Whistleblowing: the community's response.

In my last post, I examined the efforts of Elizabeth Goodwin's genetics graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to deal responsibly with their worries that their advisor was falsifying data. I also reported that, even though they did everything you'd want responsible whistleblowers to do, it exacted a serious price from them. As the Science article on the case [1] noted,

Although the university handled the case by the book, the graduate students caught in the middle have found that for all the talk about honesty's place in science, little good has come to them. Three of the students, who had invested a combined 16 years in obtaining their Ph.D.s, have quit school. Two others are starting over, one moving to a lab at the University of Colorado, extending the amount of time it will take them to get their doctorates by years. The five graduate students who spoke with Science also described discouraging encounters with other faculty members, whom they say sided with Goodwin before all the facts became available.

In this post, I examine the community-level features that may have stacked the deck against the UW whistleblowers. Then, I suggest some ways to change the academic culture -- especially they department culture -- so that budding scientists don't have to make a choice between standing up for scientific integrity and getting to have a career in science.

When Goodwin's students contacted their department chair, Michael Culbertson, to share their suspicions that something was badly amiss with the data in Goodwin's grant application, they were fearful of what they were setting in motion.

Because they were being careful not to compromise the confidentiality of the investigation, they could only talk to the faculty members and administrators doing the investigating, and to each other -- not to friends in other labs, not to other faculty in their department. They were essentially isolated from any sense of community their department might have provided them.

Worse, it looks like the faculty in their department reflexively circled the wagons. In the absence of details of the inquiry, given the choice between siding with their colleague or with her graduate students who had instigated the inquiry, they sided with their colleague. This seems understandable: faculty generally have a longer lifespan in a department than do graduate students, so your ties to your colleagues feel more durable. They tend to be closer to you in terms of career stage and shared experience (such as getting through graduate school). They understand the sorts of responsibilities and pressures that their colleagues must juggle, because they're juggling them too.

Students, on the other hand, don't really know what it's like yet to really be a grown up scientist. Sometimes they can seem idealistic and naïve, lacking in perspective. They get pretty good at doing their experiments, but they don't know what it's like to have to keep the grant money rolling in to keep the lab in business.

Undoubtedly, they misunderstood what they saw and just weren't listening carefully when Goodwin explained it to them.

I'm all for a presumption of innocence in legal proceeding and similar administrative actions. What's striking here is that the faculty's apparent desire to believe in their colleague's innocence seemed to shut off any inclination to apply scientific standards of evidence. Maybe they didn't have enough details (like the grant application) in front of them to judge that Goodwin probably had been fabricating data, but neither did they have evidence to support their judgments that the students were unproductive or acting out of personal animus toward Goodwin. In the absence of data, they did not embrace an agnosticism about who to believe. They sided with their colleague.

I want to mention here that the UW-Madison administration really worked hard to support Goodwin's students during the investigations. Irwin Goldman, a biology professor and dean involved in the informal inquiry, promised the students that they would still get their salaries while Goodwin was investigated, and the university came through, drawing on university funds to support the students when Goodwin's grants were canceled. Goldman also provided moral support for the students, helping them to feel just a little less isolated. And, when the university's investigating committee found that the student's concerns about Goodwin were well grounded, department chair Culbertson made sure each faculty member in the department got the committee's written report -- underlining that the students who had blown the whistle on their colleague were correct to do so.

Indeed, according to the Science article, dean Goldman is taking steps to make sure that institutional support for whistleblowers does not depend on the personal whims of those running the inquiries:

Goldman does plan to craft formal policies for students who might encounter this situation in the future. The policies, he says, would guarantee that the university protects students from retribution and that their funding remains secure. He hopes that codifying such safeguards will offer potential whistleblowers peace of mind.

Such a policy would be useful, but it's not clear to me that all the "retribution" that student whistleblowers might face could be eliminated by policy. After the finding of the university's investigating committee that Goodwin had engaged in deliberate falsification in grant applications and that "her mentoring of her graduate students included behaviors that could be considered scientific misconduct," the faculty members who had sided with Goodwin didn't apologize to the students they had doubted. They didn't fall over themselves to welcome these students into their labs and help them get back on track.

