RHS News

History in the News: Christos Lynteris – Photographic Plagues

Christos LynterisAmidst mass media coverage of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Christos Lynteris (Cambridge) takes a look at the historical representation of plague pandemics. Christos is an anthropologist working on infectious disease epidemics in East Asia. He is the Principal Investigator of the European Research Council funded project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic, held at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

Photographic Plagues

Over the past year a steady stream of images from Ebola-stricken regions in West Africa has been pouring in through our screens and print media outlets. Photographs of the sick, the dead, and the bereaved. Photographs of anti-epidemic measures like quarantine, isolation, disinfection, and of compliance and resistance to them. The most common type of these images juxtaposes a white-overall, glove and mask clad health worker with a barefaced patient, corpse or crowd. A criss-cross between medical, disaster, forensic and ethnographic visual genres, this is but the latest example of what we may call epidemic photography.

The global dissemination of Ebola photographs makes this an opportune moment to raise questions about the representational politics of this photographic genre. It is also an opportunity to ask what this allows us to know about infectious disease. Visual and anthropological studies of epidemic photography as practiced today are a vital part of this task. Yet in order to unravel the power and knowledge of epidemic photography we also need to examine its history. This is all the more pertinent as Ebola photographs seem to be uncannily replicating images of a pandemic with an altogether different transmission pathway, which unfolded under the auspices of high colonialism: the third plague pandemic.

HIN Manchuria plague suspect

Manchuria plague suspect arrested

The third plague pandemic lasted roughly from 1855 to 1959 and marked the first time that bubonic plague reached all inhabited continents, leaving more than 12 million dead. Plague made its first major appearance in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1894, where the disease’s pathogen (today known as Yersinia pestis) was identified for the first time. It then spread first to India (1896) and then, rapidly, on a global scale. Between 1898 and 1900 alone it struck Hawaii, California, Manchuria, Australia, Madagascar, Paraguay, Portugal, Scotland, Egypt, and Japan. During its course the third plague pandemic functioned as a catalyst for major public health and urban planning reforms, colonial policies, geopolitical struggles, and medical theories and techniques. This was not simply on account of the mortality and morbidity crisis induced in different parts of the world induced by plague. Nor was it only because of its association (both mythic and real) to the great mortality of the Middle Ages, commonly known today as the Black Death. It was also because incidents of this pandemic were systematically photographed, with images from local outbreaks making newspaper headlines across the globe.

Although individual patients had been photographed before, this was the first infectious disease pandemic to be captured by the photographic lens. Between the outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong and the final phases of the third pandemic in the 1940s in Senegal, thousands of plague photographs were produced. Many of these became visual staple for the medical as well as lay press at the time, with new half-tone printing technology allowing the cheap reproduction of photographs. This was the first time the general public was exposed to photographic representations of an epidemic and its social consequences. Starting as a trickle in Hong Kong, with a dozen iconic photographs of the epidemic, this quickly developed into a visual cascade; the 1899-1900 Honolulu outbreak, during which circa 40 individuals died, left a visual trace of over 500 photographs. Becoming part of colonial, local-state and geopolitical strife in a variety of contexts, plague photography drove public understandings of epidemic crisis.

HIN Liverpool rat catchers against plague

Liverpool rat catchers against plague

What defined the development of plague photography in the course of the pandemic was a move away from standard medical photography at the time, and its focus on clinical symptoms. Instead of showing buboes, the majority of photographs focused on aspects of the disease’s epidemiology. In its effort to depict the latter, plague photography gave the opportunity to different medical and administrative agents to reason and argue about the causes of the spread of disease, and its supposed links to trade, pilgrimage, housing, and sanitation. It hence ushered issues at the heart of medical debates into a visual arena of demonstration and proof.

