UPDATED. Eleven former PhD students in Sweden and England accuse Emily Holmes, professor of psychology, of having bullied them systematically.
Now they finally dare tell their story.
By Lennart Kriisa
She settles into the sofa in the editorial office of Psykologtidningen. Haltingly starts to tell of her time as a researcher and the pressure she was subjected to that finally led to her going to the emergency room.
“More people will suffer. No one can conquer the conspiracy of silence,” she notes dejectedly.
Some leaders at the psychological department at the university of Uppsala agree with her. They have been opposed to the professor recruiting new PhD students, to no avail. The spirits were higher during the autumn of 2018. At that time, the staff was informed that a professor of psychology had been recruited from Karolinska Institutet.
“We only knew that she was a world-famous researcher. It was like having a rock star come visit,” one of the employees recollects.
But the roots of this story reaches back far earlier than this, around the turn of the millennium, when Emily Holmes was making great headway in her career at Oxford and Cambridge. Psykologtidningen contacted psychologists who at that time were part of the professor’s research teams. They share their experiences on condition of anonymity.
“I have been expecting this conversation for over ten years. At some point, the truth had to be told,” one of them says.
Let us call her Annie. She is now a psychologist and has left her research career. After a few minutes, Annie simply has to take a breather.
“Look, my hands and legs are shaking. The memories still haunt me, it seems. I wasn’t aware of that,” she says.
The first few months she was proud of being included in the research team. The professor expressed admiration of her talents. But then she had some personal problems and turned in a report that was not picture perfect.
“That made me a target for Emily Holmes. Everything I did was wrong.”
She lay sleepless at night, and stress mounted in the daytime. Annie turned to two authorities at the university of Oxford, both responsible for oversight of the work environment. Both came up with the same answer: she had to quit her job.
“They didn’t even jot down what I said. I was a junior researcher and would not stand a chance against a professor.”
Annie decided to put up with it. Like all other people in the group. Psykologtidningen at this point gets into touch with another psychologist. Let’s call her Julie. Two people warned her before she joined the research team. “She is extremely demanding” one said. “Decline,” the other one advised.
Julie promptly discovered that at least someone in the group was picked on at all times. One day, the turn had come to her. Emily Holmes thought that she had solved a task poorly. Julie was told of this in no uncertain terms, despite having followed the instructions to the letter, according to herself. After this incident, censure and praise was given unpredictably.
“I never knew what a particular day would entail. I was deemed good and bad alternately.”
Julie says that she was bullied. Time and again, she was called into the professor’s office with its four chairs and large windows.
“I can still visualize the room. Remember all the times I wept in it. It’s rough thinking back upon.”
The PhD students in the research group racked their brains. Informing the leadership at the institution was out of the question.
“We knew that the leaders admired her. They would never side with us,” Julie says.
Julie defended her thesis and was subsequently helped by the professor to further her career. Furthermore, she adds, at times the professor could be very cordial and understanding. That contributed to Julie not choosing to leave.
When rumour of the toxic work environment started to spread in Oxford, Emily Holmes got a new post in Cambridge. New PhD students were recruited. One of them would later inform the leadership of her trying conditions. A decision was made that the PhD student would never again have to meet Emily Holmes alone.
Emily Holmes kept getting lots of articles published.
Karolinska Institutet got wind of her successes, noted that the professor Emily Holmes had Swedish roots and offered a part-time visiting professorship. The head of the department at that time, Bo Melin, professor of work psychology, was head of recruiting.
“We had heard a few rumours of difficulty in co-operation, but nonetheless, we pressed on. I should have been more diligent,” Bo Melin says today.
There were whispers of the harsh work environment in the professor’s research team at Karolinska Institutet as well. One of the former PhD students – we’ll call her Rebecka – recounts what happened at the turning point.
“I liked working with the professor at first. She was very capable and watched strictly over the ethical side of things. But when I turned in a text that she felt did not cut it, I received a telling-off that took me completely by surprise.
Rebecka says that Emily Holmes bestowed a completely new personality on her. She was supposedly weak and ill, unable to learn from criticism.
Several years later, Rebecka had left Karolinska Institutet and watched a documentary about the Christian sect in Knutby in Sweden. That was an epiphany.
“On the surface, everything is more than great. We were the chosen ones, the elite. But behind our closed doors a darkness filled with punishments and fear welled up.”
The leadership pondered how to handle the situation. A decision was made that one of the PhD students would not have to meet her advisor without supervision. After that, the problem solved itself. Emily Holmes announced that she had accepted full-time employment at the university of Uppsala. The management there had not bothered with references, just as at Karolinska Institutet. The university of Uppsala had applied a special provision in the higher education ordinance, which states that a professor of special standing may be recruited without advertising the post.
Several PhD students have testified to what happened after this.
