Questions on the Topic of Whistle Blowing


This case discusses issues of whistle-blowing in an academic environment, publication, credit, collaboration, and the student-mentor relationship as it relates to academic careers.


Thomas, a fifth-year graduate student, was in the final days of completing his Ph.D. in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at State University. He had already accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at an academic institution and was eager to finish his work at State University and begin his new research project.

One day, on a break from writing his dissertation, Thomas went to lunch with Marilyn and Shawn, new graduate students in Anatomical Sciences. As a senior graduate student in the department, Thomas had actively encouraged Marilyn and Shawn through their first year of courses. He was eager to visit with them over lunch and hear their thoughts after completing the first year.

Over lunch, Marilyn and Shawn expressed some anxiety about their final grade in Gross Anatomy, the biggest course of their first year. Both students had performed quite poorly on the first test block, but their scores had improved dramatically on subsequent exams. They credited a large part of their success to Hal Woodward, Ph.D., a popular assistant professor in their department.

Dr. Woodward, it seems, had conversed informally with Marilyn and Shawn immediately after the grades had been posted for the first exam. He expressed concern that much of their poor performance was probably a result of test anxiety. As a possible solution, Dr. Woodward offered to give Marilyn and Shawn beta-blockers before the next exam to reduce their stress response and enable them to improve their performance. Marilyn and Shawn were hesitant at first, but Dr. Woodward reassured them by saying, "A lot of people involved in stressful events take beta-blockers to help them relax." Dr. Woodward had even given them a trial dose before a regular class meeting to convince the students that they would not experience any adverse side effects.

After the trial dose proved uneventful, the students agreed to take the drugs before the next exam. In hind sight, Marilyn and Shawn admitted to Thomas that they had prepared more diligently for the second exam, but they were quick to add that the beta-blockers enabled them to apply their knowledge calmly. Consequently, both students performed significantly better on the second exam. Dr. Woodward continued to dispense beta-blockers for Marilyn and Shawn before the third exam and the final exam, and both students achieved satisfactory results.

Thomas was dumbfounded as he heard the events of the past semester recounted. He knew that Dr. Woodward used a number of cardiovascular drugs including beta-blockers for research purposes, but there were strict regulations against distributing medication to humans without a proper license. In addition, Thomas believed that potentially dangerous side effects were associated with beta-blocker use in selected populations.

Thomas was in a bind. He felt some responsibility to act on his knowledge of the situation, but Dr. Woodward served on his graduate committee and had been very generous in advising and assisting Thomas. To further complicate matters, Dr. Woodward was involved in the process of obtaining tenure. Information of this nature would certainly jeopardize his promotion.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should Thomas act on his knowledge? If so, what should he do, and when?
  2. How would your answer change if Thomas believed the beta-blockers were completely harmless?
  3. Would the situation be different if Dr. Woodward were an M.D./Ph.D.?
  4. Is Dr. Woodward's behavior pertinent to his ability to conduct "good science"? to mentor graduate students?
  5. Do Marilyn and Shawn bear any responsibility in this situation? Why, or why not?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 2, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1998.

. . Questions on the Topic of Whistle Blowing. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

At the outset, it is important to point out that Thomas should not leap to a conclusion about Dr. Woodward. Admittedly, the situation looks serious from the students' reports, but there may be another side to the story. In a sense, an accusation has been made, but all the evidence is not yet in. Thomas must be fair to Woodward as well as to the students. It is possible, for example, that Woodward gave the students placebos, or that the students have underplayed their role in the use of the drug. In either case, Woodward's behavior would still be irresponsible, but Thomas should proceed carefully in order to be fair to all involved.

Thomas should take action; the accusations are too serious to ignore. It is difficult to specify a particular action because Thomas's best course depends on details that are not specified in the case. Are there designated individuals to handle grievances? Are there senior faculty who can be trusted to keep conversations confidential? Thomas could go to a department chair or director of graduate studies and request that his report be kept confidential and that he not be compelled to name the students. Keeping Thomas or the students anonymous, however, is a tricky business. For one thing, our legal system recognizes the value of knowing your accusers; this right diminishes the likelihood of false accusations. Also, if Woodward has done what the students accuse him of doing, then if anyone inquires about his activities, he is likely to infer which students have made the accusations.

