Blog, Character Assassination, Clare Francis, Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Expression of concern, Hilda Bastian, lawsuit, Mass hysteria, McCarthyism, National Institutes of Health, NCBI, NIH, NLM, Office of Research Integrity, Paul S. Thaler, Post publication peer review, Post Publication Peer Review Scam, Reporting Retractions, Research Integrity, Research misconduct, Retraction, Retraction Watch, Scientific corruption, Scientific Misconduct, Scientific publication, Scientific Reproducibility

Handling scientific post-publication events: Legal action required

Hilda Bastian is an NIH contractor for PubMed Health and PubMed Commons at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). She also seems to be a prolific science writer. Bastian recently informed the blog Retraction Watch that the NLM is planning a prominent display of Expressions of Concern (EoC) published by scientific journals. By her own admission, Hilda Bastian is not versed in scientific matters. Given what she intends to do, let us hope she is versed in legal matters, or at least willing to seek legal advice.

In the US, as in most societies under the rule of law, a person is deemed innocent unless proven guilty, and any suggestion that may affect someone’s reputation without hard proof constitutes defamation. By Bastian’s own admission, only about 25% of EoCs typically result in retraction. This begs the question: What do the authors whose papers received the remaining 75% of EoCs plan to do?

Lawyer Paul S. Thaler, a towering figure in scientific integrity may be the ideal person to assist such people determine their legal options. Paul S. Thaler made the following enlightening remark:

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.

The bold section is crucial because it implies that EoCs are in all likelihood illegal, and so is the dissemination of such statements. The public does not have the right to know about mere accusations of wrongdoing, or suspicions of invalid data resulting in EoCs. According to Hilda Bastian such EoCs are likely to be wrong in 75% of the cases. For example, pseudonymous Clare Francis, the venal whistle-blower of Retraction Watch, has scored plenty of false positives eliciting EoCs mostly in the 75% of valid papers. Yet we are not aware that Retraction Watch or other related venues have been sued yet. Hopefully, Hilda Bastian will reflect about her plans and seek legal advice before charging ahead.

 

 

 

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Defamation, Defamation lawsuit, Karolinska Institute, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Macchiarini, Meta-Research, Misconduct, Paolo Macchiarini, Retraction Watch, Scientific publication, Transplant surgery

Paolo Macchiarini portrayed by Retraction Watch: defamed, probably, vindicated? Never!

As the peer review system appears to be failing and bogus research keeps surfacing, post publication peer review (PPPR) is becoming a necessity. The problem is who conducts PPPR (*). Certainly an indiscriminate blog run by nonscientists nudging journals into reaction, where anyone can voice their opinion or make misconduct allegations is not the way to go about it. A similar opinion is held by Paolo Macchiarini, the eminent surgeon who saved human lives and was defamed but never vindicated by Retraction Watch. Paolo Macchiarini has chosen to write an open letter in Retraction Watch to voice his opinion on the blog. The fact that he has chosen this course of action after being cleared of misconduct, instead of suing Retraction Watch for defamation (at least for now), attests to his good nature, and may seem perplexing to some.

 

Paolo Macchiarini

Paolo Macchiarini ASSOCIATED PRESS

Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini achieved international fame for inducing the formation of tracheas from implants containing stem cells. His career has seen reversals of fortune, especially when Macchiarini was portrayed as having committed misconduct by Retraction Watch. The blog echoed and disseminated a provisional highly damaging report by a single individual that had only seen a portion of the evidence, thus defaming Macchiarini. With all the available evidence at hand, Macchiarini’s home institution, the Karolisnka Institute, refuted the damaging accusations and issued a very different veredict: Macchiarini acted “without due care,” but did not commit misconduct. Rather than suing Retraction Watch, Macchiarini responded in the blog itself, voicing his critical opinion on the blog and reacting (quite gracefully) to the gross abuses he endured.

In his opening paragraph, Macchiarini agreed (as we do) that the general goals of Retraction Watch may be commendable, notwithstanding the defamation he suffered at the hands of the bloggers. In his open letter, Macchiarini takes issue, and rightly so, with the gross breach of confidentiality by Retraction Watch, as the investigation of his research practices was being officially conducted. Allegedly, Retraction Watch even infringed the confidentiality of patient’s medical records, a major ethical breach possibly actionable in Court.

Retraction Watch has frequently reported false allegations of scientific misconduct against Paolo Macchiarini and other scientists. These nefarious allegations have found their way to the blog, and their dissemination constitutes a gross breach of confidentiality guidelines.  We should emphasize that in the case of Macchiarini, Retraction Watch was NOT reporting on a retraction, or on a case of scientific misconduct. In the words of Macchiarini:

“The alleged misconduct was reported to the editors of the very well-respected journals involved, and to my institution, who at the time of the leak were going through the normal process of official investigation.  This was nothing more than academic ‘gossip’.”

