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[ RESEARCH INTEGRITY ] August 30, 2023

How whistleblowers are exposing the truth about academia

Collaboration is at the heart of research and the diversity of perspectives is invaluable. When misconduct occurs or challenges are encountered, this diversity provides opportunities for individuals to step forward and share their honest experiences and reservations.

What are whistleblowers?

A whistleblower is anyone in a lab, in the field, or participating in research who sees something that is not right and comes forward to report it. 

Whistleblowers may be students, staff members, researchers, and more. They can be found in various sectors, including government, business, and healthcare. In academia, a whistleblower may be someone who witnesses plagiarism or image manipulation by another researcher and leaves an anonymous tip to their University hotline. Refusing to be swayed by fears of being blacklisted or punished, these individuals shed light on flawed practices in research and help us maintain the integrity of science by promoting accountability, quality control, and upholding ethical standards.


Blowing the whistle on Theranos

In 2011, Tyler Shultz received an introduction to Elizabeth Holmes from his grandfather. Shultz remembers Holmes discussing details of her company, Theranos, to him, an idea that came to her during her college days at Stanford. The concept involved individuals being pricked by their fingers as a cheap and less painful way to screen for hundreds of diseases with just a few drops of blood.

But, Shultz, along with his colleague, Erika Cheung, later realized that this innovative dream might have been built without foundations. The two discovered that the lab equipment available at the company was insufficient to make the findings they claimed. Theranos’ allegedly unmatched invention, the Edison, was so inadequate for blood diagnosis that Schultz even said:  "[t]here is nothing that the Edison could do that I couldn't do with a pipette in my own hand.”

As a 22-year old, fresh out of college, it would have been much easier for Shultz to resign from his position and move on, which is what several friends and even his own grandfather advised. But Shultz was committed to uncovering the truth. This meant he had to confront his grandfather, former Secretary of State George Shultz, a member on the Theranos board. Shultz’s grandfather refused to believe him, standing his ground until his death. In 2015, Tyler Schultz anonymously tipped off the Wall Street Journal with evidence of what he had witnessed during his time at Theranos.

Today, Shultz is running his own biotech startup focused on women's fertility issues. Elizabeth Holmes has surrendered to federal prison in Texas to begin serving a 11-year term for defrauding investors.

His whistleblowing played a pivotal role in bringing to light the extensive fraud and deception within Theranos.


Stanford’s presidential scandal

Earlier this year, Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne got in some hot water over concerns surrounding the integrity of his research on brain degeneration and diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The allegations of misconduct were first sparked on PubPeer, a website on which scholars throughout the academic community discuss their research and papers.

Stanford freshman Theo Baker decided to look into internet forums and dig deeper into these concerns to fulfill his role as Investigations Editor for the Stanford Daily. His stories led the university to hire an outside law firm to investigate. On July 19, in a statement, Tessier-Lavigne announced his resignation as university president effective August 31. Additionally, Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged the need to retract three papers and correct two others.

The persistent reporting by Baker and his fellow student journalists earned the Stanford Daily the esteemed 2022 Polk Award. Baker himself was recognized with a "Special Award," which celebrates a reporter's courage.


How can we protect them?

Whistleblowers represent the iterative nature of science, and the need to question,  and correct findings as they evolve. Their skepticism is a vital part of improving our science. They promote accountability, strengthen public trust, and encourage an open dialogue within the scholarly ecosystem. Our system needs these brave minds, and so we need to protect them.

While universities do offer both grievance and whistleblowing protocols that are aimed at shielding individuals from negative consequences when exposing misconduct, they also frequently discourage the use of anonymity for whistleblowers. This exposes the dire need for several institutions to reform their research practices. 

In this context, anonymous whistleblowing offers a better and more protective pathway to serving academic justice, especially when the culprit stands in a higher position.



Another way to shield whistleblowers involves minimizing the need for their presence by implementing preventative strategies. 

By introducing agile and proactive workflows, we become better equipped to detect and tackle rogue practices. Through these powerful solutions, we can gain a 360 degree view of the research lifecycle, exploring the preliminary stages of any breakthrough and the complex journey that follows.

guide to research integrity