It is irrelevant whether Thomas believes the beta-blockers to be harmless or not. If Woodward is not licensed to administer such drugs to humans, then what he is doing is wrong whether the drugs are harmful or harmless. Of course, Thomas may not know whether Woodward is licensed. By reporting his concerns to an appropriate person, he would leave it to the other person to find out whether Woodward is licensed.

Until all the information has been gathered, it is difficult to determine whether the students bear any responsibility. However, if their reports are accurate, it would seem that they bear some responsibility: They were not forced to take the beta-blockers, and they should have known that it was inappropriate for them to do so. We don't have enough information to indicate the extent of their responsibility. In any case, their contribution to the activity may not diminish Woodward's responsibility for his behavior.

If the students' accusations are true, then Woodward's conduct reflects quite directly on his ability to do good science. That is, his behavior indicates a degree of recklessness and a disregard for legal constraints. The accusations also suggest the possibility that he has manipulated his students into serving as subjects for research without their even knowing that they are doing so. Moreover, the accusations suggest that he may be encouraging students to become dependent on drugs to succeed rather than encouraging them to make it on their own abilities.

Insofar as Woodward's behavior may reflect his attitude toward the rules of science and his mentoring of students, it is relevant to his tenure decision. The problem with regard to his tenure decision is, however, that at this point what we have are accusations; accusations, without investigation and hearing, can do a great deal of damage. So while Thomas should bring the accusations forward, he should do so in a manner that gives Woodward a fair opportunity to defend himself.

Thomas should report the situation to an appropriate person such as a department chair or direct or of graduate programs. He then must hope that the situation will be handled appropriately.

Author: Deborah G. Johnson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

An initial overview of this case may lead the reader to focus on the obvious improprieties that Dr. Woodward has committed. Clearly, distributing medication intended for laboratory animal use to humans without a proper license constitutes an act that is not only unethical but illegal. Instead, this scenario was written primarily to encourage discussion between graduate students and faculty on some of the more subtle issues in the case including whistle-blowing and the student-mentor relationship.


Questions 1, 2 and 3 were written to promote discussion of whistle-blowing by exploring Thomas's options. Whistle-blowers, in the world of science, are individuals who bring soundly based charges of misconduct to the attention of academic/research institutions or government agencies. A panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences in 1993 defined misconduct in science as: "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism, in proposing, performing, or reporting research. Misconduct in science does not include errors of judgment; errors in the recording, selection or analysis of data; differences in opinions involving the interpretation of data; or misconduct unrelated to the research process." (National Academy of Sciences, 1992, p. 5)

By definition, Dr. Woodward is not guilty of misconduct; rather, the National Academy of Sciences would describe his actions as "questionable research practices" or "actions that violate traditional values of the research enterprise and may be detrimental to the research process." (National Academy of Sciences, 1992, p. 5) Based on this criterion, should Thomas act on his knowledge of the situation?

Certainly, the easiest thing for Thomas to do would be to sit on the information and do nothing. After all, he is nearly finished at State University; becoming involved in this situation could delay the completion of his degree. Furthermore, raising questions about the research practices of a senior faculty member serving on his committee would hardly serve to advance his career The reality is that young scientists rely heavily on positive recommendations from senior faculty members; getting involved could tarnish Thomas's reputation, and thus his career. Even though the National Science Foundation and Public Health Service require institutions receiving public funds to have regulations in place to protect whistle-blowers, discrimination against these individuals is not uncommon. In fact, reprisals against whistle-blowers have been well documented, even in situations where the whistle-blower was proven correct. (Rossiter, 1992)

Aside from Thomas's fears regarding his career, he is also experiencing a conflict between his loyalty to Dr. Woodward and his responsibility to do what is right. The case makes it clear that Dr. Woodward has been helpful to Thomas. Because of this relationship, it would be unpleasant for Thomas to report these allegations to the institution, especially during the midst of a precarious tenure process. At the same time, Thomas is convinced that Dr. Woodward's actions were improper. Although this case does not involve misconduct in the strictest sense, Thomas believes that Marilyn and Shawn could be harmed by the medication. Given this piece of information alone, Thomas has the responsibility to act on his knowledge. But what type of action should he take, and when?