In a similar way that the microscope at the time was at the centre of debates about what plague was, the camera played a pivotal role in determining what plague did: how it spread, where it created reservoirs, why did it wane and how it re-emerged after longer or shorter periods of absence. By 1918 this visual regime had established a paradigm of epidemic photography that would be clearly reflected in the photographic representation of the global influenza pandemic of 1918. Whether it was about the depiction of the “breeding grounds” of disease, the representation of “unsanitary habits” of the subaltern, or imaging hygienic victory over the disease, epidemic photography moved from the individual to the social body as the site of infection and death.

HIN Sonapore plague victim cremation

Sonapore plague victim cremation

Plague photography developed in the context of emerging biopolitical visual regimes, best known to historians today in the photography of famine in British India. Unlike famine photography, however, the birth of epidemic photography marked a turn towards the representation of infection (and, in the case of pneumonic plague, contagion). It signaled a shift of focus from catastrophic events to processes leading to the events in question. And it did this by visually configuring the population not simply as a victim but also as a host or demographic infrastructure of infectious disease.

In many ways this is the same visual regime that faces us still in the twenty-first century in the form of photographs of SARS, avian flu or Ebola. A regime based on colonial paradigms of pollution and otherness, this continues to constitute forms of habitation, burial rites, modes of social conduct, and human to non-human animal relations as cultural vectors of disease. If it is pertinent to begin deconstructing the way we depict and view epidemics, this is not simply so that we may begin to see them with post-colonial eyes, but also so that we critically reconsider what can be known about infectious diseases by way of epidemic photography. The study of the history of this photographic genre raises political, ethical, aesthetic and epistemological challenges of great importance to our world of global health, emerging infectious diseases, and pandemic preparedness.


Carol A. Benedict, Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1996)

Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San
Francisco (London: Random House, 2004)

Myron J. Echenberg, Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic
Plague, 1894-1901 (New York: New York University Press, 2007)

Myron J. Echenberg, Black Death, White Medicine: Bubonic Plague and the
Politics of Public Health in Colonial Senegal, 1914-1945 (Oxford: James
Curry, 2001)

James C. Mohr, Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning
of Honolulu’s Chinatown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Carl F. Nathan, Plague Prevention and Politics in Manchuria 1910-1931
(Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1967)

Guenter B. Risse, Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012)

W. C. Summers, The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911: The Geopolitics of
an Epidemic Disease (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

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All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History

A Report of the Group’s work 2008 to 2015

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History is committed to supporting the work of the Archives sector and to encouraging the study of History. The Group:

  • Takes evidence of best practice and innovation in the archives sector and in the study of history
  • Celebrates milestones and professionalism in the archives sector
  • Encourages the study of history
  • Visits archives
  • Speaks out for archives and ensures that any proposed legislation takes account of the need for transparency and availability in the UK’s archives

All Party Parliamentary Group on Archives and History Report 2008-2015

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RHS Report on Gender Equality and Historians in Higher Education

Press Release for International Women’s Day

The Times Higher Education highlights the findings of the RHS report “Conditions for female academics in some university history departments “smack still of the 1970s”  Read the article.

Read the report: Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education

Gender survey - graduation crop2Nicola Miller writes:

This report analyses the results, both quantitative and qualitative, of the survey many of you completed last year.  Many thanks to everyone who replied and/or attended one of the workshops we held to discuss the findings. We were delighted to receive over 700 replies, 42% from men, with a good distribution across age, career stage and area of the UK.

These results show widespread concerns  throughout the historical profession about the persistence of a range of barriers to gender equality, despite the fact that policies against discrimination have been in place for two or three decades in some (although by no means all) universities. The bias may be less visible nowadays, but it is  no less real for that.  It is salutary to note that  only 20.8% of History Professors are women, which means that we are scarcely doing any better than the City, where 19.5% of senior role are held by women.

Examples of good practice that were highlighted during discussion of the survey results showed that relatively small changes can often go a long way towards improving matters.  In that optimistic spirit, the report  offers a list of recommendations for action, targeted at Departments/Faculties, Journal Editors, Conference Organisers, Teachers/Supervisors and indeed everyone who would like to help promote greater equality  for all historians.

