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Good Practices

The boundaries of anonymous whistle-blowing

Boas Praticas adaniel buenoJournal editors regularly receive anonymous reports of plagiarism or fraud committed in scientific papers, but since 2010 the pseudonym Clare Francis has become a symbol of this type of whistle-blowing. Diane Sullenberger, executive editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, told the journal Nature that 80% of the accusations that she has received have come in the form of e-mails from Francis – whose real name, occupation, and gender remain unknown.

Following investigation of a report by Francis last year, the Journal of Cellular Biology retracted a 2006 article written by Italian researchers on the mechanisms of myoblast fusion, because the published images had been manipulated. The Journal of Neuroscience also recently investigated the suspected manipulation of images in a 1997 paper, but it failed to reach a conclusion; although the allegation made sense, the authors of the study categorically denied committing any fraud. Given the challenges of probing into a case from so long ago, the journal decided not to retract the paper but to attach a “Statement of Concern” about possible image manipulation.

Anonymous charges raise a dilemma for editors. Ulrich Brandt, editor of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, told Nature that you have to know the “motivation of the whistle-blower” because “ill-founded allegations can do harm and may constitute a form of scientific misconduct themselves.” In February 2013, the Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope), a forum of scientific journals with over 7,000 members, released guidelines on the topic. It proposed that any charges that are backed up by proof should be investigated, even if the source is unknown. Not all journals adhere to this guideline. Darren Taichman, editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, told the site The Scientist that accusers should be up-front about their identity if they want the journal to investigate their charges; the journal will, however, keep the name of the source confidential. Some of Clare Francis’ tactics irritate editors. When displeased about an editor’s reply to reported accusations, Francis will sometimes forward it to the press. Tom Reller, vice president of Elsevier publishing, says not all of Clare Francis’ allegations warrant investigation. “Clare’s accusations are essentially the product of running a software application over publicly available articles,” which generally points out flaws in the record. “We’d prefer to spend our time with people telling us things about the scientific record we can’t otherwise know,” Reller stated on Elsevier’s site in December 2013.