No, Paolo Macchiarini! We disagree with you. This is defamation, pure and unadulterated, and you are possibly entitled to massive reparations for the damage that Retraction Watch has inflicted to your reputation.

Retraction Watch lives dangerously by its unique set of rules, whereby the infringement of confidentiality in investigations of alleged scientific misconduct is entirely permitted. They chose to live dangerously, as they do not conform to the basic tenet of societies that function under the rule of law, whereby a person is innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law. Retraction Watch fails to grasp the essential operating principle that the defendant must be protected by confidentiality because he/she is a-priori presumed innocent.

Retraction Watch lives dangerously indeed.  False accusations of scientific misconduct are common in science and are often motivated by the desire to destroy someone’s career.  A blog that indiscriminately publishes any allegation real or false at any stage of investigation will only enhance the efficacy of false accusations. We concur with Macchiarini in that Retraction Watch has grossly overstepped its mark by providing a platform for nefarious gossip and malfeasance in a way that hurts the academic community.

(*) There are serious efforts to curate the corpus of scientific publication. These efforts are largely sponsored by John and Laura Arnold, a young billionaire couple from Houston, that is currently financing large-scale meta-research projects. One such project is the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, or METRICS. These projects aim at effectively addressing major issues like reproducibility.

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Adam Marcus, Anonymous Commenter, Argentina, Clare Francis, Defamation, Expression of concern, Fazlul Sarkar, First Amendment to US Constitution, Hatred, Ivan Oransky, Joshua L. Cherry, Joshua L. Cherry NIH, lawsuit, Michigan Court of Appeals, Peer Review, Post publication peer review, protected free speech, PubPeer, Retraction Watch, Scientific publication, Sock puppetry, Wayne State University

Retraction Watch, Clare Francis, the Mockery of the First Amendment and a Recent Court Order

The blog Retraction Watch plays a game both dangerous and revolting. By making a travesty of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, Retraction Watch has allegedly managed to generate and propagate slander while protecting the anonymity of their tipsters. A recent Court order indicates that this allegedly venal practice will eventually come to an end, possibly making Retraction Watch the target of massive lawsuits.

On the surface, Retraction Watch appears to be a broadcaster of post publication “peer reviews” (whose peers?) that prompt a reaction in scientific journals, motivating the publication of a note, expression of concern or even a retraction notice in case of invalid data. In reality, Retraction Watch is served by what allegedly constitutes a serial defamation ring. The ring often (not always) feeds on comments from angry people with no verifiable credentials, who are typically not the peers of any reputable scientist. These people hide in anonymity to launch their attacks. This modus operandi is of course the despicable way of cowards and is usually fuelled by sheer career frustration: “I am failing, so those who succeed must be phonies, etc.” The angry individuals publish their comments in tributary blogs like PubPeer or simply convey their “critiques” to Ivan Oransky or Adam Marcus, founders of Retraction Watch. These comments are then conveyed to the journals usually in coercive defamatory terms and often under the pseudonym Clare Francis. Clare Francis, or others serving directly the interests of Retraction Watch, allegedly threaten and intimidate the journals and institutions and use words highly reminiscent of Oransky’s style, such as: “many think of this as scientific misconduct”. This wording is naively intended to avoid the defamation lawsuit (not for long). Once Clare Francis or others allegedly on behalf of Oransky manage to elicit a reaction from the journal or institution allegedly under duress, Retraction Watch immediately jumps in and broadcasts the published note, expression of concern or retraction usually in defamatory terms. This leaves us wondering why Retraction Watch founder Ivan Oransky has been named Science’s Garbage Man by the Swiss Radio and Television (Muellsammler der Wissenschaft).

Oransky

Ivan Oransky portrayed at Yale Medicine.

As they allegedly intimidate journals and institutions, Clare Francis or Oransky, or a person on his behalf, brings up PubPeer “investigations”, as if PubPeer were reporting investigations carried out by scientific peers. This in itself constitutes a gross distortion of reality. Thus, the Oransky clique allegedly intimidates the journals within a defamatory context that includes wording like “many people believe this constitutes misconduct”. Not surprisingly, many of these accusations prove to be incorrect, as PubPeer contributors are usually not scientific peers. Yet, a damage is done to the scientist reputation as Retraction Watch hastily publishes the journal reaction it has allegedly elicited through intimidation and coercion.