“I was told that she had no confidence in me whatsoever. Then all hell broke loose. She berated until I wept.”
Another person describes punishments.
“At one point, she and I met 14 times per week. Everything I did had to be checked, since I was so incompetent.”
One of the researchers contacted the leadership of the department. Many were astonished. Several thought the professor was unusually pleasant. But this researcher was close to foundering, and the faculty made a quick decision about changing the supervisor.
Subsequently, the department was told that several people in the research group were not doing well. A written statement from another PhD student was turned in, but no one wanted to make a formal complaint. The faculty then sent out an anonymous survey concerning the work environment.
The results did not point in any direction. All result for all research groups were similar.
“I wasn’t assured the survey was truly anonymous. I only focused on getting the work done and leaving Uppsala forever,” one former PhD student says.
A person in a leading position at the department decided to look into the Emily Holmes’ past at Karolinska Institutet, and the suspicions were substantiated. But nothing happened in Uppsala.
Timo Hursti, prefect at the psychology department in Uppsala, feels that the department has done everything it could.
“If no one steps up, our hands are tied.”
He feels that Karolinska Institutet ought to have contacted them when the professor was recruited if there were known problems there.
Mats J Olsson, prefect at the department of clinical neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet, disagrees.
“Uppsala could have contacted us, but they never got in touch. Personally, I always call former employers before recruiting anyone”, he says.
In November last year, Emily asked to be allowed to recruit a new research assistent at the department in Uppsala. Nine days later, the position was announced.
In the ad: “Honest and plain communication is necessary for this position”.
Footnote: Emily Holmes has declined an interview but sent the following statement:
“I am deeply sorry to hear that the people you have interviewed felt bad, and feel very saddened to hear this. I would never wish for anyone at work to feel bad in anyway, and I welcome any issues to be raised at work with me so that any difficulties can be properly dealt with. I am fully committed to supporting those I work with and seek to do my best for them. I have only respect and well wishes towards people who have once been part of my research group, and continue to wish them and their careers well.”
1 “I tried to give notice, since I was completely stressed out. I was told that I only thought of myself and lacked empathy. Then she added that the world of research is small, which I perceived as a threat.”
2 “I neither told my husband nor my friends about how bad I felt at work. I was ashamed about not being good enough. Once I contacted the ombudsman for PhD students, but the only advice I got was to resign. I am still scared of making mistakes at my new place of work, and I apologize for all sorts of things.”
3 “Tasks were taken away from me. I did not understand why. I was also told that my name would be removed from an article. When I called this into question – I had worked my fingers to the bone for months – I was told to get out of her room.”
4 “All of us in the research team were told that we were better than everyone else, even world-leading in our field. This led to us isolating, and I started to look down upon other researchers. That might have been why I could bear being so humiliated later on.”
5 “When I finally fell apart in front of a colleague and told them how stressed I was, that I couldn’t stand being chewed out any more, my colleague was very understanding. That’s when I realized that it might not be me that was at fault. I had been working seven days a week for months on end and always carried my computer around to be able to answer questions quickly.”
6 “I knew that the report I had turned in wasn’t perfect and explained that I had family problems. That was apparently not an excuse, and after that, everything I did was wrong. My name was expunged from an article, and I could not do anything about it. I still attend therapy sessions.”
7 “I received lots of praise for a while, but then I was worthless. During one tongue-lashing I was told I would never succeed as a researcher on account of my poor writing skills. Since praise was mingled with criticism, I got more and more unsure of myself. I ended up in the emergency room with impaired vision.”
8 “I left the team bud didn’t dare to tell why I resigned – that I couldn’t stand being bullied any more – and blamed all on something else. My goal was to get out of there and save myself. I gave up my research career and will probably not return.”
9 “At one time it became known that we in the group had talked about one of us being bullied and that this was dreadful. We were all given an earful, since we were supposed to speak to her of any problems, not with each other. For a while, I was subject to this as well, since I allegedly had made a mistake even though I had followed all instructions.”
10 “She gave me tasks to do right off the bat, before I had even started work. This was presumably a test of my loyalty. The first week I overheard a researcher being told off through a closed door during a Zoom meeting. Each and every week someone on the research team was the special victim. I got palpitations of the heart because of all the stress.”
11 “I was called into her office where she waited with a hardcopy of my report. She started to mark everything she thought was bad with a red felt pen. When I tried to interpret the scribblings I missed a couple of things and had to start all over again. It could take ten versions before she was satisfied, and this was not to make me a better researcher but to walk all over me.”
You can read the Swedish version here.
The Swedish Media Council censures Psykologtidningen for this article
The Swedish media ethical system is non-compulsory and in no way connected to the judicial system.
