In my last post, I considered why, despite good reasons to believe that social psychologist Diederik Stapel's purported results were too good to be true, the scientific colleagues and students who were suspicious of his work were reluctant to pursue these suspicions. Questioning the integrity of a member of your professional community is hard, and blowing the whistle on misconduct and misbehavior can be downright dangerous.

In her excellent article "How to Blow the Whistle and Still Have a Career Afterwards", C. K. Gunsalus describes some of the challenges that come from less than warm community attitudes towards members who point out wrongdoing:

[Whistleblowers pay a high price] due to our visceral cultural dislike of tattletales. While in theory we believe the wrong-doing should be reported, our feelings about practice are more ambivalent. …

Perhaps some of this ambivalence is rooted in fear of becoming oneself the target of maliciously motivated false charges filed by a disgruntled student or former colleague. While this concern is probably overblown, it seems not far from the surface in many discussions of scientific integrity. (p. 52)

I suspect that much of this is a matter of empathy -- or, more precisely, of who it is within our professional community with whom we empathize. Maybe we have an easier time empathizing with the folks who seem to be trying to get along, rather than those who seem to be looking for trouble. Or maybe we have more empathy for our colleagues, with whom we share experiences and responsibilities and the expectation of longterm durable bonds, than we have for our students.

But perhaps distaste for a tattletale is more closely connected to our distaste for the labor involved in properly investigating allegations of wrongdoing and then, if wrongdoing is established, addressing it. It would certainly be easier to assume the charges are baseless, and sometimes disinclination to investigate takes the form of finding reasons not to believe the person raising the concerns.

Still, if the psychology of scientists cannot permit them to take allegations of misbehavior seriously, there is no plausible way for science to be self-correcting. Gunsalus writes:

[E]very story has at least two sides, and a problem often looks quite different when both are in hand than when only one perspective is in view. The knowledge that many charges are misplaced or result from misunderstandings reinforces ingrained hesitancies against encouraging charges without careful consideration.

On the other hand, serious problems do occur where the right and best thing for all is a thorough examination of the problem. In most instances, this examination cannot occur without someone calling the problem to attention. Early, thorough review of potential problems is in the interest of every research organization, and conduct that leads to it should be encouraged. (p. 53)

(Bold emphasis added.)

Gunsalus's article (which you should read in full) takes account of negative attitudes towards whistleblowers despite the importance of rooting out misconduct and lays out a sensible strategy for bringing wrongdoing to light without losing your membership in your professional community. She lays out "rules for responsible whistleblowing":

  1. Consider alternative explanations (especially that you may be wrong).
  2. In light of #1, ask questions, do not make charges.
  3. Figure out what documentation supports your concerns and where it is.
  4. Separate your personal and professional concerns.
  5. Assess your goals.
  6. Seek advice and listen to it.

and her "step-by-step procedures for responsible whistleblowing":

  1. Review your concern with someone you trust.
  2. Listen to what that person tells you.
  3. Get a second opinion and take that seriously, too.
  4. If you decide to initiate formal proceedings, seek strength in numbers.
  5. Find the right place to file charges; study the procedures.
  6. Report your concerns.
  7. Ask questions; keep notes.
  8. Cultivate patience!

The focus is very much on moving beyond hunches to establish clear evidence -- and on avoiding self-deception. The potential whistleblower must hope that those to whom he or she is bringing concerns are themselves as committed to looking at the available evidence and avoiding self-deception.

Sometimes this is the situation, as it seems to have been in the Stapel case. In other cases, though, whistleblowers have done everything Gunsalus recommends and still found themselves without the support of their community. This is not just a bad thing for the whistleblowers. It is also a bad thing for the scientific community and the reliability of the shared body of knowledge it tries to build.


C. K. Gunsalus, "How to Blow the Whistle and Still Have a Career Afterwards," Science and Engineering Ethics, 4(1) 1998, 51-64.