Performance Improvement 1996. Consequences of Whistleblowing for the Whistleblower in Misconduct of Science



In this study, a contractor for the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) contacted and interviewed by mail individuals who had made allegations of scientific misconduct to ORI. In this first examination of its kind, ORI sought to better understand the impacts of whistleblowing and develop an empirical base by which to examine the consequences of whistleblowing on whistleblowers. More than two-thirds of the whistleblowers surveyed reported experiencing at least one negative outcome as a result of their action, with the most serious negative consequences being actions taken by institutional officials. Adverse consequences were even more likely to be experienced if the alleged misconduct developed into a high-profile case that gained notoriety outside the institution.


Data were collected on whistleblowers from closed cases to provide an empirical base to consider the consequences of whistleblowing. These data were used to inform the Commission on Research Integrity and ORI staff as they sought to deal seriously and effectively with whistleblowers' allegation of misconduct and to protect them from retaliation or negative consequences resulting from their action. Data were collected on the types of actions experienced by whistleblowers before and after their allegation and the effects these actions had on their personal and professional lives. In addition, more detailed information was gathered on the particular circumstances of the allegation (i.e., the relationship of the accused, the type of allegation, the outcome of the allegation, and the amount of publicity the allegation received).


Uncovering misconduct in science often depends on the willingness of those who are aware of or suspect the misconduct to report it. Before reporting misconduct, potential whistleblowers must consider whether administrators will take the allegation seriously, treat it confidentially, and protect them from retaliation.

Current Federal Regulations (42 CFR 50 103) require that institutions develop policies and procedures to handle allegations of misconduct. These policies must include provisions for "undertaking diligent efforts to protect the positions and reputations of those persons who, in good faith, make allegations" (42 CFR 50 103 [D][13]). If there is an immediate need to protect the interests of the person(s) making the allegations, Federal policy requires institutions to notify HHS.

The National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993 created the Commission on Research Integrity, which was established in March 1994 to make recommendations to the Secretary of HHS and Congress on how the Public Health Service (PHS) should deal with research misconduct in research funded by the PHS Act. In an interim report released in January 1995, the Commission identified "retaliation against whistleblowers" as one of three problem areas affecting the responsible conduct of scientific research.

Congressional hearings revealed that some whistleblowers may have suffered retaliation by the accused or others in the institution, which led to mandated additional regulations to protect whistleblowers. Despite legislative and executive efforts, however, empirical evidence and anecdotal reports continue to suggest that some students and faculty engaged in scientific research are, or feel they are, vulnerable to retaliation if they report misconduct.


The Research Triangle Institute conducted the study for ORI. Individuals listed in ORI files (closed cases only) as having made allegations of scientific misconduct were identified. There were two phases of data collection. In the first phase, whistleblowers were contacted by mail; and a followup telephone call was made to create an up-to-date mailing list, which resulted in current addresses for 105 of the 127 individuals (82 percent) listed in the files.

A second-phase questionnaire was mailed to individuals, and a followup telephone call was made to remind them to return the completed survey. Eighty-nine individuals responded to the questionnaire; of these, 68 whistleblowers were considered eligible and willing to participate. Ninety-one percent of respondents reported that they held doctoral degrees; 78 percent worked in an academic setting; 9 percent were postdoctoral or graduate students.


Whistleblowers in scientific misconduct cases are highly likely to experience one or more negative consequences as a result of their whistleblowing, but most perceive these consequences as having had a neutral impact on their careers, professional activities, and personal lives. Sixty-nine percent of whistleblowers reported experiencing at least one negative outcome. Twenty-five percent reported serious consequences such as loss of position or denial of tenure, promotions, or salary increases. Other negative consequences included reduction in research support or travel funds, counterallegations, delays in reviewing manuscripts or processing grant applications, and ostracism.

The majority of the negative consequences experienced by whistleblowers were due, they said, to the actions of institution officials, respondents, colleagues, and professional societies; the most serious consequences felt by whistleblowers were attributed to the actions of institutional officials while the institution was responding to their allegations (i.e., while the case was still open) and after the inquiry or investigation was completed. Consequences were most likely to involve pressure on the whistleblower to drop the allegations of misconduct.

Data revealed that whistleblowing was most likely to have adverse outcomes in situations in which fabrication of data was alleged, the case received publicity, the allegations were made to a senior administrative official or misconduct official of the institution or to the funding agency, the allegations were made both within and outside the institution, the allegations were made to many different types of individuals, and the allegations were subjected to an investigation without recourse to an initial inquiry.

About 62 percent of whistleblowers perceived their whistleblowing to have had a neutral impact on their careers, professional activities, and personal lives; 28 percent perceived a negative impact; and 10 percent reported a mixed impact. Although few whistleblowers perceived positive consequences of their actions, 68 percent reported a willingness to make another allegation; 12 percent said they probably would make another allegation; 10 percent were uncertain; and 10 percent said they would not.

Not every whistleblower suffers substantial negative consequences as a result of reporting misconduct, but most individuals who report allegations of misconduct frequently face the prospect of significant hardship because of their efforts.

Use of Results

The study results will be used by ORI to develop the mandated regulation on the protection of whistleblowers, educate institutional officials and scientists about current abuses, and create a system of monitoring the treatment of whistleblowers in scientific misconduct cases.

These data suggest that ORI focus first on limiting adverse actions while the case is still active. To prevent the most serious consequences of whistleblowing, regulations and enforcement approaches will need to primarily target institutional officials. Finally, potential whistleblowers should be counseled about the likely harm they will suffer if they make their case a cause celebre by taking their concerns outside their institution or getting their case publicized by the media.

Agency sponsor:

Office of Research Integrity

Federal contact:

Lawrence J. Rhoades, Ph.D.
PIC ID: 5659
NTIS Accession Number: PB 96-200449

Performer organization:

Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle Park, NC