Paul Brookes: Surviving as an Outed Whistleblower

The website had many supporters, but some scientists felt it went too far. On 2 January 2013, an anonymous e-mail was sent to many scientists and university administrators—including the president of Brookes’s university—disclosing his name and calling for a lawsuit. Brookes stopped posting to his blog, removed all the materials already posted, and confirmed his identity the next day.

“The fundamental idea that I am trying to get across is that discussing this stuff in public produces results, and it appears that when stuff is kept private less is done about it.” —Paul Brookes

Brookes talks to Science Careers about the experience, the career impact of having his identity revealed, and his continuing efforts to highlight apparent irregularities in the scientific literature.

These interview excerpts were edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Did you anticipate that your identity could be revealed when you set up your blog?

P.B.: I think it was always in the back of my mind that it was a possibility, so I took certain precautions, but as we now know from the NSA [National Security Agency] scandal, there is no such thing as privacy on the Internet. Eventually, if somebody wants to find you, they will find you. There are several people who are now friends of mine who are also blogging anonymously, and I think there is a fear, especially for junior people: “What happens if my university or department chair finds out about this?” If you are a grad student, what happens if your mentor finds out? It is still a little bit dangerous. We are still in the first decade of social media, and we have yet to work out all of the rules about what is permissible.

Q: How did your university react when your identity was revealed?

P.B.: They were not pleased. It was made clear that my actions were outside of my role as a university faculty member. Nothing I did was protected by any legal protections from the university, so when I began to receive legal threats, I had to hire an attorney, paid from my own pocket. This is one of the downsides to this kind of activity: It requires you to draw a line between your job—your academic career—and this kind of activity, which you are doing as a private citizen.

If you take an extreme view, you could say that if you are an academic then policing and highlighting problems in the literature and discussing the data of other scientists is part of the job. Where is the line between discussing other people’s work and blogging about other people’s work?

Q: Did you have to negotiate much with your university about what could be done and not done?

P.B.: The university was very open in their discussions. We have come to a mutual agreement about where the boundaries are.

One of the major concerns of my university was, how much is this distracting me from the job I am paid to do? To run a lab, be a faculty member, teach, do research. I would say that at the peak in 2012 I was spending 10 or 12 hours per week on this, but much of this was done after work, at home. Last year, we reached an understanding. This activity is now considered to be unpaid outside consulting. According to university policy, I can do this for no more than 1 day a week. Actually, the time I spend on this now is significantly less.

Another question was, to what extent was I using the resources of the university to conduct this business? So in January 2013, I purchased a separate laptop with my money, and this computer is now the one I use for all my activities in this area.

Q: Did you worry that your blog would cost you your job and career?

In the past year, it appears that this is not such a big problem as I thought. My R01 grant from NIH [the National Institutes of Health] was renewed, and then just in January we got a second grant renewed. We published papers last year without major problems. In 10 years’ time, when I am trying to publish a paper, maybe I will come across somebody who is still annoyed at me.

Q: What about the legal threats?

P.B.: I’ve received a total of six threats of legal action. None of these has so far resulted in an actual lawsuit being brought. We are monitoring this situation carefully.

Q: Has being outed affected you on a personal level?

P.B.: Not really. I mean, I had a couple of sleepless nights in January when I was worried about my future, but apart from this, no adverse health issues or this kind of thing.

However, it affected my travels a little bit during 2013. Some of the places I was scheduled to speak were in other states where they have different legal rules, and in fact, in one case I was scheduled to speak in a university of a person who’d threatened to sue me, so I decided not to go on that trip, because I didn’t want to be served. Fighting a legal challenge at home is difficult and expensive, but having to travel to another state would be just impossible.

When I did travel, I was also a little bit careful not to advertise where and when that was going to be. It would not be a good idea if somebody who didn’t like me was given advanced notice that I was going to be in a certain room at a certain time.

Q: Has your ability to do research been affected?

