Blog series on scientific integrity

What to do when things go wrong?

All the attention devoted to the promotion of awareness around responsible research practices and research integrity, might suggest that academia is suffering from a large misconduct problem. Most researchers, however, adhere to the many criteria their own research fields uphold for good science. Some will do so while directly reflecting on the many guidelines that prescribe responsible conduct, where others organically follow the examples of others. Directly and indirectly, this shapes research quality and credibility for the whole community.

Where people work, people make mistakes. Usually by accident, sometimes on purpose. That scientists make mistakes, sometimes even on purpose, does not need to discredit the community as a whole. In her insightful book “Why Trust Science?”, historian-philosopher Naomi Oreskes explains that individual imperfections and corruptions are part and parcel of complex cultures such as science. Oreskes argues that our trust in science is not, and should not be, rooted in our evaluations on individuals but in our evaluations of how the entire community of scientists builds and supports consensus on many matters.

Institutional support

Making the community responsible does not excuse individual researchers from preventing integrity breaches from occurring. Every single one, after all, makes reaching consensus more laborious and more time-consuming. Recognising and acting upon integrity breaches is not easy and it is often something that one cannot do alone. Institutions should, and sometimes do, shoulder the majority of the responsibility by designing processes for reporting, whistleblower and a duty of care towards those affected.

Institutional support is, sadly, often very opaque and sometimes very fragmented. The claim that “structures and procedures are in place” does not help anyone in a concrete situation. What can a PhD student do when a supervisor expects actions from them that do no live up to their expectations of responsible science? This could be to ignore a set of outlying data points or exclude participants in pursuit of statistical significance. What does one do when a colleague overly liberally copies and pastes while writing? What do I do when I lose my encrypted and protected hard-drive I use for data transport between experimental sites? The actual question that arises in each and every one of these situations is: what do I need to do and who can help me with that? Both ‘what’ and ‘who’ are not always the same, but they are part of that structure and procedure.


In order to avoid Kafkaesque situations, the FHML/Maastricht UMC+ Platform Scientific Integrity has created three tools to translate institutional support into something that is accessible and actionable. We call these ‘roadmaps’ and they work like the London tube map, where you depart your journey (looking for assistance) and pass multiple stations en route to a solution. You do not have to get out at every stop. Sometimes your colleague or supervisor is the right person to talk to, but sometimes they are the source of the problem. In the latter case, you’ll skip that station and seek help at the next one. There are three maps, but not everyone travels the same way – one for students, one for PhD candidates and one for staff (including support staff). They are living maps: when procedures change, the maps change. When people occupying a support post are replaced, they are replaced on these maps.

Simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve in a contested area such as responsible research and research integrity. These three maps are not givens or summaries of something already out there. Rather, they are the result of careful and lengthy articulation work on the distribution of responsibilities. They are embodiments of negotiations between those who practice and those who govern, between those who prioritise policing and those who prioritise care. 


A breach of research integrity can be modest, and relatively easy to fix. A breach of research integrity can also be profound, deep and harmful. Sometimes, what we all need is a decent conversation. Sometimes we need a profound change of how we conduct ourselves and our research. These are political minefields and no one should be expected to travel through them all by themselves.