Count the Cost – Whistleblowers

Each of us as a member of the scientific community shares the responsibility for upholding the integrity of the research process and of the scholarship that results from this effort. It is important that we don’t ignore or tolerate misconduct when it occurs and that we take action when necessary to correct problems. Research integrity calls each of us, as members of the greater scientific community, to responsible action not indifference when research misconduct occurs. Speaking up however about ethical concerns though emotionally and morally satisfying often brings with it some negative consequences. So, it is really important to count the cost before you speak out. Don’t assume that your privacy will or can be protected. That is not to say that you shouldn’t speak out for fear of possible personal penalty or reprisal but that you should make sure that you are prepared to deal with the possible consequences of your actions. At a minimum, those who bring to light misconduct are often branded “whistleblowers.” There may also be significant personal and professional costs including the advent of adverse and hostile working conditions, loss of job or demotion, etc. The bottom line is that it takes courage and conviction to speak out.

When should you speak out? When:

  • Criminal action is involved;
  • Research misconduct has occurred;
  • Physical injury or loss of life could result; and/or
  • Facilities, equipment or materials and resources are at risk

If you wish to report an allegation, you should report the incident in writing and provide as much information as possible including the nature of the alleged misconduct, the name of the individual(s) involved and their role(s) in the incident, the date and location of the incident, and a detailed description of the incident. Any written documentation supporting your concerns should be cited and provided as well. Depending on the severity of the situation, your college and/or university may act quickly to form a committee to investigate the alleged misconduct. Since serious allegations are not encountered routinely in academe, it is difficult to describe here the specifics of the investigation process but you should expect it to be protracted and likely contentious by virtue of the seriousness of the allegations involved. The Office of Research Integrity has published model procedures that should be used when allegations of research misconduct are made in laboratories receiving federal support.

Documented examples of genuine research misconduct are rare. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research Integrity (NIH ORI) publishes on ORI’s website summaries of recent closed cases that concluded that misconduct had occurred or that resulted in administrative action but did not conclude that misconduct had occurred.