Editors Picks Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Safeguarding children in the metaverse

Top academic experts debated the challenges with addressing online safety in the metaverse – as part of ongoing research designed to protect young people in virtual worlds

The concept of the metaverse has gained significant attention in recent years, promising digital worlds where users can interact, learn, create, and explore. As underlying technologies like generative AI, haptic suits and eye-tracking evolve, it becomes crucial to examine the impact of the metaverse on children’s experiences and address the concerns surrounding their online safety. Indeed, the VIRRAC (Virtual Reality Risks Against Children) research project, funded by REPHRAIN the national research centre on privacy, harm and adversarial influence online, aims to do this. It is led by Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Director of the Institute of Connected Communities (University of East London) and Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Director at the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS, Middlesex University), supported by Paula Bradbury, Dr Ruby Farr and Boglarka Meggyesfalvi In a recent roundtable discussion, chaired by Nina Jane-Patel, high-profile experts from various fields accepted our invitation and came together to share their insights and perspectives on this topic as part of the research project.

Embracing the Positive Aspects

Experts highlighted several benefits of the emerging technologies’ transformative potential, particularly of immersive experiences for children. Unlike traditional online and console platforms, being in the metaverse enables physically engaging experiences, approximating real-world social cues and interactions. The sense of embodiment offered by digital worlds makes them more inclusive, creating opportunities for neurodiverse individuals (autism spectrum disorder ASD) and those living with disabilities as it removes barriers to communication and fosters connection with others.

Challenges in Online Safety for Children

However, this new frontier is not without its risks. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to cyber bullying and harassment within digital environments. Although this is not a new issue, it is amplified within this immersive world designed to have maximum impact on users, which lacks consistent monitoring and reporting protocols/safety standards. The high level of anonymity encourages a subset of users to behave abusively towards others, creating unsafe spaces in which conflicts can accelerate quickly without any adequate guardian to intervene.

Griefing, a form of online harassment where users exploit game mechanics to intentionally upset others, is a prevalent issue. Other disturbing behaviours include the misuse of creative freedom to spread hateful messages and the initiation of virtual sexual assault incidents. Such instances can be particularly traumatic due to the high level of perceptual realism and embodiment associated with this technology. Sextortion, a form of blackmail in which sex acts are demanded in exchange for certain favours, including the reception of digital assets children often thrive for, is a growing concern too.

Moreover, age verification remains a challenge in virtual platforms, which often results in children accessing inappropriate content, entering 18+ spaces, or interacting with adults in ways they shouldn’t. Incidents have been reported when children as young as 9 years-old were abused in virtual private rooms, or taught gang language. During the roundtable, the importance of collaboration between platform providers was stressed, as well as the implementation of safety-by-design, and the need to provide caregivers and educators with comprehensive safety guidelines. Parents can find it challenging to oversee and understand what is happening with children in the VR headsets, so academics Dr Mohamed Khamis, Dr Mark McGill, and Cristina Fiani from the University of Glasgow are working to address the need to develop effective tools for safeguarding.  Tackling these risks means technology companies, experts, caregivers and regulators have to work together.

Impacts on Childhood Development

The integration of new technology into the fabric of our lives raises critical and mostly unanswered questions about its impact on child development. As Catherine Knibbs, an online harms and cybertrauma expert highlighted, every research ‘up until recently have all been pre-Internet and none of it has taken into account immersive technologies’. Children under the age of seven are typically learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Spending time in the 3D digital world at such a young age could lead to unforeseen effects on their cognitive development (processes of thinking and reasoning) and neuroplasticity (capacity for brain to rewire and change), including yet unrecognised triggers for imagination/witness trauma. Moreover, there is growing concern about the possible physical harm that prolonged use of VR headsets might inflict on developing eyesight.

These headsets, equipped with a variety of biometric sensors, collect a staggering amount of personal data such as motion or heartbeat data, that can provide unique insights into the users’ physical and mental state. Ensuring that this data is used responsibly, and at the minimum, especially when children are involved, should be a priority. The stakes are high, and understanding how to navigate this new reality safely, and setting age-limits responsibly, based on scientific evidence and ethical considerations is crucial for our children’s present and future well-being.

Unmasking the Vulnerabilities

Children with special education needs, those who have experienced (early life) trauma, have attachment difficulties, or those on the neurodiverse spectrum are particularly at risk in the vast landscape of the metaverse. As Catherine Knibbs, who provides therapy for young victims of online child sexual abuse highlighted that these vulnerabilities can be amplified due to their struggles with understanding relationships and deciphering harmful from benign interactions.

Young users often enter the digital realm naive, having started with a simple console or handheld device, and soon find themselves in more complex territories like VR games, often without sufficient adult guidance. Caregivers’ lack of understanding about internet connectivity and the capabilities of devices such as VR headsets increases the risk factors.

One of our experts, Shannon Pierson,  affiliate of the University of Cambridge’s Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy on XR cybersecurity, privacy, and governance subjects emphasised, regrettably, the metaverse is not a gender-neutral or race-neutral space. Disturbingly, research shows that female and minority avatars tend to be targeted more for online abuse, often experiencing abusive language. The severity and the nature of the harassment are often aligned with the user’s perceived gender and race.

Identifying Emerging Areas of Harm and Looking Ahead

As we peer into the horizon of emerging technologies, we must be mindful of the shadows cast by their potential for misuse. Platforms integrating generative AI tools are providing unprecedented freedom in creativity but also setting the stage for new ways of abuse. There’s also growing concern about the mental health implications for young people who suffer financial loss through cyber theft in the crypto and NFT space.

As technology continues to advance, some professionals dread the inevitable rise of haptic suits, which could drastically change the dynamics of sexual abuse in the metaverse. Situational threats for users, such as those posed by people in their physical vicinity while immersed in the digital space, also need addressing, as well as issues surrounding consent.

Another troubling trend has been noted among youngsters: these digital natives merge mixed reality gaming with other social platforms, for example playing in the metaverse but chatting on Discord or Telegram simultaneously. This can lead to uncheckable, toxic behaviours that often escalate to harmful extremes, including crashing people’s live streams, ‘swatting‘ and ‘doxing‘, instances that have already led to actual death in the offline world.

Exploring Solutions to Online Threats

Personal space boundaries, such as mute and block features, put the power of moderation in the user’s hands but may overwhelm young or distressed individuals and undermine the usefulness of reactive, user-reporting-based human moderation tools. To alleviate this burden, some academics and developers are working on automated moderation tools that could alert users or parents, and flag potential dangers or misbehaviours such as toxic speeches or virtual slappings. While these are not flawless yet, they represent a shift towards more proactive solutions.

The insights shared in this roundtable discussion shed light on the challenges and potential solutions associated with creating a safer metaverse for children. The VIRRAC project will continue to contribute to raising awareness and building a better digital future, based on empirical evidence. Children have the right to enjoy emerging technologies safely and participate in shaping how online spaces are designed for them. As a result, our team will capture children’s perspectives in order to develop an enjoyable, safe metaverse, and incorporate their opinions and experiences to develop practical safety guidelines.

Follow us on this journey to work towards an inclusive metaverse that offers exciting experiences while prioritising the well-being and safety of its youngest users.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo is an associate professor in Criminology at Middlesex University and the associate director of CATS, with extensive experience in researching subjects related to online harms and abuse against women and children. Elena has acted as an advisor on child protection to governments and practitioners in Lithuania, Italy and Bahrain to support the development of national child internet safety policy frameworks and led and co-led research project both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in criminology, she focuses primarily on online harms, online violence against children and women and online safety. She is an active member of the UK Centre for Internet Safety (UKCIS) and an expert advisor for EIGE on Cyber violence against Women and Girls, mapping national policies, research, data, and definitions on cyber violence against women and girls across the EU-27.

