Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

It’s not just whistleblowers who deserve protection during misconduct investigations, say researchers

with 16 comments

Sven Hendrix

Lex Bouter

In 2010, the former PhD supervisor of Sven Hendrix, a neuroanatomist at Hasselt University in Belgium, was accused of misconduct. Although the allegations were eventually dropped, the experience was emotionally and professionally draining – and Hendrix wanted the research community to know about it. In 2015, he shared his story at a conference in Rotterdam; in the audience was Lex Bouter at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, who works on research integrity (and is co-chair of this year’s World Conference on Research Integrity [WCRI], happening now). Bouter invited Hendrix to write a paper with him. This month, Accountability in Research published “Both Whistle Blowers and the Scientists They Accuse are Vulnerable and Deserve Protection,” an abstract of which is being presented today at the WCRI. We spoke with Hendrix and Bouter about their paper.

Retraction Watch: The title of your paper kind of says it all. Can you say more about what prompted you to write it?

SH: I have seen the effects of true and false accusations on several groups of scientists in three different cases in which I was not personally involved. In 2010, my former PhD supervisor was accused of scientific misconduct. After a lengthy investigation, the attacked publications were cleared by an independent commission. Although I knew we had not done anything wrong, and our publications have been cleared by an independent commission, my co-authors and I received – before and after the clearance – multiple accusing, threatening and insulting emails by another person (not the original whistleblower). Some of these emails were sent to multiple colleagues with the clear intention to damage my reputation. Fortunately, this stalker-like behavior has not been taken seriously by my colleagues, and most of them consider this behavior as an abuse of the whistleblower position.

LB: I was invited for a Brocher Foundation workshop on whistleblowing near Geneva in November 2015. As I used for my presentation the story by Sven about being falsely accused of research misconduct that had impressed me a few months earlier on a conference in Rotterdam, I decided to invite him to write a comment on the topic together.

RW: Would you agree that the scientific community often discusses the repercussions whistleblowers face, and not as often the effects on the accused, even if they are ultimately vindicated?

LB: I guess that’s indeed the case. It strikes me that allegations of breaches of research integrity often hit the headlines and get a lot of attention in the media. When after a lengthy investigation it turns out that the accusations are untrue, typically two lines on page 24 explain so. The damage to the reputation of the accused is done and the incorrect accusation sticks. The Netherlands Network for Research Integrity (www.nrin.nl) runs closed meetings with confidential counsellors for research integrity. They report that unfounded accusations are not uncommon.

SH: I agree. I would like to add that there is no awareness in the scientific community that false (as well as true) allegations have dramatic emotional and social effects on the accused scientists. Colleagues and friends will be more distant because they do not know whether the accusations are justified, and they are afraid that they might be associated with this potential misconduct. The accused authors of a publication will often also start to blame each other before all facts are clear.

RW: What are the most important things you think can be done to protect whistleblowers?

LB: Having a whistleblower protection code is important, but the main thing is that the leadership of the institution really takes on an active role. Like, for instance, the rector of Tilburg University did regarding the PhDs who blew the whistle on Diederik Stapel.

SH: I think that whistleblowers urgently need an internationally accepted code of conduct, including pretty simple rules such as not attacking the scientists in public while the investigation is running, no personal insults, no mass e-mails to multiple recipients in order to ruin the reputation of the scientists, etc. A whistleblower who behaves badly may still have revealed real misconduct, but the institution and the accused scientists will immediately go into defensive mode and may have an even stronger tendency to cover up – no matter whether the accusations are false or true.

RW: What can be done to protect accused scientists?

LB: The main thing is to consider them innocent until proven guilty. And to have a careful and fair procedure in place, that does not take forever. And we suggest that it may be a good idea to give them access to a confidential counsellor.

SH: The above-mentioned code of conduct for whistleblowers would be a great improvement. I have also written a very short manual how to behave correctly when being accused. It would be ideal to have an independent organization where the accused scientists can go to get advice – especially in cases when the home institution is unprofessional, unfair, or tends to sacrifice the scientists to cover their assets.

RW: What are some of the most important tips you provide for determining whether accusations are knowingly false?

