Author: Michael Kalichman, 2001
Contributors: P.D. Magnus, Dena Plemmons
Updates: Rhiannon Kennard, 2016

Someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act.
(NAS, 1995)

While this obligation might be met by formal reporting of the alleged misconduct, this is only one of many paths open to the potential whistleblower.


According to the 2010 definition from the US Office of Special Counsel, a whistleblower discloses information he or she reasonably believes evidences:

Roles and Perspective

The whistleblower should (Gunsalus, 2010; Keith-Spiegel, 2010):


Even though he/she may feel threatened or offended by the accusation, the accused should:

Necessity and Obligation



The National Science Foundation states that:
Whistleblower disclosures save lives as well as taxpayer dollars. They play a critical role in keeping our government honest, efficient and accountable. Recognizing that whistleblowers root out waste, fraud and abuse, and protect public health and safety, federal laws strongly encourage employees to disclose wrongdoing. Federal laws also protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

Why be a Whistleblower?

There is a considerable range of opinions among scientists about how to respond to perceived misconduct -- and an even greater difference between scientists and administrators (Wenger et al., 1999). Yet, as a 1995 publication of the National Academy of Sciences advises:

Someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act.

In addition to this proposed obligation, other reasons to favor whistleblowing include:

Examples of Whistleblowing

Whistleblower Incident References
(see Resources)
Roger Boisjoly Actions within Morton Thiokol prior to the O-ring failure believed to be the cause of the Challenger disaster in 1986 Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 1986
Robert Sprague Data fabrication by Stephen Breuning Holden, 1987
Jeffrey Wigand Knowledge of nicotine's addictive properties within the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company Gleick, 1996
Margot O'Toole Alleged misconduct by Thereza Imanishi-Kari, ultimately rejected on final appeal Kevles, 2000
Peter Mock and†John German Volkswagen software designed to mask true emissions Kell, 2015

Consequences for Whistleblowers

Unfortunately, the evidence is compelling that whistleblowers, not just the accused, suffer adverse consequences . Based on self-reports (Research Triangle Institute, 1995):

This potential for adverse consequences makes it problematic to place an obligation for whistleblowing on scientists in training, such as postdocs, graduate students, or undergraduate students.

How Should I Report Misconduct?
Because of the serious consequences of an allegation of misconduct, it is important to be clear about the allegation. This concern is particularly relevant for someone with relatively little experience in research or in a specific area of research.

To avoid the mistake of an inappropriate allegation:

These considerations do not diminish the need for whistleblowing.

Regulations and Guidelines

Scope of Regulations
To foster fair and timely responses to allegations of research misconduct, regulations typically include: Whistleblowers are protected under rulings from both state and federal governments.

Legal Protections

Whistleblowers are entitled to a number of legal protections.

The first amendment to the Constitution, guarantees free speech, giving whistleblowers legal protection from retaliation.

The federal False Claims Act is more far-reaching (US Code, 1986):

Current federal policies to protect whistleblowers from retaliation are covered, in part, by: The regulations are intended to place obligations on institutions both to prevent and to remedy retaliation against whistleblowers.

In addition to federal regulations: Guidelines can have as much or more importance than the regulations in reducing the chance of adverse outcomes.


Discussion Questions
  1. List at least three reasons that the integrity of science is dependent in part on whistleblowing.

  2. Describe the relative advantages and disadvantages for an individual who makes an allegation of research misconduct.

  3. List at least three steps a potential whistleblower can take to decrease the likelihood of adverse consequences.

  4. As a student, should I discard data that does not showcase the point I am trying to make?

  5. As a professor, if my studentís results seems too good to be true, should I ask them to show me their raw data? What if the results are from a fellow professor?

Case Studies


  1. Department of Health and Human Services (2000): Public Health Service Standards for the Protection of Research Misconduct Whistleblowers. Notice of proposed rulemaking. Federal Register November 28, 2000 65(229):70830-70841. http://ori.hhs.gov/misconduct/nprm_reg.shtml

  2. Gleick E (1996): Tobacco blues; the tobacco industry has never lost a lawsuit; but a new billion-dollar legal assault, and a high-ranking defector, may change that. Time 147(11): 54 (5 pages). http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,984241,00.html

  3. Gunsalus CK (2010): How to blow the whistle and have a career afterwards. https://nationalethicscenter.org/resources/149

  4. Holden C (1987): NIMH Finds A Case of Serious Misconduct. Science 235:1566-1567. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/235/4796/1566

  5. Keith-Spiegel P et al. (2010): Responding to research wrongdoing: A user-friendly guide.

  6. Kell J (2015): Here's who figured out Volkswagen was cheating on emissions tests. Fortune Magazine. http://fortune.com/2015/09/21/volkswagen-emissions-testing-golf.

  7. Kevles DJ (2000): The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character. W.W. Norton & Company. Reviewed at: https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/09/20/reviews/980920.20portert.html

  8. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine (1995): On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research. National Academy Press. http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/obas

  9. National Science Foundation: Whistleblower Protection https://www.nsf.gov/oig/whistleblower.jsp

  10. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (1986): Report to the President. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/genindex.htm

  11. Research Triangle Institute (1995): Consequences of whistleblowing for the whistleblower in misconduct in science cases. Report submitted to Office of Research Integrity. http://ori.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/final.pdf

  12. US Code (1986): False Claims Amendments Act of 1986. 31 USC Sections 3729-3731. https://www.justice.gov/jmd/false-claims-amendments-act-1986-pl-99-562

  13. US Office of Special Counsel. https://osc.gov/Resources/post_wb.pdf

  14. Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c101:S.20.ENR:

  15. Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-112publ199/pdf/PLAW-112publ199.pdf

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