Indeed, one gets the sense that some of Goodwin's former colleagues might have though that the whistleblowers deserved to have their studies derailed.

I can't help but think that this is a predictable outcome of a system where principal investigators view their lab groups as fiefdoms. The PI has the power to direct the efforts of her students, choose their projects, set their hours, tell them who to work with, decide whether their data is worth keeping or suitably labeled as junk, decide whether, when, and by whom their results are presented, and so forth. Graduate students management is viewed along the same lines as parental discipline: what happens within the laboratory walls in your business. (Actually, people probably talk more about parenting than they do about how they treat their grad students).

In a department organized in this way, the isolation of graduate students from those outside their research group is very effective. They tend not to know much about how things are run in other people's labs (because if you have time to be forming friendships with people in other labs, or to be keeping up with those friends, that's cutting into your time in the lab). And, what other faculty members know about graduate students is what they hear from the students' advisor, who after all is a better authority on whether a student will ever amount to anything as a scientist than the student could ever be.

If you set up a system where the PI controls all the resources the graduate students need -- funding, training, even access to other faculty in the department -- you also create conditions where the graduate students may feel pressured to go along with all of the PI's demands. The PI controls your access to the scientific community, and since the PI is recognized as a full member of that community and you are not, the PI can smooth your entry as a full member. Or, by way of their control of what you can publish, their letters of recommendation, and what they confide to their trusted colleagues in the field, they can mess things up for you.

Principal investigators have too much power over the fate of their graduate students.

What if departments decided that it takes a village to raise a scientist? What if no single professor held the power of scientific life or death over a graduate student? If the standard mode of graduate training involved collaboration between faculty members directing and supervising research projects, and regular interactions with other faculty members, it might be easier for students to stay on track if one of those faculty members had to leave in disgrace (or even if she left on good terms). It would also expose the students to different styles of mentoring and lab management, which might well be useful for them when they become PIs. And, it might help the department faculty to regard the graduate students as budding scientists whose strengths and weaknesses they know first hand, rather than simply as their colleague's serfs.

Another shift that might help in situations like this would be to consider that a series of small, distinct research projects could also constitute an important contribution to a scientific field. If we only count projects that take 5+ years in a lab as Ph.D.-worthy, the chances of getting back on track if a project falls apart in year 4 or 5 are not good. They may be low enough that people close to the end of their time have a significant incentive not to notice or look for flaws in their research, even obvious ones.

The scientific community really needs to be able to trust that those in the community are being honest in their research and in their communications with other scientists. This means scientists have a duty to call out dishonesty when they see it. Whistleblowing shouldn't be too easy -- given the snake pit atmosphere arising from competition for scarce grant money, journal pages, and faculty positions, you wouldn't want false accusations to be the preferred way to neutralize your competition. But given the real conditions facing whistleblowers -- especially those with less power in the community than the bad actors whose conduct they are bringing to light -- standing up for scientific integrity looks an awful lot like a martyrdom operation. At the same time, you have to be able to live with yourself and your own choices. Some scientists won't be able to look at themselves in the mirror if they know that they are enabling conduct that harms the body of scientific knowledge and the scientific community itself.

For the health of the scientific endeavor, blowing the whistle on bad conduct ought not to be a career killer. This means that the scientific community needs to take care of the people standing up for the truth.

[1] Jennifer Couzin, "Truth and Consequences," Science, Vol. 313 (1 September 2006), 1222-1226.

