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Protecting both whistle blowers and the scientists they accuse

There is increasing awareness that not only whistle blowers, but the scientists they accuse of breaching research integrity, are vulnerable and deserve to be protected. Cases can be stressful and confusing as the accused usually do not receive institutional support. A system of independent ombudspersons is therefore necessary to complement the investigating commission to guarantee proper information, confidentiality and trust.

Credits: Kunst Bilder/ Shutterstock

 

Breaches of research integrity are a substantial threat to the validity of knowledge and undermine trust in science and between scientists. Whistle blowers play a key role in bringing research misconduct to the attention of the responsible authorities. Unfortunately, they may experience serious negative consequences and usually receive little support from their colleagues and institutions. The same is true for the accused scientists. Both parties are vulnerable and deserve to be protected and supported in handling the allegations. This is especially relevant when dealing with doctoral candidates and early-stage researchers who find themselves in an asymmetric professional relationship with their supervisors.

Whistle blowing is often framed as the act of a traitor, not of a hero. There is little evidence but a 1995 survey among US Office of Research Integrity whistle blowers suggests that 75% of the whistle blowers felt stigmatised and two-thirds experienced at least one negative outcome, including health problems and job loss.

The emotional and social effects on accused scientists are also dramatic, whether the allegations are true or false. Co-authors are typically shocked and may accuse each other of malpractice in hectic communication without knowing all the facts. They often panic under the fear that their reputation and career might be ruined. Doctoral candidates will likely be afraid of losing their PhD title in cases in which publications cited in their theses have to be retracted. Co-authors in the process of applying for a new position will likely fear that their chances may be destroyed and that they may never find a job again. The career of some co-authors may come to a halt because funding institutions and potential new employers typically wait until a case is cleared before granting funds or hiring. Colleagues may withdraw themselves to avoid being associated with the accused scientists. During the entire period the accused are often severely stressed and may feel ashamed, whether the accusations are correct or not. In the most difficult cases, journalists may report on the issue and call co-authors, current or former lab members and those in the hierarchy above the accused scientist.

As the accused scientists normally do not receive institutional support, they have to solve their problems alone and without any trustworthy and easily-accessible information on how to proceed. That is why I have created a short guide on what to do when being accused of scientific fraud .

As mentioned in the guide, trustworthy information is necessary to support the accused scientists in handling the allegations professionally and in communicating openly. When the scientists are distressed and not well-informed, they will tend to cover up anything that may increase the suspicion that they have committed fraud – even when they are innocent. This can make the situation worse, especially in cases where there has been a violation.

It typically takes weeks to months to find all the original data, lab journals and data files needed to thoroughly investigate breaches of research integrity. It may take additional weeks or months to produce all of these documents and data in an accessible format for the commission conducting the inquiry. During this time, institutions need to actively support both parties and build trust in a fair procedure. Whistle blowers may easily interpret rigorous data collection as an intentional delay and an attempt to hide incriminating evidence. As a result, they may start to spread rumours among colleagues or talk to the press about a potential cover-up.

A classical conflict of interest develops when members of the commission that investigates the potential misconduct starts to give information or advice to the whistle blower or the accused scientists. The commission must remain completely neutral and must restrict the communication to both sides until the investigation is finished, although this too may be interpreted as intentional delay.

All of the above illustrates the need for institutions to support both parties and build trust in a fair procedure. One way of doing this is by having an independent ombudsperson supervise the whistle blowers and the accused scientists. Both parties should be instructed on how to handle allegations professionally and how to limit external communication until the investigation is finished. The German Research Ombudsman can serve as a preliminary model. It was established in 1999 by the Senate of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, or DFG) in order to advise and mediate between parties in matters related to research integrity. A similar institution should be available in all cases of potential scientific misconduct as a standard complimentary institution independent of the commission investigating the case. It should be available on the national or European level to support and supervise whistle blowers and accused scientists on how to handle allegations professionally. The core value would be that such a complimentary ombuds system can guarantee confidentiality and the whistle blower and the accused scientists can discuss all their concerns and doubts without the fear that information will be used against them.

There is now increasing awareness that not only the whistle blowers, but the accused scientists have to be protected and supervised. More awareness is needed, however, about the fact that a complimentary institution is necessary for this task - and it must be independent from the commission investigating the potential misconduct. The biggest issue will be to convince the member states that such an institution is necessary and should be financed at both the national and the European level.

 

ethics and research integrity

This article reflects the views of the named authors only. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.

About the author

 

Sven Hendrix is Full Professor of Neuroanatomy, the Director of the Doctoral School for Medicine and Life Sciences and the Vice Director of the Biomedical Research Institute of Hasselt University in Belgium. His research focus is the neuroimmunology of the central nervous system after trauma. He teaches courses in anatomy as well as scientific integrity. He is also the founder of a blog aimed at providing honest career advice for young scientists.

Photo credits: Sven Hendrix

 

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