Elena delivers regularly expert training on online safety and prevention to professionals working in the online safety and sexual health area. As well as being the author of two books and more than 40 peer-reviewed articles, she regular speaks on national TV and in print media.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Professor Julie Davidson OBE

Prof Davidson is a professor of criminology and the director of the Institute for Connected Communities at the University of East London. She is one of the UK’s foremost experts on policy and practice in the area of children sexual abuse and exploitation and online harms. Alongside her role as chair of the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group, Prof Davidson provides expert advice to international and national organisations such as the Technology Coalition,  UNICEF, the US Sentencing Commission, the UN ITU, the Home Office and DCMS.

In addition, she is a member of the Europol  EC3 Expert Academic Advisory Group and is the Chair of the Research Ethics Committee to the Independent Inquiry into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. She has been an academic advisor to the Inquiry since it began in 2017.

Twitter: @JuliaDavidson13

Boglarka Meggyesfalvi

Boglarka Meggyesfalvi is a dedicated child protection professional with a commitment to safeguarding children and advocating for their rights. She holds a Master’s degree in Criminology and has recently embarked on her doctoral research. In her role as a researcher at CATS, Boglarka immerses herself in impactful research to advance knowledge in the field of child protection. Her expertise extends internationally, as she serves as a youth projects’ expert for EU initiatives, where she gains invaluable insights into empowering and supporting young individuals on a strategic level. Her diverse career has included positions in the Integrated Rights Protection Service of the Hungarian Home Office and various child protection NGOs across Europe and Latin America.

Twitter: @meggyesfalvi

Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

Editors Picks Home Categories Science & technology

It’s good to talk – the many methods and levels of communication

PhD student speaks about the differing forms of communication for humans and animals – and her experience of returning to university in her late 40s

If you’d asked me thirty years ago what I’d be doing during my 50th year on the planet, I’m fairly sure my answer wouldn’t have been “studying for a PhD”, but here I am at Middlesex University. I wasn’t able to complete my doctorate some years ago for health and personal reasons, but as the Universe/University has given me another shot at it as an (even more) mature student, I’m doing everything in my power to get it finished this time.

I’m studying how some tiny, insect-like animals of the Order Collembola communicate. Most people know them as springtails, except the ones I’m looking at don’t spring. The mechanism that allows this in most springtail species doesn’t function in my creatures.

One of the most important methods of communication in insects and similar creatures is through pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals secreted by an individual, that are then received and interpreted by others. They can act in a similar way to hormones but outside of the body, affecting the behaviour of receiving creatures. These pheromones trigger many different types of social responses including warning and alarm, trails to show where food is and mating signals.

I am investigating aggregation pheromones. These are used by seashore springtails to signal and form clusters before high tide, to shelter from the incoming waters. My research involves determining what the pheromone is made of, and how its signals are transmitted between the individual animals.

Research on communication plays an enormous role in studies of animal behaviour. Attempts to identify and translate the information exchanged in calls and signalling systems of countless animals of all shapes and sizes are continual, and pheromone or chemical communication is just a tiny part of this. Although non-human animals don’t communicate with what most people would consider language, the boundaries seem to increasingly blur as we learn more and more about the different characteristics of animal communication. And human language itself isn’t just about the words used. We use sounds, tone of voice, gestures, pictures, diagrams as part of our inter-personal communication.

During a recent seminar series, we looked at communication in Science; including who’s doing the communicating – and how. Scientists, teachers, publishers, politicians and policy makers, investors and advertisers, film makers and broadcasters, journalists, museums, the public and even bloggers are all communicating with variable levels of fact and fiction. Amongst other things it made me think about how many different types and levels of communication there are, even within my own small experience of the scientific world.

Although these days I’m usually found reading academic papers and writing thesis-type paragraphs, in the past I spent time as a primary school teaching assistant and a research student tutor, so I’ve had some experience of communicating knowledge to non-specialists. My earliest memories of doing this were with my mum during my undergraduate degree, and even while still at school.

My mum was very artistic having trained as a fashion designer but she was the first to admit she didn’t know much about science. Everything was interesting to her though, and I used to love explaining things to her, going through the stages of cell division, drawing diagrams on bits of scrap paper at the kitchen table. I’ve always thought it was the best way to learn something myself too because explaining something to someone else seems to help things stay in my own head. Sitting in the pub with colleagues sketching ideas on beer mats also seems to work in a similar way.

Speaking of sitting in the pub, we humans are pretty social animals and most of us enjoy being in groups, for work as well as social activities. We don’t even need to words to communicate our ideas to each other most of the time. For example, how often do we convey “call me” with a phone near our ear gesture, or “fancy a drink?” by raising an invisible glass to our face? We use many signals to alter the behaviour of others and coordinate it with our own, as do the springtails. Humans also form groups and clusters for protection.

And for that protection to be more than just short-term and physical, maybe making improvements to science communication could help protect us all through improving our understanding and finding solutions to our problems.

Picture shows Anurida maritima aggregating on the water surface Credit: Evan C,

Elise Michele Heinz is a PhD student in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Editors Picks Science & technology Social commentary

Content Moderators: The fire fighters of the internet

The Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) highlights the damaging impact that child sex abuse material can have on content moderators

            The dark corners of cyberspace can play host to the some of the most distressing images imaginable, including child sexual abuse material (CSAM), which is highly damaging not only to the children depicted in those images and videos, but also to those who review and remove such content. Unfortunately, the increase of digitalisation and online connectivity, has seen pressure on the tech industry, law enforcement agencies and other organisations to police the internet increase rapidly.

The growth in online sexual offending has had significant implications for those who are tasked with responding to such crimes. A recent online event hosted by the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University featured leading academics, practitioners and frontline responders, who all emphasised the  urgency in addressing the impact that exposure to CSAM and other potentially traumatic material has on the mental health of content moderators.

The aim was to share the preliminary findings of a project entitled ’Invisible Risks: Content Moderators and the Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse Materials’  which has been conducted by CATS over recent  years, with support and funding from the Tech Coalition and End Violence Safe Online Initiative.

In this blog, the event chair and Middlesex University criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo, with criminologist Dr Paul Bleakley, University of New Haven, highlight some of the key points raised in the webinar and share insights that may contribute to improving well-being for content moderators, no matter what type of organisation they may work for.

The first speaker of the event was child psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham, who has worked to support positive mental health in children and young people, and those who work with them, for many years, and served as a consultant on the ‘Invisible Risks’ project. Dr Graham invited the audience to reflect on the meaning of  occupational health in the content moderation field and, particularly, the concept of burnout. Dr Graham suggested that many of the challenges experienced in content moderation are not entirely new. He referred back to the 1960s and 1970s when the swift growth of international travel meant air traffic controllers were suddenly faced with inadequate equipment, changing shift patterns, long shifts without breaks, stress and fatigue of those long shifts, the monotony of automated work, and the challenges arising from using new technology. Because of these rapid changes in working conditions, many felt burnt out and, tragically, this poor state of well-being even resulted in several mid-air collisions. Dr Graham urges that this scenario is “what we need to be thinking about is when we’re looking at harms in the online world.” He continued that “understanding the impact of the work upon content moderators may have come late, but it is not too late to make changes, because we need these professionals to be able to work well and flourish.”

