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Dec 7 2017

Resources for Research Ethics Education, whistleblowing laws.#Whistleblowing #laws


Whistleblowing laws


Contributors: P.D. Magnus, Dena Plemmons

Updates: Rhiannon Kennard, 2016

Someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act.

While this obligation might be met by formal reporting of the alleged misconduct, this is only one of many paths open to the potential whistleblower.


According to the 2010 definition from the US Office of Special Counsel, a whistleblower discloses information he or she reasonably believes evidences:

  • a violation of a law, rule, or regulation
  • gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, or abuse of authority
  • a substantial and specific danger to public health or public safety
Roles and Perspective

The whistleblower should (Gunsalus, 2010; Keith-Spiegel, 2010):

  • Keep good records
  • Avoid the mistake of an inappropriate allegation, begin by asking questions and seeking perspective
  • Appropriately report or respond to possible misconduct
  • Not take responsibility for investigating the misconduct or mete out justice
  • Maintain objectivity with a goal of identifying and correcting any possible misunderstandings

Even though he/she may feel threatened or offended by the accusation, the accused should:

  • Properly document all necessary information
  • Cooperate with any possible investigation
  • Maintain objectivity with a goal of identifying and correcting any possible misunderstandings
Necessity and Obligation
  • Because of secretive nature of many research environments, misconduct will only come to light if someone close to the project blows the whistle.
  • This relative secrecy is driven by many different factors, for example:
    • sheer practicality
    • protection of credit or intellectual property rights
    • worries about the possible misuse of preliminary data
  • Both whistleblowers and those accused may suffer whether or not the allegations are ultimately sustained.
  • As with good research, the integrity of an allegation of research misconduct is best served by keeping clear, defensible records of what happened and when.

The National Science Foundation states that:

Whistleblower disclosures save lives as well as taxpayer dollars. They play a critical role in keeping our government honest, efficient and accountable. Recognizing that whistleblowers root out waste, fraud and abuse, and protect public health and safety, federal laws strongly encourage employees to disclose wrongdoing. Federal laws also protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

Why be a Whistleblower?

There is a considerable range of opinions among scientists about how to respond to perceived misconduct — and an even greater difference between scientists and administrators (Wenger et al., 1999). Yet, as a 1995 publication of the National Academy of Sciences advises:

Someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act.

In addition to this proposed obligation, other reasons to favor whistleblowing include:

  • Protect against the risk of wasted resources

  • Clarify something that may either not in fact be wrong or is easily remedied

  • Decrease the risk that someone else will uncover the misconduct and questions will be asked about why you didn’t say anything
  • Examples of Whistleblowing
    Consequences for Whistleblowers

    Unfortunately, the evidence is compelling that whistleblowers, not just the accused, suffer adverse consequences . Based on self-reports (Research Triangle Institute, 1995):

    • Over 60% of whistleblowers suffered at least one negative consequence, such as:
      • Being pressured to withdraw their allegation
      • Being ostracized by colleagues
      • Suffering a reduction in research support, or
      • Being threatened with a lawsuit.
    • Approximately 10% noted significant negative consequences, such as being fired or losing support.
    • However, fewer than 18% of those suffering the most severe impact on their careers reported that they would be unwilling to come forward with allegations again.

    This potential for adverse consequences makes it problematic to place an obligation for whistleblowing on scientists in training, such as postdocs, graduate students, or undergraduate students.

    How Should I Report Misconduct?
    • Begin by asking questions and seeking perspective. Depending on circumstances, it may be appropriate to talk to:
      • Peers
      • More senior members of the research group
      • Someone in an ombuds program, or
      • Even the individual whose conduct is in question.
    • Clearly distinguish between facts and speculation in presenting an allegation and supporting documentation.
    • Avoid the trap of inferring motives on the part of others.
    • Instead, stick to the facts of the case, which will reduce the risk of a loss of credibility.

    These considerations do not diminish the need for whistleblowing.

    Scope of Regulations
    Legal Protections

    Whistleblowers are entitled to a number of legal protections.

    educate agency employees about prohibitions on retaliation for whistleblowing, as well as employees’ rights and remedies if subjected to retaliation for making a protected disclosure.

    Discussion Questions
    1. List at least three reasons that the integrity of science is dependent in part on whistleblowing.

  • Describe the relative advantages and disadvantages for an individual who makes an allegation of research misconduct.

  • List at least three steps a potential whistleblower can take to decrease the likelihood of adverse consequences.

  • As a student, should I discard data that does not showcase the point I am trying to make?

  • As a professor, if my student’s results seems too good to be true, should I ask them to show me their raw data? What if the results are from a fellow professor?

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