P.B.: No, I don’t think it affected my ability to do research. But it makes you question the field, certainly. Long term, I think we—that is, my lab group—have become very much aware of what you can and cannot believe, and we are becoming increasingly less willing to publish Western blot data, in particular. There are so many limitations to this method, and I don’t think we can rely on it very much. For example, there are many papers published using commercially available antibodies, all showing that a particular potassium channel is expressed in certain tissues. We have not been able to repeat any of this. We can get a band, but it’s still there in the knockout mouse. So I can publish a Western blot that shows what I want it to show, but ethically I know that would be wrong. And this has caused problems for us with publishing some things, because reviewers are asking for Western blot data and we have to tell them, “Sorry, we don’t have it. We tried. It didn’t work.” And that’s frustrating.

Q: What were the reactions of your close colleagues and people in your lab?

P.B.: Everybody I work with is very supportive of this.

Q: Have you received any harsh criticism openly?

P.B.: Yeah. People get angry when you question their work.

Q: Do you wish you had done anything different with your blog?

Q: And so the whole experience hasn’t deterred you from continuing to expose what you see as possible problems in the scientific literature?

P.B.: No. Not at all. I’m doing it more carefully, but I’m not going to stop doing this, because the problems—apparent irregularities in published data—are still out there.

Q: What is at stake?

P.B.: First of all, fairness. It is just absolutely not fair for people to build careers and get publications and grants and promotion and publicity and fame and fortune on the basis of poor science. We have to live in a meritocracy, and the system of rewards has to be based on reality.

A couple of people who have criticized what I was doing suggested that discussing possible science integrity problems in public is potentially damaging in the long term, because if the public gets the idea that a major portion of the science literature is just wrong, then maybe they will refuse to fund science. This is a catch-22, because if we do nothing, then the bad science will be perpetuated. If we speak out, then we risk the public will not believe in science anymore, so we need to be careful.

Q: How would you advise young scientists to go about highlighting potential problems in the scientific literature?

P.B.: Tread carefully, but carry a big stick. There’s no reason to be afraid to question data. Everybody just has to choose a method that works for them, and there are plenty of resources out there. PubPeer is very good. Another new thing is that anybody can leave a comment on PubMed through PubMed Commons, although this requires using your real name. Obviously, it’s also incredibly easy to get a website or set up a blog using WordPress, for example.

If you want to be anonymous, you have to be careful to use the right things. So send emails using Gmail, for example. If you choose Yahoo, the email will include the IP [Internet Protocol] address in the header, so even if it’s an anonymous account you can tell the location of the person and which university they’re at. In the same way—this was something that caught me up, I think—every time you comment on a blog, your IP address will be saved and can be tracked. So you can use a free, anonymous browsing service such as Tor, which will mask your IP address. Also, if you are sending any files, you have to remove the metadata so the file doesn’t contain the author, the date, or the name of the computer that it was created on.

Q: Any advice on how early-career whistleblowers can protect their careers?

P.B.: People should certainly speak to their mentors about this. Some of the cases that were sent to me when I was running this blog were from academics who were alerted to the problems by one of their students. So if you are too junior or you are too scared, then you can always ask somebody who is more senior or who is more experienced with this if they would like to do it for you.

Q: What would you tell early-career scientists who may be tempted to engage in misconduct?

Q: What do you feel you have achieved through your blog?

Q: What else would you like to see happen?

P.B.: I want everything to happen faster. Everything takes so long. Many cases at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) take 3 or 4 years. The ORI needs more money and more people. Every journal needs to have a staff member who is dedicated to dealing with this kind of issue.

As an example of how things can drag on, I have dealt with cases where it took 7 to 8 months for the investigator to hand over original data to the journal. In my lab, we have a very open data policy: Every single piece of data is stored on a common open lab drive, so anybody in the lab can access any of the data from any experiment that we did for the past 10 years. If somebody e-mails me and says, “Can you give me the original Western blot from this paper?” within a couple of days I can do that. I don’t see why it should take 8 months to produce original data when you get an email from a journal editor or from somebody reading the paper. You either have the data or you don’t, and too many people use the excuse that “the postdoc who did the experiment has left the country and they did not leave behind good records.” That’s just unbelievable to me. The prevailing standards of science, which always existed but are now more important than ever, require everybody to keep good records.

Top image: Paul Brookes CREDIT: Vincent Sullivan, University of Rochester Medical Center

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