More like this

One of the big ideas behind this blog is that honest conduct and communication are essential to the project of building scientific knowledge. An upshot of this is that people seriously engaged in the project of building scientific knowledge ought to view those who engage in falsification,…
This post is standing in for a lecture and class discussion that would be happening today if I knew how to be in two places at once. (Welcome Phil. 133 students! Make yourselves at home in the comments, and feel free to use a pseudonym if you'd rather not comment under your real name.) The topic…
MommyProf wonders whether some of the goings on in her department are ethical. She presents two cases. I'm going to look at them in reverse order. Case 2: Faculty member is tenure-track and he and I have collaborated on a paper. He was supposed to work on the literature, and sends me a…
When I was a kid, my mother went back to school with the intention of getting the physics training she needed to pursue her dream of a career in astronomy. Part of this journey, of course, required that she be plunged into the life of a graduate student. It wasn't any prettier then than it is now…

The missing factor in the specific UW-M example and your general solution is, who pays for the graduate students?

At UW-M, the other departmental faculty might not have been able to pick up the students. Sure the Institute funded them during the inquiry but did it say it would pay their stipends for a meaningful future interval, like until their thesis defense? Labs are increasingly tight on resources and PIs can't just instantly absorb other students.

With respect to future independence, well, this would work best if the PI were in no way "paying for" graduate students but got their participation free. This would decrease control over what they work on (this is not just megalomania on the PIs part, if the grant pays the salary the grant needs to be worked on!), and facilitate transfer to other labs at short notice.

But NIH is actually decreasing training funding at the moment. First decreasing Institutional in favor of Individual fellowships. Positive from the perspective of breaking the "rich get richer" cycle up but negative from an independence of the trainee perspective. (unless you happen to train in the lab of the PI holding the T32 that is...).

Another shift that might help in situations like this would be to consider that a series of small, distinct research projects could also constitute an important contribution to a scientific field.

Yes! Hazaa!

If you think about it, the purpose of a science PhD education (under the not-to-be-examined-right-now assumption that the ultimate goal should be to be a scientific faculty member or researcher) is to teach graduate students how to be good scientists in their field. To learn the field, but also to learn how to do research in the field.

Right now, the way PhD programs are set up, usually things work towards that goal, but that's not quite the metric being used. Your success as a PhD student isn't judged by how capable you are in taking and analyzing data and drawing conclusions from it, and in framing research projects. It is judged on how well you go through your massive PhD project.

Success or failure, positive results or negative results, if the students performed their projects as good scientists, they should get all the prestige and reward of the PhD degree, independent of whether or not their experiment came up with really cool results. The goal of science is to investigate, not to produce. If you investigate well and come up with not so exciting results -- well, you've still made your contribution to science.

Too much of the evaluation and rewards of scientists at all levels is based on having a name attached to a really cool result, and not to having done the science well.


One of the main negative consequences for the students is that they needed to start their thesis projects over. But since they had been getting bad advice from their PI, they probably needed to start over anyway: "Goodwin's relentless optimism ... kept them clinging to questionable results." In other words, they'd already paid much of this cost (in non-productive research time) before they blew the whistle.

To put it another way, In the students' situation, the alternative to blowing the whistle is to switch to a different lab and a different PhD project. I didn't get a strong sense from the article that the students were worse off for blowing the whistle relative to switching labs, except that the investigation process itself was stressful & unpleasant. Do you think the fact that most of them left implies that the department didn't do enough to help them switch labs?

Today's science is a capital venture. As such, secrecy is part of the game. Colleagiallity is only a word. I know of PIs who keep their Co-Is in the dark on certain aspects of the collaborative research they do. The loyalty of faculty members to their accused colleague exists not only when the whistleblower is a student. It exists also when the whistleblower is faculty member from another department and the accused is a higher-up (chair or vice chair) who wield some power over his/her faculty members. I the case I was involved in I went into the trouble of sending each faculty member a copy of the evidence of plagiarism by their chairman. Even the evidence in their hands did not change their stand and loyalty. This attitude of loyalty among thieves is typical to almost any group of people (policemen, scientists, etc) and is almost impossible to uproot. Most people consider their own personal stakes in any dispute and usually wwould take the side they believe benefit themselve the most.