We hope that you will find this report a helpful stimulus for discussion and review of practices in all areas of our work.  Please distribute it and debate it as much as possible.  Raising awareness can do a lot to help in itself.

The RHS will be taking forward its work on equalities under our new Vice-President for Research Policy, Prof. Mary Vincent. Meanwhile, we would like to make our website a forum for exchange of experiences and good practice, so please send any comments and ideas about the report to Jane Gerson, Research & Communications Officer at j.gerson@royalhistsoc.org.

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Imperial War Museum library breakup

Letter from Peter Mandler to the Director-General of the IWM raising concerns about the proposed dispersal of the Imperial War Museum Library.  Similar letters have been sent to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport.

On behalf of the Royal Historical Society, which comprises over 3,000 Fellows engaged in advanced historical research, I am writing to express the historical profession’s concern over the proposed dispersal of the Museum’s Library.  As you know better than anyone, the IWM is a world-class resource for historical research into conflict in the modern world, for members of the general public who are taking an exceptional interest in this subject, not least during this centenary period of the Great War, and for the professional historians whom I represent.  You also have a world-class library and archive staff who have provided wonderful service to our members and to the public, and have rightly invested in recent years in improving the service available to all enquiring parties in your Research Room.

We all understand that the Museum, like all publicly-funded services, is under severe fiscal pressure at this moment.   But we also trust that public institutions are doing their best to protect ‘front-line services’ in this period of stringency.  The Library is surely a front-line service of this kind.  It is not merely a reference library, duplicating materials held elsewhere.  It has many rare and unique possessions, which are properly part of your irreplaceable collections.  Furthermore – and this applies more to members of the public even than to our professional members – its reference materials are themselves an integral part of your archival collections.  That is to say, it is impossible to understand the archival collections without using them in situ alongside the reference materials.  This is why books form the majority of all materials requested in your Research Room by members of the general public, and why most users of documents also use books at the same time.  While professional historians might at a pinch make several trips to different places to consult reference, book and archival materials, it is precisely members of the public who cannot easily do this, and who cannot thus make any effective use of your archival collections without the presence of a reference library.  Even so, specialist researchers too need to consult disparate materials side-by-side;  this is why major archives retain their reference libraries.  It would be a matter of great concern if the IWM chose to depart from this practice, a short-term cut that would substantially impair the utility of one of your greatest assets.

I appreciate that running a library doesn’t come cheap – it needs specialist staff itself and a decent budget to keep it current.  (Running down the collection would be not much better than dispersing it.)  But I’m sure you would never contemplate dispersing unique archival holdings, and our case is that the reference library forms an integral part of those holdings, without which they are incomplete.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Mandler

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Grace Huxford, Hidden Histories – The Korean War

Grace Huxford portraitFollowing the opening of London’s first major memorial to the Korean War in December 2014, Dr Grace Huxford (Warwick) reflects on why this conflict is sometimes described as a ‘forgotten war’. Grace is a historian of Cold War Britain and has recently completed her PhD on the life-writing of British servicemen in the Korean War. She is currently Research Fellow in Oral History at the University of Warwick.

At the end of 2014, the North Korean response to the film The Interview received a great deal of coverage in the US and British press. Accusations that the Communist state had externally hacked the electronic systems of Sony (the production company behind the film) caused many commentators to analyse the leadership cult and bellicose outlook of North Korea once again.

HiN - Korea1As policymakers discussed appropriate responses and the increase of sanctions against the  North Korean state, a tangible reminder of the impact of conflict on the peninsula was revealed in London. On 3rd December, a £1m memorial to 1,106 British servicemen who died during the Korean War (1950-1953) was unveiled on Victoria Embankment, outside the Ministry of Defence. Britain, who offered the second largest contribution of troops to the UN force in June 1950, was one of the last of the twenty-seven nations involved to open a national memorial to its Korean War dead. The war has become largely ‘forgotten’ in Britain today, despite the ongoing attention paid to the Communist state of North Korea.

