Public interest disclosure

What should you do if you discover research fraud? This is a major ethical dilemma and society has a real need for fraud in research to be reported. The person raising the alarm risks being labelled a whisteblower. In such situations, should you put yourself first and avoid a potentially awkward situation, or should you take responsibility and report the fraud? Or what should you do if your research identifies a potential risk that some people appear to have been exposed to without knowing it? You know that if the risk is real, it may be best to raise the alarm. On the other hand, you also know that there are weaknesses in your research, and that if your research is presented as sensationalist in the media there will be negative consequences.

Public interest disclosure in cases of dishonesty

In research we strive for 'intersubjectivity', i.e. research results should, to the greatest extent possible, be independent of the person conducting the research. We believe this will yield results that are 'objective'. One prerequisite for achieving this is that the researchers are honest and that they do not knowingly produce fraudulent data, either by fabricating it or by selecting and retaining only data that matches a particular perception. (See Fraud and plagiarism.)

Research fraud gives research a bad name, and the institution where the fraud has occurred can fall into disrepute. Fraud is one factor that can diminish our trust in individual studies, and at least two different, non-collaborating research groups must arrive at the same conclusion before we dare to believe the result. Research fraud can also lead to misplaced investments in society and other adverse economic impacts that could take a long time to rectify. Fraud can inhibit transparency and communication between researchers.

Those conducting research are ordinary people with strengths and weaknesses. This implies the need for a system that can tackle research fraud and ensure that as few researchers as possible are tempted to cheat. Do we have such a system? Only partly. Public interest disclosure is a critical part of such a system.

Who is responsible for raising the alarm?

If a researcher has committed research fraud, allegations of misconduct will be made sooner or later, at any rate if the research is in a field where many independent research groups are engaged in similar research. However, the alarm may be raised by those in very differing positions.

A researcher from a competing research group may raise the alarm. A close colleague may raise the alarm. Or one of the errant researcher's research students or master's students may be the first to take action. Sooner or later, the institution will also be involved. Ideally, the institution's quality assurance system should be good enough to detect research fraud. In practice, however, this is often difficult, since a person usually needs to be very knowledgeable about a field in order to detect intelligent fraud.

What should you do if you discover fraud?

Imagine that you have discovered something you think is fraudulent. Raising the alarm may be an unpleasant task, particularly since you will not normally have first-hand knowledge of every detail of the fraud committed because the researcher in question may have kept the details under wraps. In such cases, it can be difficult to be 100% sure that something fraudulent has taken place. There is also a significant risk in going public with claims that a reputable researcher has actually cheated. Many people may not believe you if, for example, the fraudulent researcher is eminent in his field. You may then be viewed with suspicion, and people may seek other motives to explain why you are making such claims. You yourself may risk being accused of libel, which can be costly in terms of both money and time. In other words, raising the alarm could be an unpleasant experience if you have to shoulder the entire burden alone.

It is therefore important to consult with others and get them involved in the process of raising the alarm as quickly as possible. Ultimately, the institution is responsible for pursuing the matter and ascertaining what has happened. Your responsibility is to get the institution to investigate what has happened. Getting the institution to take responsibility may, however, be easier said than done in cases where the errant researcher has a wide network of contacts and significant influence. You may therefore need to consider several alternative strategies.

If your institution has a committee for reporting suspected cases of research fraud to, it may be most natural to contact them. Alternatively, you may wish to consult with the dean of research or the equivalent, or simply a colleague or fellow student that you trust. The key is to get advice on the further process and to get others actively involved in the process. If it is difficult to find someone in your own institution, you may need to contact the National Commission for the Investigation of Scientific Misconduct.

It will not normally be a good idea to go directly to the press/media with a suspicion of fraud. This will only put the spotlight on you, and you will have to bear the brunt of the reactions that follow. If the suspicion of fraud is also verified by others, the matter will usually be picked up by the media at a later date, at which point it may well be easier to deal with.

Otherwise, it is generally advisable to express yourself diplomatically. If you claim that fraud has been committed, the burden of proof is on you. If you say that you suspect fraud, you are inviting the persons and bodies that you contact to determine the matter for themselves. Either way, it is important to gather as concrete evidence as possible for what you believe to be research fraud.

If you are on speaking terms with the person you suspect of fraud, it may be an idea to take the matter up directly with that person. This approach may be particularly appropriate if the person concerned is a lower rank than you. If a professor discovers that one of their research fellows is acting fraudulently, it may be possible to settle the matter locally. A publication can be stopped before it is printed, or an erratum can be issued afterwards if it has already been published.

If you discover that a close friend has acted fraudulently, it may be difficult to raise the alarm. Perhaps it will ruin your friendship? Or could you perhaps help your friend to settle the matter on their own in order to avoid being caught by someone else, with all the problems that can entail?

If serious fraud proves to have been committed over a period of time, the matter will hopefully be addressed in an appropriate forum within the errant researcher's institution. It is then this institution that is responsible for providing sufficient information to the outside world, so that others are made aware of the research results that are fraudulent.

It is not certain that the institution will take full responsibility. The research institute may find it difficult to tackle specific cases of suspected research fraud if, for example, the suspect is one of the institution's most prestigious and fund-generating figures. Loss of repute due to suspicion falling on such a person may harm the institution, at least in the short term. For that reason, the responsibility to raise the alarm may revert to you if you see that the institution is trying to hush up the unpleasantness without dealing with the matter appropriately.

Legal responsibility

It is important to emphasize that the institution has an ethical and legal responsibility to take the appropriate action when one of its staff has committed research fraud.

Public interest disclosure is mentioned specifically in the Working Environment Act, as well as in the Act on Ethics and Integrity in Research. The acts specify where the responsibility lies for disclosure to the institution. It is also important to be aware that the institution has a legal responsibility to protect the person reporting the matter. An institution can forward a case to the National Commission for the Investigation of Scientific Misconduct.

Significance of disclosure: Danger! Danger!

There is also a completely different kind of public interest disclosure that presents difficult ethical dilemmas. Your research findings may have an important implication for society. You may have discovered that children who receive one of the standard vaccines given are more likely to get a particular illness than others. However, there is some statistical uncertainty in the data, and you are aware of certain methodological weaknesses that you do not think are of major importance, but you are not sure if that is the case or not.

If you publish your preliminary research findings, perhaps some children will not be vaccinated, and thus be spared the particular illness (assuming your results are confirmed at a later date).
On the other hand, children who do not receive the vaccine may be more likely to get the illness that the vaccine provides protection against. In a worst case scenario, this could result in children dying, possibly quite unnecessarily, if it is subsequently proven that your research findings do not stand up to more rigorous testing.

If you publish your findings, it may also cause anxiety among parents whose children have already been vaccinated. Anxiety is detrimental to a person's health and well-being. Inflicting anxiety on people needlessly is therefore a significant ethical responsibility.

Taking responsibility for raising the alarm in such cases entails a variety of challenges and often requires more mature and broad considerations to be made than in the case of suspected research fraud, and the degree of severity may be the same or greater.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Carole Hognestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.