The case implies that Thomas and Dr. Woodward have a favorable relationship, so perhaps, rather than reporting this information to the institution, Thomas should directly confront Dr. Woodward with his concerns. It is unclear from the description of the case whether Dr. Woodward's actions represent a pattern of irresponsible behavior or just a lapse in judgment. If the case were modified so that Dr. Woodward's actions reflected a pattern of behavior, rather than this isolated case, Thomas might need to take his story to a higher authority. However, given the information at hand, confronting Dr. Woodward may offer the best solution for all parties involved. If Thomas does choose this option, the timing should not affect the tenure process; he should approach Dr. Woodward with his concerns as soon as possible.

The intent of Question 2 was to explore whether the consequences of Dr. Woodward's actions should influence Thomas's decision. In other words, should the fact that Marilyn and Shawn were not harmed by the beta-blockers have any bearing on Thomas's responsibility to act? When considering this issue, it is important to note that this specific case states that the students suffered no ill effects in the short term. In all likelihood, the students will not suffer any chronic effects either, but Thomas cannot know that for certain. Likewise, fabricating data seldom leads to immediate problems, but these actions can ultimately result in untold damage and expense if not exposed. Therefore, caution should be exercised in basing our decisions on consequences alone.

Question 3 was written to promote discussion on the case if the dynamics were changed so that Dr. Woodward were a M.D./Ph.D. While this modification would alter the legalities of the situation, some problems remain. Unless Marilyn and Shawn were under Woodward's direct medical care, it would not be proper for him to prescribe beta-blockers to the students as described. Another issue is that of diverting for personal use supplies that had been purchased for the conduct of experiments. Regardless of Dr. Woodward's degree, he has used materials purchased with federal or private funding for applications that were not stated in his grant protocol.

Student-Mentor Relationship

Questions 4 and 5 were written to foster a discourse on the relationship between Dr. Woodward and the students. The case indicates that Dr. Woodward has been generous in providing assistance to Thomas throughout his graduate studies, so one could reasonably conclude that Dr. Woodward is genuinely trying to help Marilyn and Shawn. However, from a cynical standpoint, Dr. Woodward could be exploiting the situation to recruit the students into his laboratory. It is not uncommon for would-be mentors to pursue graduate students by befriending them in the early stages of their academic careers. Unfortunately, there are instances in which faculty use empty promises of publications or even guarantee the student will complete a dissertation within a set time to persuade students into their laboratories. (Krulwich and Friedman, 1993) In this instance, the case does not indicate what motivates Dr. Woodward's behavior, but regardless of his intentions, he has placed the students into a difficult situation. As first-year students who are struggling to make their grades, they are vulnerable to an authority figure with an apparent quick-fix solution to their problems. It would be admirable for Marilyn and Shawn to politely decline Dr. Woodward's invitation, but realistically, new graduate students are generally eager to please and are likely to accept a faculty member's suggestion.

A final aspect of the case to be examined concerns the fairness of Dr. Woodward's actions. Certainly, other students in the Gross Anatomy class performed poorly on the exam, yet Dr. Woodward offered beta-blockers only to Marilyn and Shawn. This preferential treatment could be even more troubling if Dr. Woodward were involved in teaching this course. It might be worthwhile to consider how Dr. Woodward's actions in this case would differ from a situation in which a professor provides a test review only to selected students rather than the class as a whole. In both instances, the faculty member has violated the student-mentor relationship by giving certain students an advantage over others.


  • Krulwich, T.A., and Friedman, P.J. "Integrity in the Education of Researchers." Academic Medicine 68 (9, 1993): S14-S18.
  • National Academy of Sciences. Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992.
  • Rossiter, E.J.R. "Reflections of a Whistle-Blower." Nature 357 (1992): 434-436.