Since 2017, the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity has recommended that those involved in research misconduct investigations must be protected. As the code states,
- Procedures are conducted confidentially to protect those involved in the investigation, and
- Institutions protect the rights of ‘whistleblowers’ during investigations and ensure that their career prospects are not endangered.
The EU whistleblowing directive on the protection of those who report breaches of Union law entered into force in 2019. The main purpose of this regulation is to protect those who report wrongdoings, for example corruption, in public and private organisations.
The directive states that all organisations with more than 50 employees need to have an anonymous channel for reporting. Although the directive does not mention research or research misconduct specifically, it is likely that notifications of suspected research misconduct in research projects will be made in similar vein. Channels for reporting can be used when there are suspicions of wrongdoing inside the organisation. In cases of suspected research misconduct, it is nevertheless common that the person making the allegation and the person under suspicion do not work in the same university or research institution, sometimes not even in the same country.
The European Network of Research Integrity Offices ENRIO has had a working group that deals with the protection and the status of whistleblowers since 2016. In 2023, ENRIO published the ENRIO Handbook on Whistleblower Protection in Research.
Anonymous reporting and the Act on the Openness of Government Activities
Accusations of research misconduct should never be made lightly, especially in a public manner. Whether research misconduct has taken place can be assessed only through an investigation process specifically created for this purpose. It should also be noted that when a notification is made of a suspected case of research misconduct and when the case is being investigated, the case is still only a suspicion.
For reasons of confidentiality and sensitivity, the secretariats of research integrity offices and research integrity committee members do not comment on misconduct cases publicly, especially when an investigation is ongoing. Otherwise they would disqualify themselves from handling the case in the future.
In many countries, the person who suspects wrongdoing is required to submit a notification of alleged research misconduct under their own name. This is considered as the best way to prevent frivolous or malicious reporting. However, in a narrow research discipline or a small scientific or language community, the whistleblower’s identity is very likely to be revealed. On the other hand, electronic channels for making anonymous reports are now available.
The principle of public access to official documents applies for example in Finland, where documents of research misconduct are handled within the scope of the Act on the Openness of Government Activities. This means that anybody can ask to see the documents in question.
To remain anonymous, a whistleblower may bypass the official investigation process and go straight to the media. Journalists do not need to reveal their sources when writing about a case.
European and Finnish guidelines on research integrity
Finland has a national system for investigating violations of research integrity. This system is based on the self-regulation of the research community, and it has been in place since 1994. All universities, universities of applied sciences and research organisations that comply with the guidelines of the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK send information of all new cases of suspected research misconduct to TENK.
As a result, TENK receives extensive and up-to-date information on whistleblower activities in research-performing organisations in Finland. Confidential information from the ENRIO network confirms that whistleblower activities are similar in many other European countries.
Who are the whistleblowers?
Who, then, are the whistleblowers who report alleged violations of research integrity? First of all, they are researchers. The whistleblower and the researcher suspected of research misconduct usually represent the same field of research. Most often, whistleblowers are researchers who have suffered from research integrity violations – they are the victims themselves.
Notifications have also been made by applicants for a professorship who detect exaggerations in a competing applicant’s CV. Some whistleblowers are motivated by a genuine concern for the quality of research, or they take action after an individual observation.
Serious cases of research misconduct have sometimes been uncovered by accident in various countries. This can happen for example when a researcher asks for access to research material that they have read about in a publication.
A separate category of researcher whistleblowers are former colleagues who feel that they have been treated unfairly during or after their employment and that their work input has been ignored. There are also researchers who don’t dare to speak until years have passed since the events in question, perhaps only after starting a new job or moving out of the country. Those involved in research misconduct investigations sometimes exchange defamation accusations and make complaints of other criminal activities.
So-called serial whistleblowers have been identified as a phenomenon in many countries since the late 2010s. Serial whistleblowers make multiple reports on the same case, or target the same individuals or organisations several times.
Research participants can also act as whistleblowers. In a situation like this, the whistleblower has for example participated in an interview for a social sciences study. After the study is published, they may suspect that they or someone close to them may be identified in an undesirable context, despite assurances to the contrary.
Whistleblowers do not, of course, need to be involved in the case in question, and they do not need to be members of the research community. Anyone who notices a problem can act as a whistleblower.
An investigation can also begin without anyone making an notification, if a suspicion is raised in the media, for example, and there is a desire to clarify the matter. In some European countries, investigative journalists systematically seek out and uncover cases of plagiarism in publications or academic theses by politicians or other persons of note.
What makes someone blow the whistle?
What makes a researcher blow the whistle? As mentioned above, a typical reason is that a researcher has suffered an injustice and hopes to correct the situation. For example, authorship violations are reported with a lower threshold than before because publications are an important source of merit for researchers. Perhaps the whistleblower’s research plan has been misappropriated, or their text has been copied without proper acknowledgement.
A notification can also result from a member of a research group witnessing misrepresentation of research observations. In addition, a researcher may report suspected research misconduct when another researcher publicly disparages or denigrates their work or person on social media.
When whistleblowing occurs, problems in the working community or with management are often found lurking in the background. Unhealthy competition between researchers or disagreement concerning the commercialisation of research results may also lead to notifications of research misconduct. In addition, mental health issues may sometimes be a factor. It should also be noted that distinguishing between a scientific disagreement and a case of research misconduct can sometimes be difficult.
One clear reason for whistleblowing is revenge. Sometimes an allegation of research misconduct turns out to be motivated by revenge that has nothing to do with science or research but originates from a different area of life altogether. A whistleblower may also have ideological or political motivation.
Even if the motives of the whistleblower are not purely in the interest of science, every allegation of research misconduct may still have grounds. All suspected cases therefore need to be taken seriously.
How can whistleblowers actually be protected?
When considering whistleblower protection, those involved in research misconduct cases must, first of all, be identified. The obligation to treat them with confidentiality and responsibility must be followed, both during and after the investigation. The whistleblower’s employer should have the main responsibility for protective activities. When a whistleblower applies for a research post or research funding, they should not be discriminated against.
National research integrity organisations should also be given a significant role in monitoring the cases. Protective measures of different degrees should be included in national codes of conduct for research integrity.
The best way to protect whistleblowers is the existence of a national code of conduct for research integrity that sets the ground for impartial and transparent investigations where all the parties can be heard. This system also works as a support and safety mechanism for researchers, if they ever become victims of research misconduct. A baseless and malicious claim of research misconduct may in itself be research misconduct. It is also important that proper corrective measures for confirmed violations of research integrity are implemented as a result.
In Finland, the Research Integrity Advisers trained by TENK provide neutral support and advice for researchers during investigation processes.
Do all whistleblowers need protection?
No one knows how much research misconduct is hidden away when researchers hesitate to make official notifications. Blowing the whistle takes courage, and early career researchers need active means of protection the most. They are not always willing to make a notification, especially if the other party in question is a respected senior researcher in the field.
However, not all whistleblowers need to be protected by the research community. One might ask: Do professors who have already established their positions need protection? Whistleblowers from outside higher education institutions or research organisations do not need to be protected. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that discipline-specific factors and individual situations should always be considered.
For the sake of the quality and credibility of science and research, suspicions of research misconduct should always be investigated. This is in the interests of all those who are involved in research misconduct cases, including the researchers who face allegations as well as their employers.
Sanna-Kaisa Spoof, Secretary General of the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK, Finland
This article is based on the author’s long experience of research misconduct cases and investigations as the General Secretary of TENK and as a long-term ENRIO member and former Chair (2018-2022).