The next speaker, Denton Howard, the CEO of The International Association of Internet Hotlines (INHOPE), referred to content moderators as “first digital responders who put out the fire that is CSAM.”  He argued that no matter how cutting-edge innovative technology might be, the human eye is still instrumental in assessing and making the final decisions when it comes to responding to potentially harmful online content. He stressed “while the perception is that we’re technology driven and there is lots of fancy machines that do that [content moderation], behind that [technology] are the people, and unless we take care of the people, the machines won’t work and we won’t achieve what we’re supposed to do.” Whilst artificial intelligence continues to develop, Howard said it is not yet at the stage where it can make clear distinctions during the assessment of an image, and what response is warranted to that material. 

However, there is substantial evidence which suggests that constant surveillance of traumatic images can affect content moderators’ wellbeing, mental health, and quality of life. It can also have knock-on impacts on their professional competence, satisfaction, and productivity.  These arguments were supported by panellist Andy Briercliffe, an online child safety specialist who has spent more than 20 years in British law enforcement undertaking investigations into various types of serious internet crime. Andy shared some of his personal experiences, and outlined the impact that viewing harmful content may have on content moderators’ lives including (but not limited to) burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As Briercliffe noted, if we want content moderators to act as ‘fire fighters’ and ‘put out’ CSAM effectively, it is important that they are appropriately supported — that we understand their coping strategies and the organisational factors which may assist or hinder the efficacy of the coping mechanisms they utilise.

            Several of the same issues were raised by Dr Ruth Spence, a researcher in psychology at CATS who also served as the project manager of ‘Invisible Risks’. Following on from Briercliffe, Dr Spence presented some of the study’s preliminary results based on a survey conducted with 212 content moderators, and in-depth interviews with another 11. Dr Spence explained that more than a third of content moderators (34.6%) presented signs of experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress, which would ordinarily result in a referral for treatment and more than half (58.5%) showed signs of mild-to-low psychological distress, amounting to 93.1% of content moderators exhibiting indicators of distress on some level.

Dr Spence went on to observe that a high proportion of content moderators also experienced secondary trauma characterized by intrusive thoughts, avoidance, hyperarousal (e.g., sleep disturbance, hypervigilance), and other cognitive and/or emotional affects. Nonetheless, in spite of these profound challenges, Dr Spence also noted that content moderators seemed to cope relatively well with this distress, which the ‘Invisible Risks’ project seeks to explore further in order to determine appropriate intervention strategies.

            Paula Bradbury, a criminologist and senior researcher with CATS, presented the project’s findings on leadership in the content moderation industry, which highlighted the need for a leadership environment that is empathetic, shows appreciation for the work of content moderation, and an understanding of the challenges.

Ultimately, Paula said, content moderators did not want to be part of a profession that is hidden: they called for more networking opportunities which would allow the field to professionalise, more training opportunities, and more direct feedback on their job performance from leadership. She added content moderators also emphasised the importance of building “the right team” which they defined as one in which they could rely on teammates, and felt comfortable being open with them about their experiences, and concerns. Paula noted most content moderators interviewed referred to their professional colleagues as a “second family” that was bonded through the shared challenges faced in the course of their work. This second family was seen as essential to the coping strategies employed by moderators, and stands as an essential informal support system.

Professor Antonia Bifulco, co-founder and director of CATS, closed the event, highlighting that often when people hear about content moderation, they think that it is all dependent on complex technology, such as AI.

However, she continued, “this work is about people and it is important to ensure they are kept in the picture, as they are the people behind the technology that protects us from seeing disturbing content.”

As mentioned over the course of the event, practitioners are working with the material comparable to toxic waste, and Professor Bifulco added that “this work can involve moral injury. It’s about material that really offends your values and sense of what’s right and wrong.”

It is this type of material that content moderators are faced with on a daily basis and, as the early results of the ‘Invisible Risks’ project suggest, this may have a significant (and hidden) impact on their well-being and psychological health. With greater understanding of how the role of content moderator effects those performing said role, we will be better placed to offer evidence-based support to the industry, allowing content moderators perform their job effectively in a way that lessens the personal risk of harm.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo is an associate professor in Criminology at Middlesex University and the associate director of CATS, with extensive experience in researching subjects related to online harms and abuse against women and children. Elena has acted as an advisor on child protection to governments and practitioners in Lithuania, Italy and Bahrain to support the development of national child internet safety policy frameworks and led and co-led research project both in the United Kingdom and internationally.

Recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in criminology, she focuses primarily on online harms, online violence against children and women and online safety. She is an active member of the UK Centre for Internet Safety (UKCIS) and an expert advisor for EIGE on Cyber violence against Women and Girls, mapping national policies, research, data, and definitions on cyber violence against women and girls across the EU-27.

Elena delivers regularly expert training on online safety and prevention to professionals working in the online safety and sexual health area. As a published peer-reviewed author, she regular speaks in national TV and print media.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Dr Paul Bleakley

Dr Paul Bleakley is an assistant professor in Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, USA, with an expertise in policing, corruption and abuse studies. He has a particular focus on historical criminology, and especially the use of historical research methods to examine police corruption and cold case crimes. Dr Bleakley has written two books on this subject, Under a Bad Sun: Police, Politics and Corruption in Australia (2021) and Policing Child Sexual Abuse (2022). He has published his research in a range of leading journals such as Criminology & Criminal Justice, Critical Criminology, Deviant Behavior, Policing, and Criminal Justice Studies.

A former journalist, Dr Bleakley previously worked for Middlesex University.

Twitter: @DrBleaks

Editors Picks Health & wellbeing

Zero tolerance for bullying in healthcare?

Roger Kline, MDX Research Fellow, argues tackling bullying and harassment in healthcare must remain a priority and equal more than well-meaning statements of planned action

Five years ago, Duncan Lewis and myself estimated the bullying of NHS staff in England cost £2.3 billion per year – and this didn’t include the huge cost of presenteeism (working without being productive), incivility (rude behaviour), or the impact on bystanders. It took no account of primary care or national bodies and above all it did not include the immense cost to patient care. We were told “NHS bosses will be sacked if they fail to stamp out alarming bullying of hospital staff”. Since then the incidence of bullying, and the likelihood staff will report it, has remained at dangerous levels.

In the last NHS staff survey 11.6% staff reported at least one incident of bullying, harassment or abuse by a manager, whilst 18.7% reported at least one incident by another colleague.  Less than half (48.7%) said that they or a colleague even reported such incidents. Some groups of staff (disabled, LGBT and Black and Minority Ethnic staff) remain especially subjected to bullying, harassment and abuse whilst it is particularly high in some occupations, notably the ambulance service. We now also know how toxic rudeness is.

Bullying has been a key factor in patient care scandals driven by a cocktail of workload pressures, reorganisations, hierarchical cultures, and poor leadership which together create an organisational climate in which inappropriate and unacceptable behaviours become the “norm”. It is a serious problem for the NHS. It damages the health and wellbeing of staff.  It undermines organisational effectiveness, increases sickness absence, prompt presenteeism, and reduce discretionary staff effort and increasing turnover not only of those directly subjected to bullying and harassment but bystanders too.   It undermines effective team working, disrupts inclusive working, and negates psychological safety which in turn undermine the trust, collaboration and communication essential for good care.

If it is such a problem why have efforts to reduce it failed?

