Why We Need Whistleblowing for Research Integrity

August 3, 2018 Chris Graf

We’re all proud of the work we do to support researchers. Our journal teams help researchers share outcomes from approximately 180,000 research projects annually at Wiley. Our journal teams support researchers from submission, through triage and checking, on to feedback via peer review then to revision, through to final preparation and publication, and lastly via active curation.

And it’s that curation – the work that we do after publication – that’s often not talked about, but always vital. When something needs correcting, we do it. That’s important

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 and went to extraordinary lengths to understand what had gone wrong. They communicated this with the editors at Science and the public, and retracted 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,if necessary. 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 research journal teams).

So what’s best practice for how to listen and respond to whistleblowers?

A dedicated team at Wiley is 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). We began sharing our work with 40 case studies and a preprint, titled “What does better peer review look like?”. We’re aiming to take this work to the next level with conference presentations, a peer reviewed journal, and a symposium in mid-2019.

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”

Research 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 on concerns raised by authors about Land Degradation and Development when we received allegations that the previous journal editor was asking authors to add citations from Land Degradation and Development to their papers. We followed due process, and then worked with new editors to create and convene the new editorial team. Land Degradation and Development now has an editorial structure and governance designed to rebuild confidence in the journal, and to protect researchers who choose to read and submit their work to the journal.. More detail is here:

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

  • We want to hear from whistleblowers, and have set-up our Publication Ethics Helpdesk for that: publication.ethics@wiley.com, which we promote via our best practice guidelines on publishing ethics
  • 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 flowcharts on how to respond to whistleblowers s, 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 whose complaints are irrelevant or offensive

We note that there are new avenues for whistleblowing about problems in journal articles (as well as online discussion of those articles), like PubPeer. In part 2 of this post we explore the risks and benefits of anonymous online commenting with Brandon Stell from PubPeer.

How does that sound to you? Please, share your thoughts and comments. We’d love to hear them.

Chris Graf is Director, Research Integrity and publishing ethics, Wiley
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 // Researcher behaviour and research publishing are changing fast. The integrity of what we peer review and publish together has never been more important. Research publishers need editorial processes and an editorial focus on quality that fits the research environment we work in, and that fits what our communities expect of us. My job is to lead those efforts at Wiley, with a focus on integrity and ethics. I also volunteer and am elected as Co-Chair at COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) for 2-year term.

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