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  • Canadian Veterans Legal Services

Accountability in Research


Recent years have seen a growing emphasis placed on the responsible conduct of scientific research. This emphasis has led to the development of numerous guidelines concerning authorship practices, data management, intellectual property, collaboration among researchers, and more. Significantly less attention, however, has been devoted to the question of what an individual should do upon discovering that another researcher is acting in proscribed ways.

One might be tempted to take as obvious a claim like the following: If an individual justifiably believes that research misconduct is occurring or has occurred, that individual shall report the misconduct to an appropriate third party in an appropriate way. Before proceeding, a few clarifications are in order. By specifying that an individual's belief must be justifiable, this claim only refers to cases in which the individual has a solid evidentiary base for his belief that misconduct is taking place. Cases in which an individual merely suspects misconduct should be handled differently than those in which that individual holds a high degree of certainty that misconduct has occurred. Research misconduct has been defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results” (42 CFR 93). It is also worth noting that the claim takes the strong view that reporting research misconduct is morally required, as opposed to the weaker view that reporting is morally permissible. Finally, by specifying that the reporting would take place in an appropriate manner, the scope of the claim is limited to those reports that are made in accordance with institutional policies and ethical guidelines.

This type of reporting has been referred to as “whistleblowing.” A number of definitions of whistleblowing have been offered by scholars, most of which can be found in the literature on business ethics. One carefully considered definition describes whistleblowing as “a deliberate non-obligatory act of disclosure, which gets onto public record and is made by a person who has or had privileged access to data or information of an organisation, about non-trivial illegality or other wrongdoing whether actual, suspected or anticipated which implicates and is under the control of that organisation, to an external entity having potential to rectify the wrongdoing” (Jubb, 1999). This definition captures clearly the traditional use of the term in business contexts. In the context of research, however, the concept of whistleblowing seems to be understood a bit more broadly, so that it is not limited to public disclosures brought to an external entity. In what follows, I will use the term to refer to internal as well as external reporting to include situations in which a wrong-doer's supervisor or department chair is notified of a researcher's misconduct.

This broader understanding may be an appropriate translation of the definition for the academic research context given the organizational and power structure differences between business and academia.

The idea that there may be a moral requirement to report research misconduct is not novel. The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy has taken a position consistent with the above claim, stating that “someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act” (COSEPUP, 2009). A similar requirement can be inferred from articles 1 and 10 in the IEEE Code of Ethics, which state that its members agree “to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment” and “to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics” (IEEE, 2006). In addition, a 2000 survey showed that 29% of institutional research integrity policies submitted to the Office of Research Integrity require employees to report suspected misconduct (CPHS Consulting, 2000). Finally, some scholars have also argued that there are circumstances under which reporting wrongdoing is morally required in business contexts (Davis, 1996; DeGeorge, 2006). Their arguments may apply similarly in the context of research.

Despite these guidelines, data suggest that research misconduct often goes unreported. (Titus, 2008). One recent study conservatively estimated that 2,325 incidents of misconduct were observed in one year among research funded by National Institutes of Health extramural grants. In contrast, 24 investigations are conducted by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) annually. The authors note that some of the discrepancy may be explained by lack of evidence, internal investigations, and duplicate reports of misconduct. However, they conclude that the survey results portray “an alarming picture of under-reporting” (Titus, 2008). This finding raises challenging questions in light of the observations above. Are would-be whistleblowers who choose not to report misconduct acting immorally? Or could there be good moral reasons against blowing the whistle in some situations? The question at hand, then, is the following: In a situation in which a would-be whistleblower justifiably believes that research misconduct is occurring or has occurred, is she morally required to report the misconduct to an appropriate third party in an appropriate way?

In the following sections, some ethical considerations related to reporting research misconduct are identified. The extent to which these considerations are legitimate and the weight that they should have in moral decision-making about blowing the whistle are explored. By recognizing legitimate moral reasons for and against reporting misconduct, this effort facilitates complete ethical analysis of these difficult decisions. The article's final section provides some rough and necessarily inconclusive guidance for making such decisions. The analysis offered cannot, in and of itself, solve the would-be whistleblower's ethical dilemma, but may be able to provide some insight into the problem.


There is plentiful anecdotal evidence that blowing the whistle can bring about negative consequences for the whistleblower (e.g., Shuchman, 2000; Couzin, 2006), but generalizable data on such consequences within the research context is scarce. In one study, 31% of whistleblowers reported that they experienced no negative effects from blowing the whistle. Other whistleblowers reported being fired (12%) or not having their contracts renewed (12%). They claimed to have been denied salary increases (12%), promotions (7%), and tenure (9%) as a result of reporting research misconduct. Forty percent of respondents maintained that they were subjected to counter allegations and 25% reported being ostracized because of their actions (Lubalin, 1995). One might suspect that the prevalence of repercussions for the whistleblower found in this study indicates that many of the accusations of misconduct were unjustifiable. However, the study also found little difference in the prevalence of negative consequences for those whistleblowers whose allegations were supported by investigation (68%) and those whose were not (74%) (Lubalin, 1995). Even in cases where the report of misconduct was supported by investigation, then, whistleblowers may suffer negative consequences as a result of their choice to report.

To evaluate the moral significance of such consequences, the would-be whistleblower must take into account: a) the severity of the possible consequences, b) the probability that they will occur, and c) whether they are reversible or ameliorable. Consequences that are very detrimental to the whistleblower's well-being weigh more in the ethical calculus than those that are less serious. The data above demonstrate that the consequences experienced by whistleblowers can dramatically affect their careers, and so can play a significant role in the ethical evaluation of the decision to blow the whistle.

Secondly, the more likely it is that certain consequences will come about, the more they weigh in moral decision-making. While any one of the outcomes identified by the study above is relatively unlikely to occur, the fact that 69% of whistleblowers experienced negative effects from reporting research misconduct indicates that, as a whole, the probability that negative consequences will occur is high. A final variable relevant in determining the moral significance of potential consequences is the extent to which those consequences can be reversed or ameliorated. While some researchers may be able to find another job or be proved innocent of counter-allegations, others' careers may be irreparably damaged because of their choice to blow the whistle. I

n the extreme, whistleblowers may be blacklisted through an informal agreement among their colleagues making it impossible for them to reenter their field and have a successful career (Kuhar, 2008). The possibility that such negative consequences would be irreversible indicates that they may be ethically weighty. Accurately estimating the severity, likelihood, and reversibility of the consequences that could be faced by a whistleblower is no small challenge.

Specific facts of the case at hand are vital to such estimates. Nonetheless, the consequences to the would-be whistleblower have great potential significance in moral decision-making about reporting research misconduct.

Sources: Online Journal | Taylor Francis | Vol 17, 2010 "issue 3"

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