The Korean War was an important moment in the post-1945 world: it was the first ‘hot’ war of the Cold War and the first police action of the new United Nations (UN). The war was also significant for Britain: increased armament spending challenged the welfare agenda of the post-war Labour government, threatening party unity; the war exhibited the weaknesses of Britain’s international position in the early Cold War; and  it saw the involvement of almost 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops in the early 1950s, many of them national service conscripts. So why has the history of the Korean War remained largely hidden?

As veterans of the Korean War have noted, few people in Britain in 1950 could find Korea on a map. Although this is perhaps an exaggeration, that summer the BBC hastily put together programmes on the Korean peninsula, explaining its location, its culture and the significance of the invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on 25 June 1950. Many British servicemen sent to support the US-led UN force were similarly confused by the aims of fighting in this distant country, writing home that they were uncertain of the ‘object’ of the war. Although Korea captivated the press during the early months of the war, attention dwindled as the war rumbled on, with no decisive outcome: historian David Kynaston has even shown how some contemporaries felt that the birth of Princess Anne in August 1950 received more popular interest than the war.

The unclear ending of the war in 1953 did little to clarify matters. As US historian Charles Young has argued, the ambiguous ending of the Korean War, following a year of indeterminable negotiations, meant that the US and its allies could not claim outright victory in the war or herald their achievements back at home. The animosity between North and South Korea today continues to make the ending of the war seem only provisional, as North Korea has threatened to cease to abide by armistice six times since the early 1990s.

However, undoubtedly one of the most significant reasons for the obscurity of the Korean War within the British national imagination is its proximity to the Second World War. Coming only five years after this global, far-reaching conflict, the Korean War was by comparison far less significant to the lives of everyday British people. Furthermore, unlike the Second World War, it served no purpose to subsequent governments. The ‘People’s War’ of 1939-1945 has been repeatedly used by politicians to stand for a whole host of ‘national values’, from stoicism to a sense of duty. In the early 1980s for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s government, with its revived sense of patriotism, used Churchillian language to inspire a sense of national identity (prompting History Workshop Journal‘s landmark study of patriotism in 1984). Even in the 1950s, the Second World War was starting to dominate national culture and identity, meaning that the Korean War was ‘forgotten’ almost as soon as it began. Neither praised as a worthy conflict (like the Second World War) or vilified as a waste of life (like the First World War or, in the US, Vietnam), the Korean War has not served a wider narrative about war and peace in the twentieth century. Because of this it remains largely hidden in national memory.

HiN - Korea 2There are a few exceptions to this. Although servicemen lament the lack of novels and films  about the Korean War, famous television series such as M*A*S*H* remain popular with British audiences. The only film made specifically about British experiences in the Korean War is ‘A Hill in Korea‘ (1956) (renamed ‘Hell in Korea’ for its US release), starring a young Michael Caine, fresh out of national service and returned from Korea himself. Both the film and the novel on which it is based reflect on the harshness of the climate and the apparent futility of conflict. References to the Korean War within British television are fleeting. Perhaps the most famous Korean War veteran on British television was the eccentric hotelier Basil Fawlty, star of the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers. However, Basil’s experiences are conclusively dismissed: in one episode he whispers to his wife Sybil, ‘I fought in the Korean War you know, I killed four men’. Sybil simply says to two passing guests: ‘He was in the Catering Corps – he used to poison them.’

Is Korea’s ‘forgotten’ status likely to change in future? It is hard to say. On 11 November 2013, Korean War veterans took a high profile role in Armistice Day commemorations in Whitehall. Prompted by the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire, veterans were invited to join the march past at the Cenotaph, the commemorative centre of ‘Remembrance Day’ events. However, the main British veterans association – the British Korea Veterans Association (BKVA) – has recently discussed disbanding following the completion of the memorial in London, based on the wish to ‘ go out with our heads held high rather than just fade away’. Whatever the outcome will be, the opening of the new memorial goes some way in acknowledging the significance of this ‘hidden’ conflict within British political and social history.

