One of the most distressing experiences for a scientist are false allegations of scientific fraud. As a result of technological progress it is easy to screen publications and PhD theses for plagiarism, photo manipulation and statistical abnormalities. A disadvantage is that false accusations are distributed quickly all over the world and ‘haters’, ‘trolls’ and ‘stalkers’ can stay anonymous while damaging the career of a scientist. What to do if you are falsely accused?
Psychological effects of false accusations
Even if you have never stolen a cookie from a colleague people will NOT give you the benefit of the doubt. ‘Where there is smoke probably there is fire’. All co-authors will be severely distressed. Former PhD students will be afraid that they may lose their PhD title. Co-authors will be afraid that their reputation is ruined, that they will never find a job or funding again …and it is all the fault of the person who generated the attacked data. Journalists may call every co-author, your colleagues or any person above you in the hierarchy. They may make provocative statements or lie about the state of the investigation to get quotes for a wild story. This is what colleagues and I experienced.
Economic costs of false accusations
Allegations of scientific fraud normally lead to an investigation by a neutral commission. There is no doubt that this is a necessary procedure to protect science from fraud. However, this means that a group of highly paid senior experts, administrative staff members as well as the accused scientists will spend many hours of their working time with very strict and complex administrative procedures to address the allegations. In the case of false accusations a lot of valuable research time and consequently a lot of tax payer’s money is lost.
Typology of whistleblowers
To understand the nature of false accusations it is important to get an idea where they are coming from. There are several types of persons who consider themselves or present themselves as whistleblowers:
These scientists honestly belief that there is scientific fraud and want that science stays clean of bad practices. These are the whistleblowers who deserve to be protected without reservation.
- Angry (ex-) colleagues
These persons intentionally want to damage the career of a scientist. Their primary motivation is rage or revenge. They are convinced that they have been treated badly (true or not). They may be honestly convinced that there has been fraud or they may question intentionally the trustworthiness of the work of a researcher. Often it is difficult to distinguish between false accusations and factual fraud. These are the whistleblowers who deserve to be protected but must be instructed – for example by their institution – to behave in a fair way.
These persons have a political motivation to ruin the reputation of a scientists for example in the context of elections for important positions such as dean, rector etc. Also in this case it is difficult to evaluate whether the accusations are true or just a political game. Sometimes small justified allegations which would be considered as ‘sloppiness’ or ‘honest error‘ may be exaggerated and followed up by an institution or a commission in a ‘vendetta style’ with destructive effects on the reputation of a scientist. These persons intentionally abuse the whistleblower status.
- “Crazy people”
Unfortunately, there are self-proclaimed whistleblowers who behave badly. During the last decade, I talked to several editors of Science, Nature journals as well as specialized journals about this type. Every single editor told me surprisingly unpleasant stories about one or more persons who attacked publications of his/her journal on a regular basis – often without convincing evidence. It is difficult for editors to handle these unfounded accusations and sometimes they delegate the problem to their authors. Sometimes a psychiatric problem cannot be excluded but only clinically trained psychiatrists are able to judge this. Characteristic behaviors are personal insults, multiple accusing emails to a broad audience including journal editors, colleagues, the press and/or politicians – sometimes over long periods as well as numerous accusations based on various ‘suspicious’ elements of a publication or stalking behavior. These persons abuse the status of the whistleblower either intentionally or unintentionally. It is difficult to judge whether they should be protected or stopped.
What to do when you get accused of scientific fraud?
When you are accused of scientific fraud you must be very careful and take your time to react. Follow these steps:
Check carefully who is accusing you
This is a crucial first step. Is it a colleague who was involved in the study or somebody who is from the same institution? Is it a renowned colleague who has re-analyzed the original data or the published data and pictures? Is it a person without a clear scientific affiliation? Is it an anonymous letter to the university, to your funding body or the journal which published your research? Or a journalist who hopes to have found the next scoop? Make sure to identify which of the four types of whistleblowers is attacking you.
A typical mistake is to start communicating with such a person before you have carefully checked the case. One of our PhD students suggested to send a copy of her lab book to the accuser. Do NOT do such things. It may be abused. Follow the steps outlined here.
Inform the most important co-authors and other key persons who might be addressed
Depending on your position in the hierarchy and the authors list you should quickly inform the most important other co-authors to analyze the accusations, namely the first, the last and the corresponding author. Furthermore, you should also briefly inform key persons who are higher in the hierarchy such as supervisors or the head of department that there are accusations and you are now investigating the accusations. Together with them decide whether you should also inform higher ranks in the institution such as deans, vice rectors and rectors, CEOs etc. Make a clear plan who should communicate with colleagues, the press and the public. Get informed quickly what the institutional rules for cases of potential scientific fraud are, who has to be informed, which procedures have to get started under which circumstances.
Communicate only that you are investigating the case right now
Do not communicate anything before you know whether the allegations have any substance. If you can not avoid to comment state only that you are investigating the accusations right now. Try to avoid journalists who may try to manipulate you to state stupid things which will be definitely used against you to get a nice story (such as “Scientist states scientific fraud is possible”).
Check the original data
Check carefully whether there is any substance to the allegations and contact all co-authors who have worked on the dataset which is under attack. Get all original data and document clearly which aspects of the study are attacked. Do NOT touch or remove the corresponding lab books, ask a neutral person to make photocopies to avoid further accusations that you may have manipulated the lab books. Lab books should always be safely stored in the research institution where the experiments have been performed. As a rule of thumb they should be stored 10 years after the data have been published.
Check carefully whether the allegations are true, false or misleading
Get crystal clear about the questions whether there is anything wrong about the generation and documentation of the original data, the statistical analysis, the description in the results section and the presentation in the figures. If anything is wrong make a clear decision whether it is a result of sloppiness or stupid mistakes, honest error or real fraud. If there is no fraud describe very clearly why the accusations are wrong or misleading. If there is considerable scientific debate in the community about the correct methods to be used make very clear why you have decided to choose the published one. If the accusations are based on wrong assumptions write it down – similar to a polite ‘point-by-point reply’ for a reviewer comment.
Inform all co-authors about the accusations and your evaluation
Write a short summary for all co-authors and explain the following: who is making the accusations, how much substance do the accusations have, who is responsible for communication about this file and what are the next steps? It is useful to let only one person communicate to the press – for example the first or the corresponding author. Discuss with all co-authors whether they agree with your analysis and the summary.
Inform all key players in the institution
Inform all persons in the hierarchy of your institution who might be addressed by colleagues or the press such as the head of department, the dean, the vice rectors, the rector, the CEO, the press department and any commission who is responsible for scientific integrity. Follow the institutional rules for cases of potential scientific fraud. Hopefully the institutional investigation of the case either reveals that no further investigation is necessary or after intensive investigation you are cleared.
What to do if you are not treated in a fair way?
If you are not treated well by your institution or by the accuser you must get legal help. Analyze carefully whether the accusations are too vague to start a legal case. If institutional rules are not followed this must be documented and addressed by a lawyer.
Communicate the clearance broadly
When you are cleared from the allegations you need a written statement from the commission who has investigated and cleared the case.
Communicate this to all press organs, websites and social media who have published the accusations – and be prepared that they are not interested. Clearance from accusations is not exciting news. If your case is mentioned in Wikipedia or on other websites make sure to put a link to the clearance statement.
Tell your story
Being falsely accused is terrible stress. To cope with this it is useful to discuss your experiences with young researchers to make them aware about the right procedures and healthy emotional reactions to this unpleasant situation. This helps to make science a better place to work and may also lead to psychological release.
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