What’s So Good for Research About Whistleblowing, Anyway?

July 1, 2018 Chris Graf

We’re all proud of the work we do to support researchers. Our journal teams help researchers share outcomes from something like 180,000 research projects annually at Wiley. We support researchers from submission, through triage and checking, via peer review, feedback for authors and revision, through to final preparation and publication, and then afterwards via active curation. And it’s that curation—the work that we do after publication—that’s often not talked about, but always special. When something needs correcting, we do it. That’s important, and it makes us different from other places researchers might choose to publish their work.

Take, for example, the story I often share about the “good retraction” from the University of California, Davis researcher Pamela Ronald. I first read this story as a news item from Nature Jobs. Pamela Ronald is a crop scientist. When Ronald and her colleagues found they couldn’t reproduce their work on disease resistance in rice they “blew their own whistle.” They spoke with the journal, they went to extraordinary lengths to understand what had gone wrong, to communicate this with the editors at Science and the public, and to retract the paper.

That work is great research practice, supported by good active curation from the journal. We should celebrate it. We need researchers like Ronald to blow their own whistle, because we do need to correct what we’ve published, and sometimes retract it, when there are problems. Similarly, we need research readers to blow the whistle to help us identify when something we’ve published may need a little extra attention. Because, even when we’re doing our best, we sometimes miss things that we wish we hadn’t (whether we are researchers or members of journal teams).

So, what’s best practice for how we listen and respond to whistleblowers? Colleagues at Wiley are working on a project to understand what might make peer review better (the whole process, end-to-end, not just the act of peer review itself), which you’ll have learned about in the previous article. Two questions that the “better peer review” team thinks journal teams should ask themselves are whether and how they enable readers to raise concerns, and how they act on those concerns when they are raised. The team thinks better practice demands that “concerns raised by readers are received, considered, and acted upon”

Readers may raise queries about research published in journals. And—because they’re also authors (and peer reviewers)—they may equally raise queries about journal practices. That’s OK, too: We need our journal operations to be fair and transparent, and we are happy to listen to fair criticism, and to act on it when warranted. For example, we listened and acted to concerns raised by authors of Land Degradation and Development (LDD) when we received allegations that the previous journal editor was asking authors to add citations from LDD to their papers. We followed due process, and then worked with new editors to create and convene the new editorial team. LDD now has an editorial structure and governance designed to rebuild confidence in the journal, and to protect researchers who submit their work to and who choose to read LDD.

Let’s finish by making our approach to whistleblowers clear:

  • We want to hear from whistleblowers, and have set-up a Publication Ethics Helpdesk for that: publication.ethics@wiley.com
  • We understand that the act of whistleblowing carries risk for the whistleblower, and we receive queries, triage them, and act on them using our complaints procedure whether they are anonymous or signed. 
  • We follow the COPE whistleblowing flowcharts, an early step in which asks, “Do the allegations contain specific and detailed evidence to support the claim?”
  • We may choose not to correspond with whistleblowers who make defamatory statements, or who’s complaints are defamatory or otherwise offensive

How does that sound to you? Please, share your thoughts and comments either through your Journal Manager or with me at cgraf@wiley.com. We’d love to hear them.

Disclosure: Chris Graf is current Co-Chair, COPE. This is a voluntary and elected role for which he receives no compensation.

About the Author

Chris Graf

Director, Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics at Wiley // Director, Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics at Wiley, and is Co-Chair of COPE, Committee on Publication Ethics (an elected and voluntary position for which he will serve a 2-year term). Chris leads initiatives at Wiley that focus on transparency, research integrity and publishing ethics.

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