The Swedish rules of publication are rules of thumb that give guidance on journalistic decisions, not rules of law. The rules aim to shield individuals from publicity damages over and above what is stipulated in law. This publication has been tried by the Swedish Media Council. They find fault with the publication of the articles for the following reason:
The Swedish Media Council censures Psykologtidningen for a series of articles in which a professor is designated a bully and accused of having systematically destroyed PhD students in their research group with dire consequences for the students’ mental health.
In a number of articles from January to March 2023, Psykologtidningen investigated allegations of bullying and grave working environment issues that were connected to a named professor at a Swedish university. The articles were published in issue 1 and 2 of Psykologtidningen and on the net.
Reporting party: “Grave personal and professional damage”
N.N. reported the publication of the articles through the aid of a solicitor. The magazine has described the reporting party in sweeping, generalizing, and disparaging terms. The reporting party has not had a chance to defend themselves. The magazine could have chosen to report the matter at hand at a more general level, without singling out the reporting party as a bully and a problem at the psychological institution at X University. The publications have had catastrophic consequences both in the reporting party’s personal life and in their professional role. Since the first article was also published in English, the matter has been disseminated widely internationally. Since the reporting party works professionally within the field of mental ill health and trauma, there is a heightened security risk. No formal complaints or accusations of bullying or abusive treatment have been made about the reporting party at any of the universities that they are and have been working at. The statements are anonymous. It was not clear whether the interviewees had a hidden agenda for making statements in the magazine.
The publicity damage that the reporting party has suffered is thus indefensible.
The magazine: Great public interest and a description of reality
Psykologtidningen gave its opinion through its chief editor and brought forward that the reporting party is one of the best-known scholars of psychology in Sweden and of excellent international repute. Psykologtidningen is a trade magazine, and the target audience holds a great interest in these reports. The testimonies of bullying originated from researchers who had been a part of the reporting party’s team of researchers and spanned several decades.
The magazine’s captions described reality, despite the terms that the dean and the employer wanted to use. It was clear from the article that an independent psychologist had interviewed the researchers in view of the publication by the magazine of testimonies of bullying. The investigator concluded that the members of the research team had been wronged, which also was clear from the article about the result of the investigation. In that article [which the report does not comprise, note from the Media Ombudsman, MO], the reporting party was not named, since the article was about how the employer had handled the situation.
The assertion that it is unclear to which extent the journalist has been heedful of any personal or commercial interests or motives for hurting or opposing the reporting party induced the following response: The magazine will not account for the grounds for publication.
Assessment of the Media Ombudsman
MO initially observes that there is a public interest in reporting alleged shortcomings in the working environment at an academic institution that is financed in part by the public. The individual statements give a unanimous impression of a problematic working environment. This is criticism that MO feels is inside of the scope of what the reporting party from a media ethical perspective must put up with.
MO further assesses that the magazine has had evidence for the facts that have been published in regard to the recruitment process of the reporting party and the assertion about the lack of obtained references. From this perspective, there is also no reason to find fault with the magazine.
But even if a scrutiny is relevant, is in the public interest, and the reporting party’s position entails having to stand a certain amount of criticism, there is a media ethical limit for what is possible to assert – directly or indirectly – about a person. The central question is whether the magazine has gone too far with the publication of certain statements.
The scrutiny that the magazine has conducted sheds light on an important topic, but it departs from relevancy in this aspect by portraying the reporting party in a very negative light by propounding far-reaching accusations and imputations that by their very nature has not been possible for the reporting party to refute, both pertaining to content and in a certain extent even with respect to the period from which the statements have been sourced. In the light of these facts, MO judges that the publication of such serious accusations have passed the media ethical line that the reporting party must tolerate.
Thus, the reporting party has suffered indefensible publicity damage. The fact that the reporting party has abstained from refutation apart from a written comment does not alter this conclusion.
The Swedish Media Council finds fault with the publications
The matter was presented to the Swedish Media Council, which has heard both the reporting party and the magazine.
Psykologtidningen has among other things stated that journalism which scrutinizes work environment issues are one of the key areas for the trade union press. If the Council aligns with the assessment of MO, it will in principle become impossible for any media to scrutinize violations and bullying in the workplace in future; if the violations do not lead to lead to any severe consequence for the workers, publication is also not relevant. If the violations lead to the victims feeling miserable, these consequences will not be possible to describe, which in turn leads to no publication. To sum up, the reporting party has alleged that the magazine should not have published the very serious and grave report the magazine did without being totally sure of the reliability of the information and questions the magazine’s source evaluation and intrusive reporting, which has resulted in excessive exposure of the reporting party without being necessary to describe the essential facts of the published articles in question.
The Swedish Media Council concurs with the assessment of MO and finds fault with Psykologtidningen for having been in violation of good journalistic practice.
This is a shortened version of the decision of the Council. The entire decision is available here.
Follow-ups (in Swedish):
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