Almost seven years ago the NHS Call to Action on Bullying made little difference. NHS Employers bullying guidance (2006-2016) stated ‘employers can only address cases of bullying and harassment that are brought to their attention’.  This approach emphasised the importance of making it safe for staff to raise concerns, of having policies, procedures and training in place, often accompanied by leaders (and ministers) announcing “zero tolerance” of bullying.

But staff who are bullied and harassed are reluctant to formally complain because they either have no confidence it will make a difference or believe it will make things worse. I recall how, when visiting one NHS trust with poor staff survey bullying data, I was assured this data should be treated with a degree of scepticism as there were very few grievances lodged. I suggested this meant there was a further problem – staff saw little point in raising concerns or were afraid of the consequences of doing so.

Research finds the reliance on policies, procedures and training to be fundamentally flawed. An authoritative ACAS review concluded, for example

“while policies and training are doubtless essential components of effective strategies for addressing bullying in the workplace …….. research has generated no evidence that, in isolation, this approach can work to reduce the overall incidence of bullying in Britain’s workplaces.

The review added such an approach

“flies in the face of current research evidence about the limited effectiveness of using such individualised processes to resolve allegations of bullying and to prevent bullying behaviours.”

Organisational culture is shaped by formal organisational values and local policies; by values, behaviours and knowledge staff learn; and by how an organisation’s leaders behave. Culture is crucial in healthcare. Managing staff with respect and compassion correlates with improved patient satisfaction, infection and mortality rates, Care Quality Commission (CQC) ratings and financial performance.  

An inclusive climate (the antithesis of an inclusive one) is more likely to enable psychological safety and both are likely to positively influence speaking up and may be particularly helpful in the hierarchical environments common in healthcare where it may minimise the effect of status on psychological safety within teams and give legitimacy to voice. Inclusive teams treat relational intelligence (kindness, emotional intelligence) as being important as rational intelligence (regulation, measurement and efficiency) further enabling those benefits.

Using formal grievance procedures to tackle bullying is rarely effective. Employees who “win” often find they have to “move on” whilst employers find underlying causes are rarely addressed. My own field work suggests staff who do raise bullying concerns want bad behaviours to stop rather than to lodge formal grievances. Grievance, discipline and whistleblowing procedures which are often linked to bullying concerns risk a punitive and adversarial approach driven either by an eye on possible litigation – or the silencing of the person raising a concern.

There is an alternative, but no magic solution. The NHS has shown a growing interest in data-driven early informal intervention – a “public health” approach to toxic culture. The ‘professionalism pyramid’ developed by Vanderbilt University’s Center for Professionalism and Patient Advocacy, for example, emphasises discussing unprofessional behaviour at the first signs of it and providing support for the individual to change whilst emphasising the need for interventions to escalate if unprofessional behaviour persists or worsens. A review found the majority of professionals “self-regulate”. 

Such informal early action, appears to rely on managers, senior staff, HR and staff as a whole:

  • Being clear about the importance of responding to low intensity or one-off behaviours such as rudeness and interpersonal conflict;
  • Having the confidence, skills and time to make effective informal early interventions.
  • Having (and be seen to have) the active support of senior leadership modelling such behaviours

Without those preconditions being in place staff may fear becoming a target themselves, or making things worse. Early research on the impact of bystanders emphasised “the relevance of workplace relationships and managerial ideology in influencing bystander decisions, actions and outcomes. “

Another element of early intervention may be the use of mediation but ACAS advise caution against using mediation as a universal “fix” especially where there are stark power imbalances between the parties.

Research on whistleblowing (a frequent way of staff raising concerns about bullying and harassment) by Megan Reitz and colleagues concludes

“leaders…..are focusing their attention and efforts predominantly on those who feel silenced, urging them to ‘be brave’, ‘speak up’ and have the ‘courageous conversations’ that are required…….We need to stop trying to ‘fix the silenced’ and rather ‘fix the system’.”

Reitz then argues

“instigating whistleblowing lines and training employees to be braver or insisting that they speak up out of duty, will achieve little therefore, without leaders owning their status and hierarchy, stepping out of their internal monologue and engaging with the reality of others.”

In whistleblowing, in discrimination and in bullying (which often overlap) what leaders do, and don’t do, is what drives culture, not what they say. There certainly are some NHS leaders who behave like corporate psychopaths. But many others want to do the right thing but hesitate or struggle.

Accountability is crucial. The approach to workplace culture in Mersey Care NHS FT suggests some principles we might draw on, acting wherever early, informally, using data and soft intelligence to be preventative and proactive with an emphasis on learning not punishment. Recent resources from NHS England helpfully build on elements of that approach in tackling incivility and rudeness at work.

Finally, there is much talk about “allyship” in tackling discrimination. This approach applies equally to bullying and harassment. It should not (must not) be left to those who are bullied and harassed to have prime responsibility for tackling their abuse. It is for leaders to step up and for all of us as colleagues to do the same, early and informally wherever possible, robustly where that is not possible. Crucially, we must draw on the evidence relying primarily on policies, procedures and training is simply not good enough and, in isolation, simply will not work.

Roger Kline is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School

Editors Picks Home Categories Law & politics Science & technology

The freedom to think: stating the obvious?

MDX legal academic Beth Shiner explains how the freedom of thought, which is the foundation of all rights, has been impacted by the rise of technology ahead of an international virtual symposium

The right to freedom of thought is recognised as a distinct right in international human rights treaties and in domestic law across multiple jurisdictions. But the case law, scholarship, and commentary on the right to freedom of thought is relatively sparse. Perhaps this is because no one can stop us from thinking or even know what we are thinking. Or, because it is without practical application. Finally, as Bublitz argues, it has been neglected because it is an absolute right and courts are hesitant to make use of such a powerful tool for fear of creating undesirable precedents. But, if it so self-evident, why did the drafters of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and almost every human rights instrument since, both include the right and discuss what it meant? More than just symbolic, the right has been described as “sacred” and the foundation of all other rights.

During the drafting of Article 9 European Convention on Human Rights, it was stated by the French Rapporteur, Pierre-Henri Teitgen, that the purpose of the right to freedom of thought, as well as the right to freely express convictions, and freedom of conscience, religion and opinion, is to protect individuals not only from breaches by Member States, such as confessions, but also from the “abominable methods of police enquiry or judicial process which rob the suspected or accused person of control of his intellectual faculties and of his conscience”. Nevertheless, the right has been almost completely overlooked in favour of its favoured siblings: freedom of expression, conscience, religion, and privacy.

More recently, scholars and lawyers have begun to pay increasing attention to this right, especially in the context of socio-technological transformations (e.g. Blitz and Bublitz; Alegre), including neuroscience. There is also a concern about the high rate of data collection and analysis for use in algorithmic decision-making in our everyday lives that might undermine human autonomy – the basis, it may be argued, for the right to freedom of thought itself. That such concerns have particular potency in politics deserves attention although there still has not been a single case before the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights nor the Supreme Court of any country (that we know of) other than Spain, that engages with the question of whether, and to what extent, algorithmic decision-making might be undermining the free exercise of our political agency.

