If you suspect that a colleague has engaged in research misconduct, you should report your suspicions. The general principle at work here is clear: research relies on self-regulation to detect and correct serious misbehaviour. However, it is not always easy to follow this principle and 'blow the whistle' (as reporting is commonly described). There are potential negative consequences, which will be addressed at the end of this section.

For now, assume that you will report – but to whom? Consider the following question and select what you feel is the best option. Then continue for our own thoughts.

If you have good reason to suspect a colleague (or even your mentor) of serious research misconduct, to whom would you first report your suspicions?

Answer options:

  • Your colleague or mentor: Because you think they should be given a chance to explain what they did. After all, you might be wrong. You wouldn't want to report them to someone else without first telling them.
  • Your colleague's or mentor's superior: Because it isn't a good idea to go right to the top of any institution. There are chains of responsibility. It is best to begin with the person who is closest to the potential problem.
  • Your institutional misconduct representative: Because you should report first to the individuals who have overall responsibility for research, particularly if there is someone who is appointed to deal with misconduct.
  • The press: Because you can't trust your institution to take allegations seriously and you feel it is more likely that you will be punished for causing trouble. The best option is to leak the information to the press and let public pressure take its course.
  • No one: Because, although you know you should report it, your career is too important to you.

Feedback:

If your institution or country has a research misconduct policy, you should follow it. You are generally advised to report concerns and suspicions to the institutional misconduct representative or Research Integrity Officer (RIO) first. More generally:

  • Talking with the person suspected of misconduct first could complicate bringing charges later if evidence is destroyed or other action taken to cover up the misconduct.
  • Superiors within the system are often not trained to handle cases properly.
  • Your institutional misconduct representative (e.g. RIO) is usually trained to handle cases properly and protect all parties involved. If there is no trusted institutional official, having an informal mentor to consult before taking any action is usually a good idea.
  • Reporting to the press or doing nothing are not recommended and risk backfiring. Whenever possible, have authorised individuals investigate before going public. They usually have a duty to protect those who report suspicions in good faith. If you're worried, seek advice from trusted colleagues to make sure you're making the right decision.

How do you think your peers' responses might compare to your own?

Consider the 'Your context' box at the end of this section to find out more about the policies that apply to you. You can explore these and others in more detail on the 'Guide to research policies and guidelines' section at the end of this course. Be particularly mindful of the definition of misconduct and to whom misconduct should be reported. Knowing your policies and getting good advice early is the best way to avoid making the wrong decision.

Glossary term - Research misconduct
Behaviours that significantly compromise the accuracy of the research record or the proper professional conduct of research.

The basic principles

Whilst there are significant differences in the way countries and institutions define and respond to misconduct in research, overall there are similarities in approach, which can be summarised in three simple steps. The following section outlines these steps in more detail.

1. Individual report

The first stage is when an individual reports suspected misconduct. If you do this, you should take the following steps:

  • Review any evidence you have to make sure you haven't misunderstood anything
  • Protect your evidence
  • Report your suspicions to the appropriate authority (e.g. the RIO) and/or your mentor
  • Consult with respected and trusted colleagues if you have doubts about reporting
  • Maintain confidentiality.

2. Institutional review and finding

Before reporting details of the allegation, the institution should follow a clear and fair investigative procedure, generally conducted as follows:

  • Receive and log all allegations
  • Assess the likely truth of the allegation (inquiry)
  • Formally review the evidence (investigation)
  • Issue a report based on the investigation's findings.

3. Wrap up

Finally, decisions are made and followed through based on the investigation's findings. The process usually includes the following:

  • Determine appropriate sanctions for anyone found to have committed misconduct
  • Report findings to those who need to know or should know
  • Take steps to restore the reputation of anyone found innocent
  • Make sure the person who blew the whistle is protected from retaliation
  • Correct the research record.

Principles in practice

Some allegations are easily resolved following this general procedure. Extensive plagiarism, for example, can be easily documented. As will be discussed in the section on plagiarism, there really are no excuses for copying someone else's work without giving credit.

Other types of misconduct, however, can be more difficult to identify and pursue. In the following section, consider the scenario, reflect on the questions and then continue to our suggestions.

Case study icon

The scenario

Something about a digital image a colleague presented in a seminar last week didn't look right. Fortunately a version of the presentation was circulated in advance, allowing you to call up the image and check with photo-processing software. Sure enough, the part that puzzled you was clearly copied and pasted into the image.

Is this a case of research misconduct?

Our suggestion:
Perhaps. If the colleague was presenting research results and made no mention of the copy-and-paste manipulation, he or she was dishonest and could be accused of fabrication or falsification. Fabrication and falsification, or some wording that implies dishonestly manipulating data, is included in most definitions of research misconduct. In this case, however, the rules for what one can and cannot do to digital images can be vague (this will be discussed in the section on data). You are right to be suspicious but you cannot be certain.