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RHS Statement on Ethics

(Originally published December 2004)

There has been a marked growth in concern about ethical matters over recent years. In many professions, practitioners are regulated by codes of conduct. There is an associated trend towards the use of legal solutions to solve conflicts around professional behaviour. The historical profession is far from isolated from such trends. Historians are increasingly prominent in public life, for example, in appearing as expert witnesses in trials. The dramatic rise of popular history and historical websites raises significant issues concerning the evaluation of arguments, claims and evidence. With such exposure comes public scrutiny. Historians may want to use this situation to reflect on their own practices.

The RHS is mindful of these trends. It seeks to represent the interests of historians, to promote the value of historical scholarship and to support the highest possible standards, not just in publications and institutions but also in the conduct of individual historians and in the teaching of the discipline.

The following statement indicates the main areas that touch on historical practice. The goal of what follows is to draw attention to the key issues and to encourage their discussion, both with colleagues and students. The RHS hopes these matters will become an integral part of the history curriculum.

The RHS expects its Fellows and Members to observe the highest standards in the conduct of their research, teaching and administration. Historians work not only within national laws, for example, covering data protection, the use of human remains and copyright, but within the regulations of institutions, such as archives and libraries, where they undertake research. They also work within the norms of good practice of teaching institutions that generally have rules concerning plagiarism. The RHS recognises the need for academic freedom of speech and writing. Since ethical standards are not constant, there is a need to eschew anachronistic value judgments when investigating and describing the past.

The maintenance of high professional standards includes:

  • being acquainted with best practice in the use and evaluation of evidence, whatever form it takes;
  • understanding and following copyright laws being mindful to intellectual property issues taking particular care when evidence is produced by those still living, when the anonymity of individuals is required and when research concerns those still living;
  • observing the ethical and legal requirements of the repositories and collections they use
  • being aware of conservation issues concerning materials they use and produce eschewing plagiarism, fabrication, falsification and deception in proposing, carrying out and reporting the results of research;
  • declaring any interests, including financial ones that bear on professional life giving due and appropriate acknowledgement of assistance received, whether this concerns financial help, access to materials or an academic contribution; particular care is to be exercised when more than one author is involved;
  • following the most rigorous procedures for the citation of sources, including materials obtained from the internet;
  • reporting any conflict of interest, for example, individuals should normally refuse to participate in the formal review of work of anyone for whom they feel a sense of personal obligation or enmity
    observing fairness and equity in the conduct of research, teaching and administration
    representing credentials accurately and honestly;
  • behaving with integrity, for example, through developing an awareness of one’s own bias, disclosing qualifications to arguments and making supporting documentation available to others.

This statement makes no attempt to be comprehensive and we invite comments which should be sent to: info@royalhistsoc.org.

Readers may also wish to consult the ‘Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct’ of the American Historical Association

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Guide to the RHS Website

Please browse the website to discover the range of activities the RHS offers:

  • PUBLICATIONS – The RHS has a long and proud tradition of publishing across a wide range of subjects and formats. We are also responsible for important guides to national and regional record societies and their publications.
  • PRIZES AND GRANTS – Read about our prizes and grants which offer support to postgraduates and early career historians.
  • EARLY CAREER HISTORIANS – One of our priorities is to offer support and advice for Early Career Historians
  • EVENTS AND NOTICEBOARD – Our Events listings give information about lectures, conferences, symposia and seminars across the UK. If you would like to promote your history event on the RHS website please complete our event request form. If you want to add an item to our Noticeboard, please complete this notice request form.
  • SUPPORT THE RHS – Help us work harder for history and historians by giving an online donation. Your support will help us make an even bigger contribution to supporting research, recognising achievement, and promoting history.
  • MEMBERSHIP – Find out more about joining the RHS on our membership pages. If you are already a Fellow or Member of the RHS please go to the membership area and take a moment to look at your membership profile and update your details as necessary. If it’s your first visit, you can obtain your password to log-in from the membership area.
  • DIRECTORY OF EXPERTISE – We are also creating a new RHS Directory of Expertise where you can enter information about your research expertise. The Directory will not only be useful for researchers and journalists but also help those applying for election to the Fellowship to find a referee.