LB: Try to look at the facts as objectively as possible and avoid tunnel vision. The main point is to find out whether the accusations are true or not. The motives of the whistleblower are irrelevant if the accusation is correct. Even if incorrect, the whistleblower may just be wrong but bona fide. It’s not at all easy to prove that incorrect accusations were made intentionally. The typology we suggest in our article may help, although it’s not at all evidence-based.

RW: You propose that making false accusations should be considered a form of misconduct. Do you think others might disagree?

LB: I believe that many will agree. But let me clear. Whistleblowers might be wrong but bona fide. By false accusations, we mean that they knew or should have known that the allegation was not true. Difficult to prove, but a serious offence.

SH: I think the biggest predictable problem with our suggestion is that it might be abused to disqualify honest whistleblowers and suggest that they have bad motives instead of investigating whether the accusations are justified. However, this happens already now.

RW: Anything else you’d like to add?

SH: There is still a long way to go to give accused scientists enough trust in institutional procedures when they are accused. Establishing trustworthy international procedures and independent institutions as advisors for whistleblowers and accused scientists would be my priority in the coming years.

LB: This is all about the ‘deadly sins’ of science: fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. But on the aggregated level, questionable research practices do much more harm due to their high frequency of occurrence. For those misbehaviors, whistleblowing and sanctions are not at issue. Good mentoring, adequate skills training and open debates on the dilemmas scientists face are much more important.

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Written by Alison McCook

May 29th, 2017 at 8:00 am

Comments
  • Alan R. Price May 29, 2017 at 9:08 am

    As a frequent consultant over the past decade to professors and postdoctoral fellows who have been wrongly accused of falsifying, fabricating, or plagiarizing research, I welcome this piece on Retraction Watch. The falsely accused have come to me to ask what if anything they can do to avoid or overcome damaging leaks by whistleblowers (including accusatory posts on RW and PubPeer) and by their own institutional students, faculty, and officials (in violation of the federal and institutional policies and procedures that require confidentiality — until a formal finding of research misconduct is made, and no disclosures about the allegations or investigation when no misconduct is found).

    An immediate fear by some such respondents is that their institutions, and their peers in the field who find out about the (false) allegations, will assume that they are “guilty,” and the institutions will hold or drop their pending new jobs, promotions, or tenure appointment (or will fire them without due process). They fear that they may be forced to leave the institution with an “overhead cloud” that may well prevent them from getting a new postdoctoral or faculty position elsewhere, even though they have done nothing wrong themselves.

    While some allegations are resolved quickly (in a few weeks) in an assessment or inquiry, others can drag on for years (six years in one case), with institutional committees determined to find “something” to report that the professor committed “misconduct” (even for “failing to detect” falsifications or errors in published research that were presented by a postdoctoral fellow or graduate student) – which does not fall under the federal or institutional definition of “research misconduct.”

    • Ed Goodwin May 29, 2017 at 10:58 am

      The fraudster researcher will fight to death the correctness of their position and often
      with the backing of their institutions. The whistle blower is facing large odds and often drops out because of the emotional and dollar cost. I suspect that where your bread is buttered determines how it tastes to you.

      • rfg May 29, 2017 at 11:11 am

        I agree with this.

        Bottom line if you are considering whistleblowing is to do it for the right reasons [some don’t] and be prepared for blowback [always].

    • blah May 29, 2017 at 11:32 am

      I suspect it’s a lot more common that academic administrations let things drag on because they hope everyone involved (or at least one side) will give up and move on with their lives… in my experience, to the contrary, administrations are biased to do whatever it takes to keep things behind closed doors.

      The STAP cell aftermath showed that no academic misconduct allegation should go a year without resolution… pretty much an infinitely complicated case with tons on the line for all stakeholders and wrapped up within about a year. Unless a judge is ordering you to take longer, no excuse for any misconduct case I’ve ever heard of to last longer than that, but they often do.

      Academies should filter all allegations of misconduct through a well trained ombudsman who can advise the whistleblower as to processes available to them and has a confidential network to tap to learn about the intricacies of other fields when needed… this along with real, rapid consequences for false reporting would pretty much eliminate what you’re complaining about.