Technology provides an interesting test case for how the right might apply and to what extent, but it does not allow us to appreciate the varying social, cultural and legal contexts in which the right may, or may not be, protected right now. For example, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief published the first ever UN report on the right to freedom of thought and identified seven areas where the right might already be engaged – not only in futuristic technological scenarios. These areas are:

  1. torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  2. surveillance
  3. coercive proselytism, anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy efforts
  4. intellectual freedom and education
  5. existing and emerging technologies
  6. mental health
  7. conversion practices

Furthermore, we are being to see the right take shape as its (tentative) scope looks to be four-fold: (a) freedom not to disclose one’s thoughts; (b) freedom from punishment for one’s thoughts; (c) freedom from impermissible alteration of one’s thoughts; and (d) an enabling environment for freedom of thought (UN A/76/380, 2021). However, this is just the beginning and much more needs to be examined before this right can be relied on.

International Symposium on the Right to Freedom of Thought: Call for Participants

The literature on the legal contours of the right to freedom of thought is sparse. For this reason, we will be hosting an international virtual symposium on the right to freedom of thought at 12noon UK/Irish time on Wednesday 23 November 2022. The purpose of the event is to sketch out the legal status and applicability of the right to freedom of thought across multiple jurisdictions. We are seeking expressions of interest from potential participants. We are eager to hear from lawyers in as many different jurisdictions as possible but are particularly interested in hearing from lawyers in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania.

The purpose of the symposium is to sketch out the legal status and applicability of the right to freedom of thought, which might be contained in a national bill of rights or a regional human rights treaty. Our plan is that this event will be the first step in a larger research project on the right to freedom of thought, which will lead to an edited comparative study of the interpretation and protection of the right. For more information, please see the attached flyer.

Bethany Shiner is a member of faculty at the School of Law, Middlesex University, London, and a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, UK.

Patrick O’Callaghan is a member of faculty at the School of Law, University College Cork, Ireland.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Editors Picks Social commentary

A risky business: Moderating the content on the war in Ukraine

Destroyed buildings on streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 3 (Deposit Photos)

Online abuse experts from Middlesex University explain why social media content moderators have a crucial role to play after Russia invaded Ukraine

*If you are a content moderator and want to get in touch please email:

The invasion of Ukrainian by Russian forces again underlines the power and reach of big technology companies such as Meta (formerly known as Facebook), YouTube and Tik Tok. It is through their platforms that the world will learn and react to the growing crisis. They have more power than believed, wielding the ability to keep or take down content, ultimately shaping public opinion as the war progresses. Gone is their ability to remain placid or neutral in on-going global crises. These organisations are critical agents in the dissemination and transfer of (mis)information, whether that be active or passive. Their decisions can greatly influence how events are perceived, regardless of how they have truly unfolded.

The recognition of social media’s power to influence and persuade society has led to companies such as Meta and Google facing pressure from governments on all sides of the conflict to either ban or remove content they view as misleading. Russia has banned Instagram and accused Meta of being an ‘extremist’ organisation, whilst European leaders have put pressure on social media platforms to block Russian state-controlled media. Ukraine has gone so far as to appeal directly to social media companies to block their services in Russia. It is a double-edged sword: if companies do too much, it may lead to calls of censorship and blocking free speech, but doing too little may leave them open to accusations of undermining democracy and human rights.  A lot of the content published on these platforms is being generated by their users (also termed UGC or user-generated content) and is often unregulated, requiring continuous monitoring. Social media companies can partly rely on artificial intelligence (AI) to assist, but ultimately it is their content moderators (CMs) who are at the coal face in shaping how the conflict is perceived to play out. They are the ones who monitor content posted and apply their company’s rules which define what is and is not accepted. CMs or First Digital Responders as they can be known are the individuals who protect us from exposure to harmful and traumatic content.

Rescue service worker near a house destroyed by Russian rocket in Kyiv (Deposit Photos)

At the best of times, content moderators are under pressure to view and then respond to high volumes of content with accuracy. Workers whose performance dips below certain levels are at risk of losing their jobs. In the current climate, where company performance is heavily scrutinised by governments and regulatory bodies, they find themselves at the centre of highly-charged political debates. This puts pressure on companies to demonstrate their capability to police themselves, and that they can use the technology at their disposal as a force for good. However, delivering these goals is left to the frontline moderators, where the pressure to deliver is likely to be increased. Every error in moderation may result in genuine posts being removed, accounts being suspended for reasons unclear, or leave fake posts untouched, leading to the spread of misinformation and false narrative, viewed by millions.

We can assume that content moderators are currently being exposed to and overwhelmed by war footage emerging from the Ukrainian conflict. This is likely to include violent and bloody content which they will have to watch, analyse and decide whether it is genuine or part of the swathes of disinformation they will be asked to identify. This is difficult to do, especially as techniques for producing fake footage have become increasingly sophisticated. Often individuals or organisations with specialist knowledge are needed to identify fakes. Content moderators are a global workforce, often hired as contractors and paid minimum wage, and it is unfair to expect them to understand every subtle cultural differences in a complex conflict.

There will no doubt be a lag between the tsunami of content they are moderating, and the development of official policy regarding where freedom of speech and expression end, and censorship begins. This will be followed by a waiting time, whilst decisions are translated into actionable policies for content moderators. For instance, Twitch has recently announced updated policies regarding channels that spread misinformation and Facebook have instituted a temporary change in policy that allows users in some countries to post content that is usually forbidden. This is just one part of the complex process, with reports that policies are often developed in stages or adapted on the fly. In part, this is because situations evolve, and posts can be unclear, allowing for multiple interpretations of the same information. This inevitably increases the opportunity for disagreements about moderation decisions and adds to moderator uncertainty.

People hide in a metro station in Kyiv on February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion (Deposit Photos)

These imprecise processes do not help content moderators faced with reviewing content and rapid decision making. They may find they are left to carry out their tasks with little official guidance and support, while always thinking about the threat of losing their low paid jobs if they get things wrong. For example, should a violent video that normally would be removed remain publicly available due to the political importance attached in highlighting realities on the ground in Ukraine? Should videos or posts that can be used to identify and track troop movements be removed? Are videos falsely claiming to be from the current conflict actually misinformation that needs removing? These are challenging questions during a very difficult time.  

Despite the illusion these platforms give of being places for free speech, they wield their power to carefully curate according to internal policies that are driven by corporate concerns. As such, the processes social media platforms use to decide whether posts should be allowed to stay up, or which accounts can remain active, remain frequently not transparent to their users and  those who work outside the organisation. In the days ahead whilst the conflict continues, hopefully this will not also be the case for their content moderators.

About the authors

Dr Ruth Spence

Dr Ruth Spence is a Research Fellow at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Ruth uses quantitative and online methodologies to research trauma and attachment, working with partners in the third sector, police, and industry.  She is currently project manager on a research study funded by the Technology Coalition to investigate the impacts of the role on content moderators.

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Elena has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena. Elena’s research includes online stalking, exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse. Elena has emerged as a leading researcher and global voice in the field of child protection, victimology, policing and cybercrime. She is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. Elena has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) and Bahrain (2016) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework

Jeffrey DeMarco

Jeffrey DeMarco is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Senior Fellow with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. His expertise has generally focused on the behavioural understandings of those who are at high risk of exploitation and abuse, applying care and support to those who may be vulnerable being drawn into crime and deviance. The majority of his work explores the intersection between psychology and the online space, including work for the European Commission in enhancing the policing of online sexual abuse; investigating youth justice systems responses to digital risks for UNICEF across the MENA region and eastern Africa; improving partnership between local communities and military in conflict zones using social media, including Iraq and Afghanistan; and assessing the psychopathology of adolescent victims/offenders of many forms of cybercrime. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and the Assistant Director, Knowledge & Insight at Victim Support. 

