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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