anything remotely controversial.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting comment. I’m not sure I’m qualified to discuss all the topics you suggest, and this post is the last in my current series on academic taboos. But they are certainly important issues and I will bear them in mind for the future.


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