Business & economics Editors Picks

How seriously are companies taking their reporting under the Modern Slavery Act?

New research by MDX academics suggests companies focus on the risk to their reputation instead of labour rights when following laws on Modern Slavery

As a lesser known element of the agenda to deal with ‘modern slavery’ (commonly seen as a problem of people trafficked into the UK to work under ‘unfree’ conditions) has been a reciprocal concern over the abuse of workers in overseas operations of companies in the supply chains of UK companies. To this end, the Modern Slavery Act 2015: section 54 (MSA) was introduced to entice companies to ‘get to know’ their supply chains more. Specifically it requires companies to report on what actions they are taking to uphold supply chain labour rights in an ‘Annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement’ (ASHTS).

However, new evidence from a study by a Middlesex University research team led Dr Sepideh Parsa and Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi together with Dr Ian Roper from Essex University, suggests that this ‘soft law’ approach may be granting companies with too much flexibility, leading to inconsistencies in reporting where many challenges and complexities related to labour rights never get reported.  

While concerns have been voiced before over the credibility of information reported on ASHTS, little has been known on how companies select and focus on their reporting options. So researchers carried out a detailed examination of the largest 100 companies’ statements to shed light on some of the nuances in their reporting.

The research team developed a comprehensive index. Under the MSA, companies have the option to report on a number of categories. Based on these together with the recommendations by the CORE (2017), the team concentrated on five main categories: Organisation and Structure of supply chains (OS), Due Diligence (DD), Risk Assessment (RA), Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies (CPS) and Training and Collaboration (TC).

Each category included sub-categories that were informed by the recommendations of the CORE (2017) and in consultation with The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

The findings revealed that just over half of the companies prioritised reporting on their Risk Assessment and Due Diligence processes, followed by Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies and then Organisation and Structure of their supply chains being reported by similar number of companies. Upon closer examination of the two latter categories, reporting on CPS were closely linked with reporting on RA and DD processes (Figure 1). The hierarchy of priorities reported suggests, maybe unsurprisingly, an emphasis on those issues which are of more concern to investors, with an emphasis on risk to reputation, rather than to other institutional stakeholders – for example those concerned directly with labour rights. These three aspects (RA/DD/CPS) were at the epicentre of reporting, forming a strong, mutually supporting triangular relationship (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Correlations between different reporting categories

Notes: Figures in brackets show the percentage of companies reporting on each category.

Falling outside the reporting focus, Organisation and Structure of Supply Chains was linked, but to a much lesser extent, to RA and CPS. For example, only 60% of companies that raised their reporting on their RA or on their CPS also provided more information on the Organisation and Structure of their Supply Chains (OS). Details on how companies organised and structured their supply chains, especially in geographical locations that were identified as being at ‘high risk’ to violations of human rights combined with the challenges companies can face in certain areas were unreported. These were often in areas that fell outside their national jurisdiction. Similarly, just more than half of companies (57%) that increased reporting on the organisation and structure of their supply chains enhanced their information provisions on their due diligence processes. This conveys further hesitation by companies to disclose details about those part of their supply chains that were more at risk and hence had due diligence processes specifically devised for them.   

Maintaining a low profile on their supply chains is an illustration of companies’ reluctance to draw attention to challenges and problematic areas that may be hard to resolve within a business context or simply too complex and politically too sensitive to report on. In the UK regulatory environment for corporate governance where shareholders’ interests are prioritised, releasing information that may lead to uncertainties could adversely affect share prices, so there is an incentive for companies to avoid drawing attention to problematic areas. While this can be acceptable in the absence of any mandates for reporting on complex and sensitive issues, the same justification somehow falls short of explaining why companies made limited efforts to report on their Training and Collaboration programmes, where solutions could potentially be proposed to address problems identified.  

Training and Collaborations was the least reported category. Companies remained largely silent about their collaborations with external organisations, such as trade unions or labour NGOs. All this raises questions over how in-depth corporate efforts have been in finding out and understanding and dealing with challenges they face on this labour-rights issue, or how willing they have been in reporting on such efforts. It is unclear how much effort has been put into raising and changing corporate awareness and culture on labour rights issues and whether or not all the relevant issues have been identified and responded to. This can ultimately have implications for how risks are managed and due diligence processes are devised.

While it is convenient to prescribe the need for companies to engage with external ‘social partners’ who can inform their processes, we need to learn a lot more about sensitive labour issues along companies’ supply chains, especially those aspects that were often in geographical areas outside companies’ national jurisdictions with circumstances that are outside their expertise and their business remits. While Sepideh and her team remain critical of ‘soft law’ approaches, unless we know more about supply-chain challenges and complexities, any attempt to take a harder regulatory approach would be meaningless. 

The whole report is available online.  For any queries, please contact:

About the authors

Dr Sepideh Parsa is Associate Professor of accounting in the Accounting and Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.
Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi is Researcher and Associate Lecturer in Accounting & Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Editors Picks Home Categories Science & technology Social commentary

New perspectives on evolutionary theory revealed

Tom Dickins, a Professor of Behavioural Science, has written a new book which explains how popular theories on evolutionary biology have changed in modern times

The Modern Synthesis was a long period of theoretical development in evolutionary biology that began with the invention of population genetics in the 1900s. A key innovation was Fisher’s analogical use of the ideal gas laws to envisage a population of particles, or genes, randomly bumping into one another. Just as with atoms these genes would remain in equilibrium until some external force changed that – natural selection was such a force. This analogy enabled a statistical synthesis between Mendel’s views of particulate inheritance and Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution whilst reinterpreting evolution as changes in gene frequencies within a population.

Evolutionary ideas

The Modern Synthesis also saw the removal of some older evolutionary ideas including those from Lamarck. Lamarck argued that developmental processes could be induced within an individual as a response to the environment. Development could lead to new and useful forms that would be inherited and would thus persist. Darwin had replaced this definition of evolution with one where successful trait variants were retained at the population level because more individuals with those variants survived and reproduced. Unsuccessful variants were removed. But Darwin did allow a role for transformation in the generation of new variation. Population genetics removed Lamarckian transformation entirely relying instead upon genetic variation and the outcome of selection. During the Synthesis additional processes were included, such as genetic drift, but all reorganized the constitution of the population without reliance upon a theory of development.

The role of developmental biology

The removal of Lamarck and the redefinition of evolution as a population level process meant that evolutionary biology was no longer a theory of form. This change has not gone unnoticed, and contemporary scholars have begun to look again at the role of developmental biology in evolution.  Some have explicitly called for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis that will incorporate mechanistic theories of form. In doing this these scholars are arguing both for new models of the emergence of useful variation and for new types of inheritance, most especially through developmentally induced transgenerational epigenetic effects.

A central argument of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis is directed toward what is referred to as gene-centrism.  During the latter stages of the Synthesis, in the 1960s, biologists began to model genes as agents whose goal is to replicate across the generations. To achieve this goal, genes contribute to traits that enable the survival and reproduction of the organisms they find themselves in. Genes, as replicators, can span many, many generations. Bodies, as vehicles for those genes, are mortal. This heuristic captured sophisticated mathematical modelling that allowed biologists to address central questions about the emergence of social behaviour, leading to the development of inclusive fitness theory. The replicator-vehicle view saw genes as packets of information, transmitted across generations, and conveying instructions for a developmental program. For many critics this view was taken as preformationist, as an assertion that the gene contained everything and should be privileged in causal models of form.