A short informational leaflet about the RHS is available on request if you would like to distribute it in your organisation.

Comments and queries about the website should be addressed to Jane Gerson, Research & Communications Officer, at j.gerson@royalhistsoc.org.

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Revised QAA Subject Benchmark Statement for History published

Arthur Burns writes:

On 15 December the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) announced the publication of a revised version of the Subject Benchmark Statement for History, now available on the QAA website.

This document is the outcome of the latest in a regular cycle of revisions of the original subject benchmark statement published in 2000, which has been highly valued by the subject community as a source of guidance for the creation and revision for History degree programmes in the UK. I described the workings of the most recent revision process in an article in the RHS newsletter in May 2014, at which time the document was about to go out to public consultation. As chairs of the revising committee, Professor Jane Longmore and I led the consideration of the responses we received, which came from a variety of HE institutions and stakeholders, and which enabled us to make a small number of minor but helpful clarifications and amendments in the final version which has now been published.

The responses to the consultation confirmed us in our view that the document retains the confidence of the subject community and required only minor changes to bring it up to date and enable it to continue to support colleagues creating new degree programmes, not least in helping them articulate relevant “learning outcomes”, as well as offering institutions a way of evaluating the way they deliver teaching in our discipline against agreed general expectations about standards and the subject. Those familiar with earlier versions will find the overall shape and approach of the document largely unaltered, but it is worth highlighting here what is new or altered since the last revision in 2007. The benchmark acknowledges technological developments in e-learning and the need for digital literacy in history students, as well as the ongoing importance of the employability agenda in stressing the transferability of historical knowledge and core skills to a wide variety of sectors beyond the academy. It also reflects important recent legislation on equality and diversity. In terms of the approach to our discipline, it offers greater clarity and emphasis on the intrinsic value of independent study within history degree programmes and the centrality of the notion of historical enquiry. Finally, it stresses the need to take account of the ethical dimensions of historical practice, reflecting the increased importance of institutional codes of conduct which can be of particular significance for students conducting independent research on the recent past.

[The QAA benchmark review panel consisted of Prof Arthur Burns (RHS/KCL), Prof Jane Longmore (Southampton Solent, History Forum HEA) cochairs; Prof Alan Booth (Nottingham), Dr Arthur Chapman (Institute of Education), Dr Marcus Collins (Loughborough), Dr Paul Corthorn (Queens Belfast), Dr Pat Cullum (Huddersfield), Peter D’Sena (HEA); Prof Jackie Eales (Canterbury Christ Church, Historical Association), Dr Elaine Fulton (Birmingham), Dr Vicky Gunn (Glasgow), Dr Melinda Haughton (TNA), Dr Leif Jerram (Manchester), Dr Valerie Johnson (TNA), Dr Keith McLay (Chester, History UK), Dr Alison Twells (Sheffield Hallam), Dr Jamie Wood (Lincoln), Dr Dave Wyatt (Cardiff).]

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Bronach Kane, Gender in the History Profession: the Early Career Perspective

Bronach Kane

Bronach Kane

Paper by Bronach Kane for the RHS Gender Equality seminars – UCL, 18 Sept 2014 and Glasgow University, 17 November 2014:

I offer these comments from my perspective as a medieval historian of gender and sexuality, who is reaching the tail end of the early career stage. I was appointed last year to a permanent lectureship at Cardiff University, but over the past five years, I have held several post-doctoral fellowships and temporary research posts, and have taught both at Russell Group and post-1992 universities, so I feel that I speak from a wide range of experience here.

Despite the efforts of many institutions to develop and improve gender policies, a number of systemic problems remain within academia and the History profession, that centre around the representation and advancement of female academics at various stages of their careers. The influence of gender on academic progression ranges from hiring to promotions, and from workload issues to research activity. Considered separately, these practices can appear subtle and minor, but experienced cumulatively they have far-reaching consequences for men and women in the profession.


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