I am sorry to sound so pessimistic, Janet, in my response to your brave, idealistic suggestions as to how we should alleviate the hardships of the whistleblower in order to fight scientific misconduct more successfuly. However, I think that it is almost going against human's nature to support a person that most perceived to be a "stool pigeon."

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 06 Jun 2007 #permalink

Did these students have research committees made up of faculty members besides their advisor? Shouldn't they have been stepping in on behalf of the students? Isn't part of the point of having a thesis committee is to protect the student from the advisor?

Online responses to the Couzin article include two important insights; I paraphrase but you should read the more eloquent originals if you have access:

1. The students did not receive the education they paid for, in large part because the university was negligent (in providing honest faculty in the first place, and in dealing with malfeasance). The students should be awarded free tuition for a comparable period, or a monetary settlement.

(I would go further; there should be official financial support for whistleblowers whose case is proven, either in their scientific career or in their change to a new career. This money should come from funding bodies and institutions, and should be sufficient to ensure that whistleblowers do not suffer for their courage and integrity.)

2. The university was also negligent in its management of these graduate students, some of whom had been in the lab 6-7 years without a publication. Was there no committee, no oversight -- no one to say, these students are not being looked after properly? Goodwin should have attracted scrutiny as a lousy PI well before the situation got so bad.

My experience with an event like this is that a student who found him or herself in such a situation should immediately hire an attorney and steel him or herself for the lost of three or more years of professional work. Graduate students always get the worst of any event, and nobody has either the authority or the inclination to change this.

I loved these two posts about the whistle blowing grad students, but I think it's just because I realize I at least don't have to deal with THAT.

Another shift that might help in situations like this would be to consider that a series of small, distinct research projects could also constitute an important contribution to a scientific field.
I don't know, where I got my graduate degree a number of students earned their PhDs in this manner, so I think it is coming to pass. They worked on a serious of smaller projects that were not connected other than being in the same general subfield of study. My thesis after my original grand idea went down (mostly due to the company I was going to work with went under) was a series of side projects that I had been doing that I fit together into one coherent thesis. Another person who graduated the lab worked on two completely different topics and graduated. The philosophy of my advisor was to swing big in the beginning. If it works great. If not, that is fine and we switch gears to smaller projects. The key though is our advisor stayed on top of things and was good about getting us to start side projects and weaning us off of those big projects when they are not working.

On the flipside there are some faculty members who expect a nice and tidy thesis-one large project. The current funding situation though is slowly changing their opinions as it is silly to waste money on projects that are not going anywhere.

I'll underline Pondering Fool. It seems to me that graduate programs are always going around and around on the purpose of scientific training and therefore how the programs should be designed. It polarizes into olde-skool fondness for the monolithic thesis project and deep-steeping in the knowledge base (qualification exams) versus the real-politik of matching training to views of the modern research career. I trended toward the olde-skool position during graduate school and now lean more toward the specific-career-training side. This may have something to do with my career outlook changing from SLA college prof to soft-money science as time and circumstances progressed...

"Another shift that might help in situations like this would be to consider that a series of small, distinct research projects could also constitute an important contribution to a scientific field."

This is already done in Australasian Universities. Mine was three different projects. However, some do one that is larger. There's also a move toward having PhD degrees awarded via papers published.

In some countries such as the Netherlands it's compulsory to achieve the PhD degree via publications. This pretty much ensures that it's in multiple projects.

Somewhat off topic, but I just saw this go by:

Dr. Lung: Research is a real problem. Doctors just make up the data. They don't report negative side effects, no question about it. I used to write the results on my reports that were negative and nobody printed them. Only if it's positive does it get published in a journal. A doctor I know used to publish papers like nobody's business, and all the doctors who came and left told me he made up data to satisfy NIH grants and pharmaceutical grants. He was and still is very popular.

From http://nymag.com/health/bestdoctors/2007/33163/index3.html
in http://nymag.com/health/bestdoctors/2007/33163/

By Anonymous (not verified) on 14 Jun 2007 #permalink