      • rfg May 29, 2017 at 12:20 pm

        “SH: I think that whistleblowers urgently need an internationally accepted code of conduct, including pretty simple rules such as not attacking the scientists in public while the investigation is running, no personal insults, no mass e-mails to multiple recipients in order to ruin the reputation of the scientists, etc. A whistleblower who behaves badly may still have revealed real misconduct, but the institution and the accused scientists will immediately go into defensive mode and may have an even stronger tendency to cover up – no matter whether the accusations are false or true.”
        OTOH, if the whistleblower does not push the institution or the journal to bring the matter to a conclusion they will usually just do nothing hoping it goes away. If the “investigation” runs on for 3-4 years with cover-ups, a little prod on PubPeer or PubMed Commons may be appropriate.

  • Ed Goodwin May 29, 2017 at 9:53 am

    It cuts both ways, but the whistleblower is the oppressed party 99% of the time. Move on.

    • rfg May 29, 2017 at 11:01 am

      That’s not my experience. I don’t have hard data, but I believe many [most?] misconduct complaints are ultimately found not be actually be misconduct. Did the person falsely accused in good faith or bad get oppressed? I’d say yes. I also see a many [not most] misconduct allegations that are not made in good faith.

      • Cancer doc UK June 1, 2017 at 5:41 am

        Whistleblowers usually lose their jobs and income. It’s hardly something many would ever even think about unless there was solid evidence.

        We also need to remember WBs often get dismissed and need to fund their own court cases, whilst employees have the protection, legal advice and financial backing of their employers – who also have a vested interest in their employees remaining squeaky clean.

        Richard Eastell and Aubrey Blumsohn at Sheffield is a case in mind.

  • rfg May 29, 2017 at 10:26 am

    Excellent article on an important topic. Well done WCRI for bringing this up.

    “RW: You propose that making false accusations should be considered a form of misconduct. Do you think others might disagree?

    LB: I believe that many will agree. But let me clear. Whistleblowers might be wrong but bona fide. By false accusations, we mean that they knew or should have known that the allegation was not true. Difficult to prove, but a serious offence.”

    The issue of false accusations of research misconduct becomes even more serious when the “whistleblower” brings the accusations through channels other than that allow the accused a fair change to respond. A false accusation to an institutional research integrity office gives the accused a reasonable chance to prove their innocence.

    Accusations of research misconduct made outside the system can also be devastating to the accused.

    Imagine the whistleblowers account of false accusations of research misconduct appearing in a pay-for-view on Amazon or blurted out by another researcher after having heard the false accusations at a microphone after your talk at the largest conference in your field.

    Double this all down when the whistleblowers false accusations of research misconduct are made knowing that the allegations are not true.

  • blah May 29, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Double this all down when the whistleblowers false accusations of research misconduct are made knowing that the allegations are not true.

    If that’s the case than you have legal remedies outside of the inefficient-at-best academic route.

    • rfg May 29, 2017 at 11:57 am

      Both good points (this post and above):

      “real, rapid consequences for false reporting”
      Right now, I don’t think that there are any consequences for making a knowingly false accusation. How to change?

      “you have legal remedies outside of the inefficient-at-best academic route”
      I agree – however, as an academic I feel like the academic route as inefficient as it truly is must be exhausted before taking this to the outside courts.

  • edrie May 29, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Mark Burgman does a concise job dealing with the problem of false accusations in his short essay, “Misconduct in Science: Should its Definition Include Mischievous or Improper Allegations?” It’s in Quarterly Review of Biology 69 (2) June 1994 – proof that we’ve been aware of these issues for a long time but perhaps slow to take action.