In my book The Modern Synthesis: Evolution and the Organization of Information (pictured above) I give a detailed history of the Synthesis. I argue that the use of information concepts during this period, and since, has been informal and that this informality has enable a reified view of information to emerge. By this I mean that in colloquial terms scientists have talked as if information is something to be harvested and to be transmitted, and this in turn has allowed a view that information can have causal powers. This has much to do with misinterpretations of Shannon’s 1948 mathematical theory of communication, a theory that emerged just prior to information concepts in biology. Shannon’s work is often treated as a theory of information when in fact it was really a theory of data that enabled the quantification of information. I give the detail of this position and offer what I consider to be a more appropriate interpretation where information is seen as a functional outcome of the relationship between data (as input) and a context (or system) into which it is inputted.

Genes are data

Taking this contextual view of information, I then show how genes, or more precisely DNA codons, are to be seen as data that plays a role in protein synthesis contexts. I show how this view is inherent in the writings of the Modern Synthesis, but also how it enables us to make sense of development within evolutionary biology. Genes are causally prior in developmental sequences, but not conceptually central. Claims that the late-stage Modern Synthesis was gene-centric with respect to development are thus shown to be overwrought.  More technically, I then spend several chapters investigating key aspects of the developmental challenge to the Modern Synthesis, showing how each mechanistic theory is entirely compatible with the Synthesis under a correct view of information.

The central claim of my book is that evolutionary processes enable the organization of information by selecting for data-context relationships. Life is fundamentally informational. But the book is also a defence of the Modern Synthesis, and I close by discussing how such large scale, framework theories act to corral and constrain multiple bespoke theories. Developmental biology is in the business of explaining the development of multiple different systems. It is unlikely that all these theories will cohere under one developmental framework, but as complex data processing systems they can all be made sense of in terms of evolution. In this way evolutionary theory provides an account not of specific forms but instead of the kinds of form that development must deliver.

The book is available online and all Middlesex University staff and students can access the book here.

Top photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

Business & economics Education

Creating a supportive research culture

Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University. Since joining the Middlesex University Business School, Anne-Wil has been working with colleagues to foster a more supportive and collaborative research culture. Here, she outlines some of the strategies that have proven successful.

After spending thirteen years in Australia at the University of Melbourne as PhD director, Assistant Dean RHD and Associate Dean Research, I was looking for a new challenge. Rather than join another traditional research university, I wanted to work somewhere where I felt I could make a real difference. Middlesex University Business School in London fit the bill perfectly, with its strong focus on research that matters – both to society and to its students – and a vision that focuses squarely on “transforming potential into success.”

Middlesex is a post-1992 university. Hence initially its main focus had been on its teaching mission. However, over the years its research performance continued to grow. In 2014 it was ranked #38 on the REF power ranking for Business & Management in the UK (out of 101 universities). It was the 2nd ranked post-1992, very narrowly pipped by Portsmouth. It also outranked a lot of “red-brick” universities and even a few Russell group universities. Even so, its strong academic staff potential meant that there was considerable scope to improve even further; in 2014 I was therefore appointed to help transform its research potential into success.

Collective research support initiatives

Working closely with Deans Anna Kyprianou and Joshua Castellino, Research Deans Richard Croucher and Stephen Syrett and Departmental Research leaders we set out to provide an even more supportive environment for research in the Business School, actively fostering a collaborative rather than a competitive research culture. This didn’t mean spending bucket-loads of money, but rather to develop a range of targeted, but strategic initiatives. In addition to the “standard fare” of research allowances, conference funding, a research leave scheme, departmental research seminars, and departmental newsletters, this included:

  • Research Facilitation Funding: Academics can apply for seed-corn funding (up to £2,500) for developing impact, small research projects, knowledge transfer, and larger funding proposals, as well as feeding research into teaching. To date over fifty projects have been supported.
  • Research Clusters: Support to develop new and existing research groupings within the Business School and across the University to facilitate collaboration in funding applications, research networks, impact, knowledge exchange and published outputs. 
  • Research lunches/coffees/teas: An informal – walk in walk out – monthly platform to discuss anything related to research. Features updates by the Research Dean, Research & Cluster Leaders, and Q&A. Allows academics to get to know colleagues [especially outside their own department] and find research collaborators.
  • Staff development groups: 6-weekly opt-in meetings for five groups of 5-8 academics, with the specific group size and composition varying depending on availability. These meetings are explicitly multi-purpose/­flexible in format. We provide feedback on each other’s draft papers, research ideas, and R&Rs. However, meetings also serve as a forum to meet new colleagues, solicit advice, and have (un)scheduled discussions on any academic topics. Every round is supported by a follow-up email with collated resources related to the topics discussed in the five meetings. This means everyone benefits from the discussions in each of the groups even if they haven’t been able to attend one of the rounds.
  • Research methods skills development: A range of research methods training courses on topics such as action research, multi-dimensional scaling, econometric methods, working with big data. Usually organized by one of the Research Clusters.
  • Wider academic skills development seminars on topics such as Networking and External Engagement for Academic Success, Publishing in Management Education journals and How to ensure your research achieves the impact it deserves.

Individual support for academic career development

These collective events are supplemented with individual career development meetings for junior staff, as well as “on-tap” email support for quick questions and advice on anything related to academic work. From March 2016 onwards, these efforts have been supported by my blog on all things academia, with postings in the following categories: Academia Behind the Scenes, Academic Etiquette, Announcements, Classic Papers, Conferences, CYGNA, From my Inbox, Middlesex, Positive Academia, Publish or Perish Tips, Research Focus, and That’s Interesting. In the first three years the blog has seen more than 170 postings, including guest posts by some of my co-authors and Middlesex colleagues.

Taking it to the next level: Writing bootcamp

In 2018, we decided to take to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising a Friday-to-Sunday off-site writing boot camp. This boot camp was intended to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field to fine-tune and polish their papers. Thus in the third week of January eighteen academics spent a wonderful weekend at the amazing Cumberland Lodge working on their papers, an experience which was repeated in July with another twenty-three academics.

The feedback provided by the attendees illustrates that the supportive atmosphere in which these events were run was much appreciated. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each other’s papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cutthroat competition!

“I really appreciate the opportunity to interact with colleagues (junior and senior) during both formal working time and ‘informal’/social time (at meals and in the evenings). Equally important, the boot-camp really strengthened my sense of belonging to a supportive research community at MUBS. Thank you so much for engendering this core aspect to help build my confidence professionally.”

 “The best thing for me was the non-judgemental nature of the bootcamp. No one needed to get nervous of their own work. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging each other to reflect on and sharpen their arguments, and presenting the best work possible for their target journals. Everyone shared their work and their thoughts about their papers freely, knowing that they will get constructive feedback from peers and mentors.”

CYGNA: Supporting Women in Academia Network

A lot of my female Middlesex colleagues are also participating in CYGNA, a network supporting female academics in the broad area of Business & Management. CYGNA is meeting five times a year at different London-based universities for half-day events, with seminars focusing on academic and personal development as well as plenty of opportunities for networking.

A quick overview of all the topics covered can be found here. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. In May 2019 we’ll have our first “branch” meeting in Leeds and we will celebrate our 5th year anniversary with a full-day writing bootcamp at Middlesex University in September 2019.

A bumper year for international research rankings

Obviously it is impossible to conclusively establish a direct link between investing in a supportive and collaborative research culture and improved research outcomes. That said, it is probably no coincidence that Middlesex University in general – and the Business School in particular – have dramatically improved their position in the two major international research rankings: the Times Higher Education ranking and the ARWU Shanghai ranking.

