What is the Right Response to Employer Misbehavior in Research?

I enjoyed my conversations with Timnit when she was in the MSR-NYC lab, so her situation has been on my mind throughout NeurIPS.

Piecing together what happened second-hand is always tricky, but Jeff Dean’s account and Timnit’s agree on a basic outline. Timnit and others wrote a paper for FAccT which was approved for submission by the normal internal review process, then later unapproved. Timnit threatened to leave unless various details about this unapproval were clarified. Google then declared her resigned.

The definition of resign makes it clear an employee does it, not an employer. Since that apparently never happened, this is a mischaracterized firing. It also seems quite credible that the unapproval process was highly unusual based on various reactions I’ve seen and my personal expectations of what researchers would typically tolerate.

This frankly looks bad to me and quite a number of other people. Aside from the plain facts, this is also consistent with racism and/or sexism given the roles of those involved. Google itself now faces a substantial rebellion amongst employees.

However, I worry about consequences to some of these reactions.

  1. Some people suggest not reviewing papers from Google-based researchers. As a personal decision, this is making a program chair’s difficult job harder. As a communal decision, this would devastate the community since a substantial fraction are employed at Google. These people did not make this decision and many actively support Timnit there (at some risk to their job) so a mass-punishment approach seems deeply counterproductive.
  2. Others have suggested that Google should not be a sponsor at major machine learning conferences. Since all of these are run as nonprofits, the lost grants will either be made up by increasing costs for everyone or reducing grants to students and diversity sponsorship. Reduced grants in particular seem deeply counterproductive.
  3. Some have suggested that all industry research in general is bad. Industrial research varies substantially from place to place, perhaps much more so than in academia. As an example, Microsoft Research has no similar internal review process for publications. Overall, the stereotyping inherent in this view makes me uncomfortable and there are some real advantages to working in industry in terms of ability to concentrate on research or effecting real change.

It’s critical to understand that the strength of the research community is incredibly valuable to the community. It’s not hard to imagine a different arrangement where all industrial research is proprietary, with only a few major companies operating competitive internal research teams. This sort of structure exists in some other fields, often to the detriment of anyone other than a major company. Researchers at those companies can’t as easily switch jobs and researchers outside of those companies may lack the context to even contribute to the state of the art. The field itself progresses slower and in a more secretive way due to lack of sharing. Anticommunal acts based on mass ostracization or abandonment could shift our structure from the current relatively happy equilibrium where people from all over can participate, learn, and contribute towards a much worse situation.

This is not to say that there are no consequences. The substantial natural consequences of a significant moral-impacting event will play out regardless of anything else. The marketplace for top researchers is quite competitive so for many of them uncertainty about the feasibility of publication, the disposition and competence of senior leadership, or constraints on topics tips the balance towards other offers. That may be severe this year, since this all blew up as the recruiting season was launching and I expect it to last over many years unless some significant action is taken. In this sense, I expect all the competitors may be looking forward to recruiting more than they were previously and the cost of not resolving the conflict here in a better way may be much, much higher than just about any other course of action. This is not particularly hypothetical—I saw it play out over the years after the silicon valley lab was cut as the brain drain of other great researchers in competitive areas was severe for several years afterwards.

I don’t think a general answer to the starting question is possible, since it will always depend on circumstances. Even this instance is complex with actions that could cause unintuitive adverse impacts on unanticipated parts of our community or damage the community as a whole. I personally hope that the considerable natural consequences here form a substantial deterrent to misbehavior in the long term. Please think this through when considering your actions here.

Edits: tweaked conclusion wording a bit with advice from reshamas.

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