Adam Marcus, Anonymous Commenter, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Clare Francis, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Fake Peer Review, Fazlul Sarkar, First Amendment to US Constitution, Ivan Oransky, Michigan Court of Appeals, Post publication peer review, PubPeer, PubPeer lawsuit, Reporting Retractions, Reporting Science Retractions, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Research misconduct, Retraction Watch, Retractions, Science Transparency, Scientific Misconduct, Wayne State University

First Amendment Abuse: Time to Sue Post Publication Reviewers for False Accusations

On Tuesday October 4 at 10AM, a Michigan Court in Detroit conducted a hearing on case 326691 “Fazlul Sarkar vs John Doe”. As you may recall from our coverage at Science Transparency, Prof. Sarkar is a scientist anonymously accused of misconduct through a blog named PubPeer. Whether his data is valid or invalid is something we are not in a position to evaluate or debate. The focus here is the modus operandi of his accusers. The accusations had adverse consequences for his career and so Dr. Sarkar sued PubPeer in Court. The Court requested that the identity of only one of the anonymous accusers be revealed. This has not yet happened. All we know is that the accuser or accusers whose identity is sought by the Court hid under the pseudonym Clare Francis to launch the attacks on Fazlul Sarkar in what constitutes a flagrant abuse of First Amendment rights. The lawyers for the defendants argued that the Constitutional rights bestowed by the First Amendment guarantee the impunity of their clients. That is wrong, very wrong. And whose peers are PubPeers anyway?

To discuss the venal Clare Francis, we need to briefly focus on the blog Retraction Watch (the two are intimately related). This blog is run by two journalists, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. Odd as it sounds, these non-scientists and the anonymous contributors to the blog claim they seek “to increase the transparency of the retraction process in science” (sic), which is an oxymoron. Initially, the founders of Retraction Watch worried they would not get enough stories to cover. So, right around the time the blog came into existence in August 2010, anonymous whistleblowers, including Clare Francis, also surfaced and relentlessly accused scientists of misconduct, allegedly in connivance with Retraction Watch.  The blog harassed, scorned and pilloried anyone immediately after the anonymous whistleblowers managed to elicit some reaction from the journals, be it an expression of concern or a retraction. Obviously, Clare Francis or the cowards that hid in anonymity immediately informed Retraction Watch (or… yes, you are right). The attack then escalated as other journals were contacted once the accusers gained their short-lived credibility with the help of Retraction Watch, and their attacks then spiraled into full defamation cycles.

This seemed like quite an effective strategy to boost the blog, particularly since Clare Francis and other nobodies have been aggressively accusing scientists of fraud and plagiarism. If the anonymous accusers were successful in eliciting damning reactions from the journal editors, Retraction Watch would get a juicy story and a chance to pillory the incriminated scientists. On the other hand, if the cowards were not successful or the accusation proved to be false, there would be no consequence for them or for Retraction Watch since the journals typically do not inform the public or institutions that they have received a false accusation.

The ungainly posts at Retraction Watch elicited by Clare Francis actions contributed to build up a poisonous atmosphere best reflected in Ivan Oransky’s retort to a Nature editorial on retractions. Nature’s cautious reflections contrast starkly with Oransky’s views on the need for immediate condemnation illustrated by the following passage:

“We would argue that journals like Nature actually have a tremendous amount of power. If Nature thinks that they “have neither the authority nor the means to police authors or their institutions,” the editors should sit down with Anesthesia & Analgesia editor in chief Steven Shafer, who gathered a consortium of journal editors that held institutions’ feet to the fire and led to retractions in the Joachim Boldt and Yoshitaka Fujii cases. One can only imagine how quickly a dean would return a call from Nature.”

After this rant, Oransky charged again:

“And why not issue an expression of concern about papers during those years while it’s being investigated? How does Nature justify, for example, leaving the dance symmetry paper in the literature for for five years after authors requested a retraction? Unless, of course, you’re worried about losing those citations, the first two years of which will count toward your impact factor.”

