Whistle blowers are essential in the detection of research misconduct. They deserve strong protection, also when they acted cautiously but the allegations turned out to be wrong. All bona fide whistle blowers deserve praise and recognition. But making false accusations should be considered as an act of research misconduct and the accused scientists need to be protected.
In the detection of false accusations also a typology of whistle blowers may be helpful. First there are the honestly concerned colleagues, who are sincere and fact-oriented. Their accusations may be wrong but are not likely to be false. They deserve full protection and support. Second, there are the angry colleagues, who may act partly out of revenge, are often unfair and may be false in their allegations. They deserve protection and need supervision to stay professional. Third are the Machiavellists who are intentionally abusive and have self-serving motives. And finally there are the crazy people, who can be paranoid, stalking, or insulting and have the habit to write long and confused messages with a lot of capitals and exclamation marks which they send to everyone they can think of. The difficulty in evaluating allegations of misconduct is that even angry colleagues, Machiavellists and crazy people may be right in the sense that the allegations are true. Therefore, a code of conduct for whistle blowers is needed.
Whistle blowers must act cautiously and follow the rules and procedures carefully. Anonymous whistleblowing ought to be discouraged but cannot be ignored when the allegations are specific, serious and plausible. Striking the right balance between whistle blower protection and timely unmasking false accusations is not easy but must be a primary goal of institutional, national and international policy on research integrity. In addition, we need to shift the focus to prevention of research misconduct and sloppy science and to foster a trustworthy culture that optimizes research quality improvement through education, role modelling and discussion of the dilemma’s that scientists face.