Nature magazine recently published an excellent article on the art of whistleblowing in science: “Research ethics: 3 ways to blow the whistle.”
Reporting suspicions of scientific fraud is rarely easy, but some paths are more effective than others. In this article, they analyzed the effectiveness of three techniques commonly used by individuals to report suspicions of scientific fraud, including anonymity.
Anonymous tipsters are nothing new. But since 2010, someone going by the pseudonym 'Clare Francis' has seriously upped the ante. She or he (or they; many suspect it is a group of people) has sent hundreds of e-mails to life-science journal editors, flagging up suspected cases of plagiarism or instances in which figures appear to be manipulated or duplicated. Her terse, sometimes cryptic complaints have resulted in a handful of retractions and corrections, but editors have felt bombarded by her voluminous notices — many of which, they say, lead nowhere.
What my quote meant to convey is that there is absolutely a role for anonymous whistleblowers in science today, but there is also something to be said about how they go about it. Read below to learn more.
Generally speaking, Clare was rather disruptive at first, but by now most editors and publishing teams have an approach in place when it comes to managing Clare’s demands and threats. Clare’s emails are read and assessed, but they’ve set boundaries in regard to what kinds of cases they’ll investigate, how far back, and how many papers they’ll look into before deciding if it’s warranted to go any further. (Many cases will require cross referencing one piece of original research with 5, 10 or more suspected papers to plagiarize it). Clare’s frequent cc’ing of emails to Nature, The New York Times and other media were unsettling at first, but are no longer much of a concern.
Following are my email responses to the Nature reporter's questions:
[pullquote align="right"]It's not that Clare Francis is a pseudonym; it’s that the pseudonym is Clare Francis.[/pullquote]
For some, it’s not that Clare Francis is a pseudonym; it’s that the pseudonym is Clare Francis. Editors and publishers are as interested in cleaning up the scientific record as anyone, but like any other facet of life, there’s something to be said about how you work with or make requests of people. For example, I don’t think repeated threats to expose people’s names to the media every time they disagree with the interpretation of a particular case helps Clare’s cause.
They are increasing in absolute terms, but we don’t know if that’s true on a percentage basis, as there is an increase in queries overall, due in part to the increase in readership coupled with more fierce competition for tenure and grants.
I’d agree there’s a perception that anonymous inquiries are increasing, because they can be more frustrating and time consuming to deal with, so people talk about them more.
Do you prefer allegations/concerns about papers to come from people who disclose their identity, rather than from pseudonymous/anonymous whistle-blowers?
Sure, they’re preferred, though not required. Most scientists deal in relatively close communities and are either aware, or can check anyone’s respective reputation and record. And since so many of these cases are subjective, it helps to know whom all the people involved are, including the whistle-blower. Everyone is focused on spending their time effectively so that we can have the greatest positive impact on improving the record, so the more time that’s spent discussing what’s wrong about the science, versus what’s unknown about the personalities involved, is desired.
Any time spent on trying to figure out who the whistle-blower is and what their particular motivation is time that can be better spent. Normally, when you know the name of the scientist raising the concern, you know their reputation, credibility, and often, their objective, so you have a more clear sense of what the right thing to do is.
Of course, if someone is pointing out a simple, straight forward problem, like an incorrect image in a paper, it doesn’t matter who spotted it. But more ethical cases tend to be complex and more often than not, further communication is needed to uncover all relevant details. In this process the identity of the complainant may need to be revealed. There is also the legal angle, in that if lawyers get involved, it is often seen as harming the rights of the accused if a complainant does not reveal himself.
Many allegations come from serious people who are genuinely concerned for the integrity of science. I believe that is true with the majority of cases but there are people who have different, more personal motives.
Do you have a particular policy on how to deal with anonymous reports, such as asking for names to be revealed confidentially?
Elsevier doesn’t have any policy that requires a name to be revealed in order for an initial action to be taken. That runs counter to what COPE and Elsevier recommend. The initial assessment will always be based on the merits of the evidence presented.
How would you recommend a whistle-blower raise concerns to you if they are worried about disclosing their identity?
[pullquote align="right"]The ‘how’ they come to a journal doesn’t really matter; it’s the information that matters first and foremost.[/pullquote]
There are times when there are perfectly legitimate reasons for not disclosing one’s identity. For example, maybe a PI wants an editor to know something about their professor, and disclosing their name poses a risk to their career. Maybe the professor is on the Journal’s editorial board. The ‘how’ they come to a journal doesn’t really matter; it’s the information that matters first and foremost.
When we receive a complaint we look first and foremost at how serious and how specific the complaint is. The complaints we take most seriously are those that mention specific problems in detail, and that do not sound as if they’re driven by personal feuds. If well-founded complaints come from anonymous sources, it will not make a difference in how we treat the case. We suggest the whistle-blower simply contact the Editor or the Publisher directly and explain the reasons for their concern.
Do you think there is a good way and a bad way to be a whistle-blower, in terms of getting your concerns noticed and dealt with?
[pullquote align="right"]The successful examples I’ve seen are when the whistle-blower focused on the science, and not motivations, agendas, vendettas or threats. The information should be presented much like a scientific paper is, it should be clear, well researched, maybe include a methodology and a very specific request.[/pullquote]
The successful examples I’ve seen are when the whistle-blower focused on the science, and not motivations, agendas, vendettas or threats. The information should be presented much like a scientific paper is, it should be clear, well researched, maybe include a methodology and a very specific request.
The bad way, for sure, is to make complaints that are personal, unclear, irrelevant and the like. We received one complaint stating that an author had not appointed him to the organizing committee of a conference, and that this proved his malicious intent towards the complainant. ‘Good’ complaints contain facts and are objective.
At other times we receive long emails about an author’s supposedly malicious character, with a publishing-related complaint eventually discussed near the end. We prefer not to know too much background, in order not to cloud our judgment, but sometimes it is enlightening. For example, once we received several spiteful, but unfounded attacks on a particular group of scientists. As it turns out, the complainant had been fired for misconduct at his university and consequently directed his energy to discrediting his former peers.
Sometimes we’ll also receive a message with just the title of an article and the instruction ‘Investigate!’ That might not get the highest priority.
We always encourage those with concerns about scientific practice to work with their local University authorities in the first instance. As a publisher, we can only deal with matters regarding our journals. We are receiving complaints from people claiming to be treated unfairly at their university by certain authors but these are not matters we can address.
Elsevier Connect Author
As VP and Head of Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier, Tom Reller (@TomReller) leads a global team of media, social and web communicators for the world's largest provider of scientific, technical and medical (STM) information products and services. Together, they work to build on Elsevier's reputation by promoting the company's numerous contributions to the health and science communities, many of which are brought to life in our new online community and information resource: Elsevier Connect.
Reller directs strategy, execution and problem-solving for external corporate communications, including media relations, issues management and policy communications, and acts as a central communications counsel and resource for Elsevier senior management. Additionally, he develops and nurtures external corporate/institutional relationships that broaden Elsevier's influence and generate good will, including partnerships developed through the Elsevier Foundation.