Motivated by recent reports on harassment to scientists and by these troubling views, Science Transparency decided to investigate the matter further. We sought to find out what proportion of accusations by Clare Francis or the cowards operating anonymously allegedly on behalf of the Clare Francis/ Retraction Watch machine had any merit to the point that they would eventually result in retraction. Although editors had not been diligent in collecting statistics, they all pointed to a figure slightly lower than 10%.

In regards to those enduring false accusations of misconduct by Retraction Watch, Paul S. Thaler, one of the most successful lawyer in the field, had this to say:

The first thing to remember is that the federal regulations, as well as the internal policies of most institutions, protect the confidentiality of respondents in research misconduct matters.  Thus, as a matter of federal law, institutions are prohibited from disclosing the identity of an accused scientist, except on a “need to know” basis, for example, to a member of the investigation committee, unless and until a finding of research misconduct is made.  These proceedings are not public as court is in criminal and civil disputes.  It is more comparable to proceedings against other professionals, such as lawyers, who are governed by their licensing organization.  Privacy in these matters is critically important as there is no public need to, or right to know, about professionals simply accused of wrongdoing.  What the public has a right to know about is a professional who has been found responsible for wrongdoing.  At that point, the public is alerted.  But because a professional’s reputation is so important to his or her career, the specter of an accusation can permanently stain that reputation and frequently the accusation is not well founded.  So the confidentiality of the process allows a full examination before the public is made aware.  We certainly do want to know about those scientists who have actually done something wrong that impacts science, but we do not, and should not, be concerned with those who are good scientists but caught up in a sometimes very political, internal dispute.

These remarks by attorney Paul S. Thaler are very much in line with the law (42 C.F.R. § 93.108(b) (2005)), as noted by Nicholas Roumel, the lawyer of plaintiff Dr. Sarkar:

“Because the consequences of a research misconduct proceeding can be dire, the [federal] regulations impose conditions of strict confidentiality on allegations of research misconduct. As section 93.108 of the regulations states: “Disclosure of the identity of respondents and complainants in research misconduct proceedings is limited, to the extent possible, to those who need to know, consistent with a thorough, competent, objective and fair research misconduct proceeding, and as allowed by law.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.108(a) (2005). Disclosure of records or other evidence from which research subjects might be identified is also limited to “those who have a need to know to carry out a research misconduct proceeding.” 42 C.F.R. § 93.108(b) (2005).” [Mauvais-Jarvis v. Wong, 2013 IL App (1st) 120070 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 2013)]

It is our expectation that the scientists that have been wrongly accused of wrongdoing and pilloried by Retraction Watch, or by the cowards hiding behind pseudonyms, will now sue those responsible in Court. The writer of this piece may be contacted (weishilaurameng@gmail.com) to help coordinate some of the effort.

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Artificial windpipes, Bengt Gerdin, Clare Francis, Data Fabrication, Data Falsification, Due process, Fake Peer Review, First Amendment to US Constitution, Ivan Oransky, Karolinska Institut, Misconduct, Nature, Paolo Macchiarini, Post publication peer review, PubPeer, Retraction Watch, Science Journal, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific Research, Transplant surgery

Science properly correcting itself: The handling of alleged misconduct in claims by Paolo Macchiarini

According to a recent investigation, surgeon Paolo Macchiarini from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has allegedly committed scientific misconduct in his reporting of results from patient transplants of synthetic tracheas seeded with stem cells. The misconduct investigation 39-page report drafted by Bengt Gerdin, a professor at Uppsala University, reveals that in six published papers, author Paolo Macchiarini had deliberately and knowingly misrepresented or falsified medical data from recipients of the artificial tracheas. The papers allegedly boosted the results of the transplant operations making them appear far more more successful than they really were. The investigation also found that two of the papers described procedures that did not get ethical approval (Lancet 378, 1997–2004 (2011) and Biomaterials 34, 4057–4067; 2013), and that a seventh paper by Macchiarini (Nature Commun. 5, 3562; 2014) also contained fraudulent results.

The investigation launched by the Karolinska Institute began after four physicians at the institution, who were involved in the care of  Macchiarini’s transplant patients, filed formal complaints. The physicians identified themselves as Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, Matthias Corbascio, Thomas Fux and Oscar Simonson and provided medical records that are at odds with the results published by Macchiarini.