So what should you do?

Reporting your suspicions

You now know that it is generally recommended that you should report your suspicions to the person or office in your institution (or in some cases within your country) charged with investigating misconduct. There are different ways to meet this responsibility. You could:

  • Send an anonymous note with some or all of the evidence you have
  • Make a phone call and convey your suspicions anonymously
  • Meet with the integrity officer and present the information that you have
  • Convey your suspicions in writing along with any supporting evidence you have.

Which course of action is proper?

Our suggestion:
Expectations for reporting vary from institution to institution. Some institutions place the burden for bringing initial allegations on the whistleblower and will only proceed if they are written down and supported by some evidence. Other institutions will respond to anonymous allegations.

Find out what your institution requires before proceeding to report. Be mindful of the fact that not all allegations of misconduct are brought in good faith. You must provide enough information for the person receiving the allegations to have reasonable suspicions.

The next step

When an allegation of misconduct lands on the desk of a research integrity officer, what would you expect to happen next?

  • The accused person is contacted immediately to make him or her aware of the allegations?
  • The allegation is reported to a government agency?
  • The research integrity officer sets up a committee to investigate the allegations?

Our suggestion:
Actually, none of these. Not every seemingly wrong behaviour is research misconduct. For official action to follow, the misbehaviour must fall within an official definition of misconduct. That's why the definition of misconduct is so important. Misconduct is also not generally reported to government agencies if there is no government funding or violation of government rules. The research integrity officer must review the allegations and make decisions on what official course of action to follow.

The outcome

If the photo manipulation in this case might be research misconduct, who ultimately decides whether misconduct has been committed?

  • The research integrity officer?
  • A committee?
  • The government?

The answer to this question depends on the applicable misconduct policy. However, the process generally follows the pattern outlined here.

  • An individual or special committee carries out an initial inquiry to determine whether the case needs to be pursued. If it does, then...
  • An official committee is established to investigate the allegations and conclude whether misconduct was committed. If the committee concludes that misconduct was committed, then...
  • Some senior person independent of the investigation committee reviews the finding and recommends a course of action, which could range from exoneration to some punishment, including job termination. If some punishment is recommended, then in some cases...
  • The accused has a right to appeal to some higher institutional authority. However, appeal is not always an option. When the appeal process has been exhausted, then...
  • Appropriate follow-up action is taken, such as restoring the reputation of a falsely accused researcher, protecting the career of someone who blew the whistle or retracting faulty research publications. Then...
  • The case is closed.

Weaknesses with the system

This is the way allegations of misconduct should be handled. The system works well in many cases, but it has some significant weaknesses. In the following section, consider the five weaknesses listed and the five measures that could help to overcome them. Decide which weakness corresponds to which measure and make a note of your thoughts, then continue to our guideline answer.

Weaknesses

  • Failure to discover
  • Under-reporting
  • Improper investigations
  • Institutional cover-up
  • Failure to correct research record

Measures

  • Mandatory reporting and oversight by government agencies or independent national misconduct organisations
  • Better teaching and guidance for reviewers and more conscientious review
  • More encouragement by administrators and peers to report suspected misconduct
  • Strengthened or more effective guidelines for making and listing retractions
  • Better teaching, training and support for investigating committees

Our answers:

  • Failure to discover – better teaching and guidance for reviewers and more conscientious review
  • Under-reporting – more encouragement by administrators and peers to report suspected misconduct
  • Improper investigations – better teaching, training and support for investigating committees
  • Institutional cover-up – mandatory reporting and oversight by government agencies or independent national misconduct organisations
  • Failure to correct research record – strengthened or more effective guidelines for making and listing retractions

Over the last two decades, significant strides have been made in improving definitions and developing procedures for responding to misconduct in research. Even so, the systems in place for reporting and responding to misconduct have numerous shortcomings. For various reasons:

  • Researchers are reluctant to report misconduct when they suspect it
  • Some research institutions are not aggressive in pursuing allegations
  • Whistleblowers are not always adequately protected
  • Institutional and national policies are inconsistent and not as effective as they could be.

You can help to address some of these problems if you keep in mind that, as a researcher, you have two fundamental responsibilities:


  • To know and avoid behaviours that your institution, your country and your peers consider serious misbehaviour
  • To know what to do if you suspect misconduct and act accordingly.

Do this icon


Making the decision to report someone, particularly a friend or colleague, is not an easy one and can have personal consequences. In the box at the end of this section, some researchers share their advice on facing this difficult situation. It will be easier to face situations such as this if you work in a supportive research environment and have trusted and experienced mentors and colleagues, as discussed in the next section.