Whistleblower protection/rights

From The Embassy of Good Science

Whistleblower protection/rights

What is this about?

The strength of an institution’s whistleblower protection influences whether people actively report misconduct or decide to passively witness a potential integrity breach. Whistleblower protections also show a given institution’s commitment to scientific integrity

Why is this important?

Whistleblower protection affects not only researchers (including undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students), but regulatory bodies, university administrators, research technicians, resource suppliers, funding bodies, editors, research ethics committees, research integrity officers and any other individuals and groups that may be indirectly involved in conducting research.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Whistleblower protections are an important element in an institution's ethics code, describing procedures to deal with allegations and violations of misconduct. There is general agreement within the scientific community that reporting misconduct is essential in the prevention and management of misconduct and that whistleblowers should be provided adequate safeguards. Whistleblower protections also support a culture of scientific integrity within an institution. However, policies on researchers’ duties to report and the consequent protections differ significantly by institution and country.

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity [1]contains the following guidance in the section “Dealing with Violations and Allegations of Misconduct”:

"National or institutional guidelines differ as to how violations of good research practice or allegations of misconduct are handled in different countries. However, it always is in the interest of society and the research community that violations are handled in a consistent and transparent fashion. The following principles need to be incorporated into any investigation process.[…] Procedures are conducted confidentially in order to protect those involved in the investigation. Institutions protect the rights of ‘whistleblowers’ during investigations and ensure that their career prospects are not endangered."

In the UK it seems that universities develop a specific whistleblowing policy for different misbehaviours (grievance, bullying and harassment, discipline, research misconduct). As an example, we refer to the document of the University of Leicester,[2] which guarantees confidentiality for whistleblowers:

"The University will treat disclosures of information made under this Policy in a confidential and sensitive manner. The identity of individuals making allegations may be kept confidential, if requested by the individual(s) concerned, so long as it does not hinder or frustrate any investigation. In this event, the University will consult the individual before it takes any further action which might break the initial confidentiality. It should be recognised, however, that the investigation process may, of necessity, reveal the source of the information and, as part of the investigation, an individual making a disclosure may need to provide a statement as part of the evidence required."

In the USA, whistleblowers have well established legal protection. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 strengthened protection for federal employees who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse in government operations.

  1. European Science Foundation, All European Academies. The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. 2017.
  2. University of Leicester, Whistleblowing Policy, June 2017. Please see here. Last accessed May 2019

Other information

Virtues & Values
Good Practices & Misconduct