Campaigning doctoral candidate resigns from ‘hostile environment’

Maria Toft sparked national conversation about exploitation with #pleasedontstealmywork campaign, but she says it came at the cost of her Copenhagen fellowship

February 14, 2023
Maria Toft, a PhD fellow in the University of Copenhagen
Source: University of Copenhagen

A doctoral student who sparked national debate about authorship rights and exploitation says she was forced to resign her fellowship after managers created a “hostile environment” of threatening and sexist behaviour.

Maria Toft’s collation of anonymous accounts of stolen first author credits, plagiarism by supervisors and unfair authorship requests, collected last year using the #pleasedontstealmywork hashtag, aimed to highlight the raw deal faced by young researchers but resonated just as strongly with older academics in Denmark struggling with the pressure to publish. More than 2,000 academics signed a petition calling for a national commission to “set research free”.

But Ms Toft claimed that her campaign led to her being driven out of her PhD in the University of Copenhagen’s department of political science.

“It came after I went public with my own story,” she told Times Higher Education. “The more publicity and support from the political system [I got], the more severe the threats from management [became].”

Ms Toft said that the mistreatment had gone on for 18 months, including an incident when a colleague allegedly challenged her for not working on an article during maternity leave by saying they were “not to blame” that she “got pregnant”.

“I had to sit in a meeting and justify my right to be on maternity leave. Last year I had some sick leave because of this incredibly hostile environment the management had created for me,” she said. “The last year has been really, really tough for me, mentally.”

Her unsuccessful personnel complaint was met with counter-allegations from senior colleagues, which Ms Toft said were “completely empty in substance”. Finally she wrote to the rectorate saying she felt that both her concerns had been “shelved”, deciding to resign after she felt her concerns had again been ignored.

A spokesman for the university said Ms Toft’s was “a case of personnel matters for all the involved scientific staff” and that the university was prevented from commenting by the Danish Public Administration Act. He said the university had appeal bodies and a whistleblower scheme for reports of misconduct or offensive behaviour.

But Ole Wæver, a professor in Copenhagen’s department of political science, said that Ms Toft had yet again highlighted a deep-running problem in Danish academia.

“It is a widespread experience in universities that the very hierarchical leadership and governance structure, with its complete lack of checks and balances, often makes people overly cautious in sticking their neck out and saying anything critical,” he said.

Professor Wæver said policies designed to enable inclusion were instead being used to silence critics of the system, like Ms Toft. “It would be good to get from general policies on inclusivity to actually taking the side of the weaker party in concrete cases,” he said. “The victim can easily become the annoyance.”

Heine Andersen, professor emeritus in Copenhagen’s department of sociology, agreed that Danish universities had “a very low degree of academic freedom”, citing unelected “autocratic” leadership, widespread use of short-term contracts and the ease of firing troublemakers, which combined to create a “regime of fear”.

Ms Toft and Professor Andersen said Denmark needed an independent ombudsman to deal with complaints about university management and violations of academic freedom.

Ms Toft said she plans to take up a position at a university in Sweden to continue her doctoral research. “The most hurtful part of this was not the threats from management and the sexist behaviour,” she said. “The most hurtful thing has been the silence of my colleagues.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Toft's last comment regarding the silence of her colleagues in the face of managerial bullying is disturbing, yet reflects a situation that will be familiar to many other academics outside Denmark as well. The quiescence of academics in the face of widespread dismantling of tenure and near-constant 'restructuring' exercises within faculties and departments is understandable but also harmful. So much for academic freedom and fearless pursuit of ideas and research. Academic whistleblowers have few options. Neither university councils nor governments, it seems, in countries such as mine (Australia) are sufficiently aware of or proactive in challenging the slide towards a 'soft despotism' seen in some of these instances and across the university sector.
This is a global problem as democracy is eroded from within - we have this in a very significant form in Australia which generally follows UK and US approaches so you can get an idea of the scale of the problem.