No Protection for Whistle-Blowers: The Blumsohn – Procter & Gamble – Sheffield University Case

The (UK) Guardian reported the latest developments in the case of Dr. Aubrey Blumsohn at Sheffield University. We had posted earlier (here and here) how Dr. Blumsohn had attempted, in vain, to get access to the data from a research project that he was ostensibly leading, and to control the writing of research abstracts that was done supposedly in his name. His attempts were opposed by Procter & Gamble, the company that made the drug he was studying, and paid for the research. Sheffield University failed to support his efforts, and after he talked to the media about his problems, suspended him
from his duties.
It turns out that Dr. Blumsohn “warned the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research more than a year ago that he had grave doubts about some of the research it had published in his name.” At that time, Blumsohn wrote, “I am the first author on both abstracts and have serious concerns about the analysis which has been presented in my name, as first author. Is there a mechanism for comment or dissociation?” At first, no investigation was done. Now, “the Journal has confirmed that it will hold an inquiry into Blumsohn’s concerns.”
The Guardian also reported, “Ghostwriting and a lack of data for independent researchers are just two issues that worry academics. For years, scientists have argued that Britain needs a statutory body to investigate such problems, as well as to detect the most serious cases of academic fraud. Professor Ian Kennedy, chairman of the Healthcare Commission, has said there must be proper protection for whistleblowers. He said they were often ignored, victimised, or labelled as pathological.”
This case, like those of Dr. David Kern and of Dr. Nancy Olivieri in the 1990’s, (described here) illustrates how academics may be “victimised,” to use Dr. Kennedy’s term, when they try to secure the integrity of research in ways that offend vested interests. This case also illustrates how academic institutions seem to be willing to cooperate in this victimization, even when such actions undermine their mission to provide for free enquiry and free expression. Finally, it illustrates that at present, in neither the UK, Canada, nor the US are there organized means or protection for such victimized academics. Up to now, no health board, accrediting agency, or physicians’ organization has gone to bat for them.
Maybe the unfortunate case of Dr. Blumsohn will finally spur physicians and researchers to unite to defend their own core values. Until we make it safe for researchers to produce data that displeases the powers that be, why should we trust what data the powers that be allow us to see?