  • Geordie May 29, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    Scientists live in a world quite divorced from the reality others face, they are paid to produce a product that they then claim ownership of and refuse others access to important parts of what they do. Most people now work in occupations in which their work is always subject to evaluation and if we lived in a world in which scientists were open about their work and prepared to engage with both evaluation and critique many of these issues would be irrelevant. The current systems do in fact encourage people to go outside of the formal channels, if nothing is public then that is the first point of attack. People should be able to voice concerns and if the culture was one of openness and honesty, this would be much easier to answer and there would be far less need for defensiveness. Ongoing systems of evaluation also engage the persons employers at an early stage, problems might have already been identified and addressed allowing some concerns to be immediately answered. It would also mean that an employer who might now assume guilt would also have to evaluate their own systems. In fact good systems would make whistle blowing unnecessary. Part of the problem is that Funding bodies, Universities and Companies have no real accountability, so no motive to act.
    This really could have a very positive effect, mistakes could be rapidly corrected and used as learning experiences. They are not really anything to do with misconduct, but defending them could be. However we are entering into a period in which the lack of any consistent consequences for fraud, often involving large sums of money has lead to criminal charges being invoked, I am totally in favour of this in the current system. I do believe it could be managed outside of the criminal law and would more readily be prevented by a more consistent and controlled system. Of course this also implies that those accused of misconduct by someone with malicious intent should indeed be protected and able to seek redress through the courts.
    Perhaps the next issue will be why the major funding bodies, particularly those allocating public funds have spent huge sums of money developing policies and principles that should guide governance across the world, while putting nothing in place to police these systems.

  • TL May 30, 2017 at 5:02 am

    I suppose it could be true that false accusations of scientific misconduct are the real problem, in the way that it could also be true that white males are the most persecuted group in America.

  • Toby White June 1, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I’d like to second Lex Bouter’s remark about the importance of institutional leadership. From the points discussed, it looks like the issues are identical to those that always come up in employment law disputes. Management often wants to back away from both the accuser and the accused; but both individuals need to know that someone is listening and asking the questions they want asked (as well, of course, as the questions they don’t want asked). What seems to work best is to get a senior, respected figure from within the organization but outside the immediate department concerned (almost never a lawyer), to work with both accuser and accused.
    One other issue which doesn’t get raised enough: there is a difficult balance between acting quickly and getting it right. People often assume that, after a full investigation, the truth will out. Usually true, but not always. What is always true, in every single case, is that the costs to both parties and their institution increase with every day the matter is pending. All the low-cost or positive sum resolutions — like apologies, transfers, informal restitution, reprimands, commendations, negotiated severance, revised evaluations — evaporate quickly.
    Justice is rarely a blow from Thor’s Mjollnir, delivered three years after the event. By all accounts, Thor was supposed to have been both well-intentioned and skillful, but neither his aim nor his judgment were infallible. That said, the other thing that needs to happen is for management to take a hard look, after resolution, (a) to address any systemic problems (tp 3: lack of supervision or micro-management, lack of effective management oversight) and, later (b) to make sure that everyone is living up to their commitments. Admittedly, this program doesn’t give one the same visceral rush as vengeance/vindication, but it does more good for more people more of the time.

  • Chris Mebane June 2, 2017 at 12:05 am

    A very good post and Sven Hendrix’s linked piece offered wise, even-handed advice. However when I (unsuccessfully) tried to access the article at the Taylor & Francis journal “Accountability in Research” I noticed that the article web page indicated it had been published without peer review. The “article accepted” date was only 4 days after the “article received” date, which hardly allows time for external review.  Thus it presumably was accepted directly by the editor.  I noted several more commentary-type articles accepted only a few days after the receipt date.

    Curious and curiouser, when I went back to check my facts before this comment, all the “article received” and “article accepted” dates had vanished between May 29 (the RW post date) and June 1. Only one article   “Fostering Research Integrity” shows these dates at present (“Received 17 May 2017, Accepted 19 May 2017, Accepted author version posted online: 26 May 2017″).  Browsing through the issues in puzzlement, I saw the same author names over and over.  A lot of these same names  also appear on the editorial board for the journal. This seems to be quite the cozy journal, with its authors/editorial board sharing their scholarship with each other. The journal publishes about 20 to 30 articles a year, with an issue consisting of 4 or 5 articles available for a 30-day “purchase” for only $273 USD. I rather doubt sales have been brisk.

    I don’t make a lot of forays into the social science literature and obviously different disciplines have different norms. Maybe this journal’s practices are within the norm for the science ethics and philosophy niche, but I certainly found it quite surprising, plus ironic for a journal with a title “Accountability in Research.”

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