Whistleblowing – are we even allowed to dare?

Repression photoPaul Brookes, an associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, dared to be a whistleblower.  According to an interview he gave in the Magazine Science, he was author of the now defunct blog science-fraud.org. Like oh so many, he tried to achieve that via the internet. After realising that a lot of the scientific literature that is published contains faults in the form of wrong data, wrong or missing sources, and more, he decided that it was high time to speak out against bad writing and publishing practice. In order to protect his university and himself, he wrote about the problems anonymously. But with the way the internet actually functions, it was not that hard to blow his cover. Somebody apparently tracked back his IP Adress, and since his blog was uncomfortable for more than a few fellow scientists, someone, yet again anonymous, send an email to his university and to other institutions, exposing him and threatening with a law suit. Brookes subsequently declared his authorship the next day and removed the blog from the internet. Fortunately, the university, although not being particularly happy about Brookes actions, led him hold on to his job and Brookes is still blogging about faulty papers. Now under his own name and strictly in his private time.

What makes me think here is not the prevalence of botched data in research articles. Unfortunately, I am well aware of the world of publish first or perish in the name of academia, and its consequences. I am astounded by the apparent need of those who are fighting for a “clean” science, to have to remain anonymous in order to survive and not commit academic suicide. Paul Brookes has survived, but just and it might haunt him for the rest of his career. Neither his university nor those he accused were happy about it. Instead, the former should be proud to have an upright employee and the latter should be ashamed. Instead, the latter threatened him with a law suit. Instead of owning up to their mistakes, they accused Brookes of wrongdoing. It smells a bit of a parallel universe. I am not so naive not to understand that the main motivator in quickly publishing questionable data is either money or prestige or both, and that both often do play a huge role for the individual. But does that really mean that we are not allowed to question data anymore and to prevent others from building their career on false notions? I am a philosopher, my job is to question. But do I even dare to do so anymore? Do I believe in the all’s well that ends well in Paul Brookes story? Maybe I am overstepping the boundaries of my institution by even asking these questions? I am happy for Paul Brookes that he is asking his questions under his own name now, as I will continue to publish under my own name. I am not claiming to be a whistleblower, but I do claim that we need them in order to be our conscience. If there is nothing to report, because we all act correctly, only then is there no need for that special vocation anymore.

Author: the medical philosopher

I am a philosopher of science with the main focus on philosophy of medicine. I write about evidence based medicine, medical research versus medical practice, ethics in medicine and why medicine needs to be patient centred and how we can achieve that.

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