Irrespective of the validity of the misconduct findings by Bengt Gerdin, there seems to be at least one fundamental difference between this investigation and the ones prompted by the intrigues and attacks launched by PubPeer-Retraction Watch-Clare Francis contributors. In the Macchiarini case the accusers revealed their identities and proved that they were peers of the person they were accusing. In other words, they behaved as honest people would do and followed the standard course of action that science has developed to handle allegations of scientific misconduct. In addition, the procedure followed by the Karolinska Institute is the one that science has always accepted and has been in place for centuries, since the inception of scientific reporting.

By contrast, the feeders of the PubPeer-Retraction Watch-Clare Francis ring live in a world where you just sit on the outside of science and, while hiding in anonymity, take shots at those doing the actual work. Who the heck are these people at Retraction Watch and PubPeer anyway? Whose peers are they? These abominable practices must come to an end, but that will only happen when people realize that there is a fundamental difference between the way the Swedish Karolinska Institut reacted upon the allegations of four Macchiarini peers and the way amateurish editors handle the accusations by Clare Francis.

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Adam Marcus, Blog, Cat Ferguson, Character Assassination, Civil Death, Corruption, Diederik Stapel, Fake Peer Review, Fraud, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Khalid Zaman, Michael W Miller, Misconduct, Post publication peer review, Reputation Damage, Research Integrity, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Scientific corruption

Retraction Watch: Money Can’t Buy You Class

It is hard to justify the sheer existence of Retraction Watch, a blog run by people with no visible credentials in the sciences who are seeking notoriety in a context where anybody is basically allowed to say anything. The information that Retraction Watch provides is redundant at best. And this redundancy will now be multiplied, we are being told, by a “repository of retractions”, an idiocy akin to a “repository of obituaries”. But the worst side of Retraction Watch is its tendency to ruthlessly prey on career mistakes to destroy people and to do it in the most undignified manner.

The most recent illustration of this appalling behavior is the post by Cat Ferguson, the Retraction Watch intern and a figure in the field of retractions, who wrote the masterpiece entitled: Anyone want to hire an economist who retracted 16 papers for fake peer reviews?

   This piece reports on the efforts by Retraction Watch to destroy the career of Khalid Zaman, a Pakistani economist who retracted several papers on account of allegedly fake peer reviews. Retraction Watch was not satisfied with merely reporting on the case, they went after his life and career, investigating whether he had filed job applications (in Pakistan!), and even got hold of one such application (we of course cannot verify this). This is none of your business, Retraction Watch!

Zaman may have committed fraud, but perhaps his results are still valid and could withstand a real peer review upon resubmission. This is, of course, a futile reflection, Retraction Watch never takes the high ground but instead keeps indulging in the petty smearing of scientists’ reputations. Here is another example of their reported efforts to destroy people from the pen of Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, the Retraction Watch founders, from their contribution to The Scientist (the last sentence is particularly revolting and much resembling the vilification of Khalid Zaman):

“…we recommend reading about the case of Michael W. Miller, who faked data on his federal grant applications and had several papers retracted in 2012. This year, however, Miller bounced back, landing a job as, you guessed it, a consultant for grant applications! (He lost that gig after we called his employers to ask if they knew about his past.)”

There are plenty of illustrations of these indignities, where Retraction Watch, not content with having report the case, goes after the person and curtails his/her opportunities to find jobs taking decisive cavalier steps in the most revolting manner imaginable to destroy the person. One is reminded of the case of Diederik Stapel, the Dutch professor who allegedly admitted to fraudulent activity, and was reported by Retraction Watch to have landed on a job in the Netherlands. As expected, the angry commenters poured their vitriol in outrage as they kept vilifying Dr. Stapel, while the blog took all necessary steps to prevent him from getting hired. Again, none of your business, Retraction Watch!

I guess it is a matter of class, some have it, some don’t, and if you, like Retraction Watch, don’t have it, all the money in the world cannot buy it for you.

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