Times Higher Education – Success all around

Middlesex University was featured in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking for the first time three years ago when the list was expanded from 400 to 800 universities; Middlesex debuted in the 600-800 band. We quickly moved up to 501-600 in 2017, to the high 400s of the 401-500 band in 2018 and to the low 400s of the same band in 2019. We are hoping to rank in the top-400 in the 2020 ranking, which will come out in September 2019.

Figure: Middlesex THE ranking 2016-2019

Likewise, we entered the THE Young Universities ranking for universities under 50 years of age when it was expanded from 100 to 150 universities in June 2016. Although we have been ranked in the 101-150 band for the last three years, we have moved up within that band every year. It therefore looks like we are on track to be ranked in the top-100 in June 2019. We might even become the top-ranked UK University in the Young Universities ranking.

In the 2019 THE ranking, Middlesex also ranked for the first time in no less than three of the four main disciplines that we are active in: Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities and Clinical, Pre-clini­cal & Health, with a world-wide top-300 ranking for the Social Sciences. We also ranked in four of the five specialised subject rankings that THE publishes: Computer Science, Business & Economics, Education, and Psychology, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Law because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

ARWU Shanghai ranking – Business School success

Since August 2018 we are also ranked in the ARWU Shanghai top-1000 universities worldwide. This is a remarkable achievement given that 70% of the ranking is determined by criteria such as publications in Science and Nature and Nobel Prize winners amongst staff and alumni. These criteria do not tend to favour the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Engineering, disciplines that make up the bulk of our research activity. Universities highly ranked in the general ARWU ranking typically have a strong presence in the Life Sciences and Natural Sciences, disciplines that are not substantively represented at Middlesex.

As a result, the ARWU Shanghai subject rankings are a much better yardstick for our research performance. These rankings focus largely on Web of Science publications, field-normalised citations, international collaborations and the number of publications in a small set of top journals in each field. In 2018, Middlesex was ranked in no less than seven of the eight subject rankings related to Business School: Management, Business Administration, Tourism, Economics, Law, Sociology and Political Science, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Finance because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

Figure: Middlesex ARWU Shanghai ranking for Sociology

We are the only post-92, and one of only ten universities in the UK overall, to be ranked in all seven subject areas. In Management, Business Administration, Tourism, and Sociology, we rank on par or even above many redbrick universities, as well as quite a few Russell group universities. The screenshot above shows our ranking in Sociology, reflecting Middlesex’s strong focus on the Sociology of Work, with research topics such as return migration of highly skilled migrants, the living wage, modern slavery, corporate citizenship in South Africa, microfinance and women’s empowerment, social security and welfare reform, and social and sustainable enterprises.

These research topics reflect another thing that attracted me to Middlesex University Business School. It is one of the most diverse institutions I have come across, both in terms of disciplinary background and in terms of national background. Many of my colleagues have a background in the broader Social Sciences and Humanities representing disciplines such as History, Political Science, Law, Education, Sociology, Psychology, Public Policy, and Development Studies. They also come from all corners of the world; we often have as many nationalities as participants in our meetings.

More generally, it is interesting to see how rankings that focus purely on metrics provide a result that is quite different from those that focus largely on reputation surveys. Predictably, post-92 universities such as Middlesex do better on the former than on the latter. Hopefully, their research reputation will soon catch up with their strongly improved research performance!

This blog post was originally published on Professor Anne-Wil Harzing’s website,

Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Supporting Parents in the Digital Age

Today’s parents are facing many new challenges and safeguarding issues once their children become active online. Dr Jacqueline Harding has launched an online TV channel specifically for parents who are concerned about protecting their children online.

There’s little doubt that many parents are feeling overwhelmed about how to support their children in the digital age as confirmed by my own recent small scale study in 2018 and other larger studies (Livingstone, 2018).

In an attempt to meet parents’ needs using a familiar format and one that parents often feel is more accessible, Tomorrowschildtv was built as a pilot online channel for parents of children from birth to 18 years, with over 40 films designed to help and support parents in the digital age led by a former BBC presenter with parents, experts and children debating specific issues. It was filmed at Middlesex University by students and is launching 29th November 2019.

In agreement with Livingstone’s (2018) observations of the lack of support for parents, my study revealed anxiety right across all age ranges. Indeed, Ofcom’s study (2017) revealed a similar picture where more than three quarters of parents of 5-15 year olds have sought information about how to manage online risks.

Addressing Parents’ Concerns

In answer to questions about identification of specific help/advice regarding media that a parent might seek out regarding these matters, answers typically fell into the following four broad categories: safety; behaviour; time restrictions and educational opportunities.

Several parents expressed similar concerns and the need for sources of help around behaviour and media with most parents admitting to feeling like a ‘bad parent’ or wishing not to appear negligent (this was a reason for seeking help). Parents commented on the lack of advice available about suitable lengths of time for their children to spend on a particular media device:

“I need to know how much screen time is too much?”

Although overwhelmingly, parents were primarily concerned about online safety regardless of age, parents of younger children tended to speak of their fear increasing as their child matures. Typically, parents reported feeling anxious:

“Desperate, yes, I’d say I was desperate for help.”

“They are so quick… they minimize the screen…I need support from someone who knows about these things.”

“I won’t allow a phone until secondary school – it’s too worrying – although there is less about stranger danger nowadays it’s more fear about online.”

“I heard about a child in the media…they were bullied online and committed suicide… it’s so worrying.”

“I worry about YouTube videos with inappropriate content still coming up even with parental controls.”

“I’m worried about my child (six years old) and her use of apps to insult people.”

“Access to porn had such a bad impact on my child – it caused him to act up at a later age.” (child now 13)

“I caught my child being the abuser online – I was shocked…”

The study found agreement with Livingstone’s (2018:11) enquiry into where parents might turn for advice about digital media where answers differed according to the age of the child. Parents of younger children were more confident of where to search for help and spoke of seeking help on Google, Mumsnet, CBeebies, Facebook mums’ groups, forums, and from peers. Others suggested that the responsibility shifts to the child as they mature: “My own children will get advice when they are older at primary school.”

Parents of children in the 6-12 year age range spoke of going to the school and asking for help. This also correlated with Ofcom’s (2017) study, where 61% of parents seek help or advice from their child’s school. In the study a number of other parents felt unable to seek help from their own parents) as:

“They wouldn’t know what to do… all this stuff happened after their time,”

and continued by trying to offer suggestions such as: “Kids YouTube might help… maybe; or a neighbour?”

Parents of 12-18 year olds were the most puzzled and felt unable to think of where to begin to access help, and three parents with children ranging between 13 and 17 years, were openly bewildered about where to access help.

Feeling helpless

Ofcom’s recent study (2017: 209) found that ‘one in six parents of 12-15 year olds feel they don’t know enough to help their child manage online risks’. One parent stated: “I guess I feel pretty helpless.”

In response to questions around a dedicated online TV channel for parents providing support – the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Some participants were even anxious to ensure that other parents would know about the resource by suggesting that it must be discoverable. The majority of responses to the suggestion of an online video-based platform tended to suggest the level of anxiety that parents were experiencing:

“I’m desperate for help”

“Online TV great…so it’s available on my phone.”

“Definitely yes.”

In light of Livingstone’s (2018) comments: ‘parents have woefully few sources of support and advice when they have digital questions and dilemmas,’ the parents’ responses in our study were unsurprising.