Doping and whistleblowing: lessons from academia

What do Betsy Andreu and Professor Robert Sprague have in common: a desire to tell the truth despite the pain it causes themselves and others. Sprague was instrumental in uncovering the fraudulent nature of a research collaborator: as a result he found himself under attack and under investigation. Eventually he was vindicated, but Stephen Breuning’s work is cited by researchers to this day, some of whom seem unaware of the fact that much of Breuning’s research was based on fake data (see e.g., Korpela, 2010; Goldacre, 2011), a fact that Breuning admitted in a court of law in 1988. I feel bound here to refer readers to the excellent nyvelocity interview with Michael Ashenden from 2009, where he suggests that Ed Coyle may have been more than economical with the truth in relation to data he had collected from Lance Armstrong (not just the analysis of those data), and describes the steps he and colleagues took to address their misgivings about Coyle’s findings.

Following Floyd Landis’ belated admissions of doping, his cooperation with an FDA investigation and with the subsequent Grand Jury (targets unknown), he signalled his intention to take advantage of whistleblowing legislation (qui tam) which in the US allows for individuals to take a percentage of monies recovered in cases where the US government (in this case the USPS) has been defrauded (see e.g., Macur, 2010).

Cycling is known both for its longstanding and relationship with doping, and with what might in other sports be regarded as ‘match fixing’. Neither are spoken openly about, and individuals that do speak up are often excommunicated, harassed and sacked (see e.g., Walsh, 2007). That the authorities (both national and international) administering professional cycling may be complicit in this behaviour has become an open secret.

One might imagine that academics, who supposedly seek out some form of truth (however postmodern), would provide a role model for whistleblowers and espouse unimpeachable views on fraud. Sadly, this is not the case. When individual academics discover problems in work that might indicate fraud, they often decide to keep quiet (unlike Ashenden or Sprague), and when they don’t, they often find themselves out of work, and may be placed under such intense pressure that their lives are near destroyed. Such pressure may come from the accused, or his or her colleagues, but it often comes from the institutions which should be safeguarding academic freedom and integrity.

Here is what Rhodes and Strain (2004) have to say about the personal and institutional factors that mitigate against whistleblowing in academia:

Personal Motivation

Individuals are subject to a number of influences which make
them reluctant to blow the whistle. Just by living in a society
and absorbing its culture we develop an aversion to exposing
the misconduct of others. To some extent, we all have:

1.   Learned the social significance of belonging to a group
and adopted the attitude of identification and solidarity: ‘‘don’t be a tattletail’’.

2.   Absorbed the psychologically painful experience of disloyalty.

3.   Learned obedience to the chain of command.

4.   Developed fear of being exposed as the whistleblower and the shame that we associate with the ‘‘turncoat’’.

5.   Become fearful of suffering accusation and retribution.

Institutional motivation

Confronting scientific misconduct or research fraud is a huge burden for institutions of academic medicine, something they very much want to avoid. Faculty, students, and employees all recognise the institutional reluctance to deal with such burdens and that gives them a reason to remain silent in the face of inappropriate behaviour. Institutions do not want anyone to blow the whistle because they want to avoid an array of negative consequences:

1. Forfeiture of industry support or grants which add up to a financial loss to the institution.

2. Loss of standing and prestige associated with industry support, grants, and prominent faculty members.

3. Negative publicity from the association with a scandal.

4. The threat of retaliatory litigation that will require the institution to mount a costly defence.

5. Getting bogged down in a lengthy, time consuming process that subverts the expedient of management (‘‘let’s move on’’).”

Next time you think to criticise cyclists and officials who come forward on the grounds that they themselves are implicated (such as Landis, or Joe Papp), consider how few do so without the cleansing motivations of revenge, regret, or necessity. Look what happened to Christophe Bassons and Filipo Simeoni; remember how long Sandro Donati’s report on doping in Italy was shelved. Would you risk your career if it wasn’t already over? And consider how thankless the task is: Simeoni testified to see Michele Ferrari walk free on a technicality.

And what of Jonathan Vaughters? Should he tell all and risk not only his own career, but also the livelihoods of all those he employs?

I hope that Michael Shermer (2010) is right that the balance can shift in favour of telling the truth about doping in cycling. But the cost for those that do is often unbearably high. We should worry that it is only those who can leave cycling behind (e.g., Kimmage) or have been abandoned by it (e.g., Landis) that are prepared to reveal all (see e.g., the nyvelocity transcript, 2011).

Maybe we should welcome those who tell the truth about cycling, whatever their motivation.


3 Responses to Doping and whistleblowing: lessons from academia

  1. JoeP says:

    Hi – Recently found your site. Thanks for the mention and keep up the good work. Just about to read the post on the German defence minister. Cheers!

    • spandelles says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Joe, more to come when I find some time.

      • Joe Papp says:

        I’d say you did yourself proud with the latest installment and it was a pleasure to read them both…good to know that at least one person has the intelligence and confidence to call bullshit when unrealistic claims of appropriate post-doping conduct are thrown-up by the frenzied masses (though of course not everyone lacks a nuanced view of the doping dilemma).

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