Most of the time (not always), the Retraction Watch tipsters only have a vested interest in harming the person they target. A case in point is Joshua L. Cherry, a presumed NIH software contractor embarked in a crusade against a specific researcher. The dishonesty of these tipsters is evidenced by the fact that they operate hiding in anonymity as they seek to destroy careers by feeding into Oransky’s blog. Joshua Cherry and others go even further: They seek institutional involvement and immediately inform Retraction Watch on any reaction. Oransky or his cohort of angry people (including the tipsters) then allegedly coerce the journals and institutions seeking to elicit a quick reaction which Oransky (Clare Francis, etc.) demands must be published. Once this is done, the note (expression of concern, correction request, etc.) is immediately disseminated to the general public by the blog Retraction Watch sometimes within a libelous context. This is done even before the results of a formal investigation are known or the validity of the accusations is scientifically established. The alleged slandering is serially committed by Retraction Watch and its associated ring and pipelined along the PubPeer – Oransky axis.

Recent developments, specifically, a court order, suggest that this alleged venality may soon come to an end, with dire consequences for Retraction Watch and its cohort. Prof. Fazlul Sarkar is a professor at Wayne State University who may have lost a generous job offer because of scathing comments about his research posted on PubPeer and channeled into the Retraction Watch defamatory apparatus. His attorney has asked a judge to reconsider last month’s decision not to release information about the site’s anonymous commenters. The brief introducing that motion identifies the PubPeer commenter with the pseudonym Clare Francis.

On March 19, a Michigan court ruled that PubPeer had to disclose identifying information about the PubPeer commenter, identified as the author of the second of the comments below:

Unregistered Submission:
(June 18th, 2014 4:51pm UTC)
Has anybody reported this to the institute?

Unregistered Submission:
(June 18th, 2014 5:43pm UTC)
Yes, in September and October 2013 the president of Wayne State University was informed several times. The Secretary to the Board of Governors wrote back on the 11th of November 2013:  “Thank you for your e-mail, which I have forwarded to the appropriate individual within Wayne State University. As you are aware, scientific misconduct investigations are by their nature confidential, and Wayne would not be able to comment on whether an inquiry into your allegations is under way, or if so, what its status might be. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention”

In a supplemental brief filed on April 9, Sarkar’s attorney Nicholas Roumel informs the court that Wayne State provided the email exchanges quoted in the comment, and that they were between “Clare Francis” and Julie H. Miller, secretary to Wayne State’s Board of Governors. Thus, the court learned that on November 10, 2013 Clare Francis wrote:

“I am writing to you about multiple scientific concerns about the published work of Fazlul H Sarkar which have been aired on Pubpeer.”

“You can find the entries on Pubpeer here: …”

“Many of the entries mention things which amount to what many think of as scientific misconduct….”

Following the supplemental brief and after spotting the libel, the court ruled that PubPeer must provide the IP for Clare Francis to Roumel.

The blog Retraction Watch offered PubPeer’s attorneys the opportunity to comment, and they had this to say:

We are deeply troubled that a scientist who exercised his or her right to anonymously report anomalies in scientific research is being threatened with possible liability. The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously precisely so that, in circumstances like this one, individuals can report on matters of public interest without fear of retribution. This case is especially troubling because it threatens to weaken the foundation of scientific research, which relies on honest feedback and criticism from one’s peers.”

No kidding! This statement cannot pass even the most basic scrutiny! Let’s see:

a)      Where is the proof that Clare Francis is the pseudonym for “a scientist who exercised his or her right to anonymously report anomalies in scientific research”? Clare Francis may just be the pseudonym for an angry person who hates Fazlul Sarkar or someone with a vested interest in his downfall (like the Retraction Watchers). There is not a shred of evidence that the reported anomalies were detected by a competent scholar, that they are scientifically sound or that they were generated by anybody even coming close to be named a peer of Fazlul Sarkar.

b)      Where is the proof that Clare Francis is reporting on a matter of public interest? It could just be that Clare Francis is simply the pseudonym of someone who hates Sarkar, envies his success, or has a vested interest in his downfall (to increase the readership of his blog), and this is surely a personal matter, not a matter of public interest.

c)       How do we know the slanderer of Prof. Sarkar is being honest? He is most likely dishonest. In fact, everything suggests the latter to be the case: honest people who do the right thing do not usually hide, they don’t need to, at least in countries under the rule of law like the US.

d)      How do the PubPeer attorneys know that Sarkar’s attacker is one of Sarkar’s peers? In fact, how do they know anybody at PubPeer is actually a peer of the scientists they are attacking? Clare Francis is not revealing his scientific credentials! Strikingly some journals took him seriously and a few still do.

e)      Given that the person using Clare Francis pseudonym is most likely dishonest, and not a scientific peer of Dr. Sarkar, we obviously cannot assert that the case weakens the foundation of scientific research in any way.

We remain hopeful that the alleged serial defamation ring and venal operation described in this post will soon be brought to justice. With the help of the journals that have been contacted by Clare Francis (or others serving the interests of Retraction Watch) we would be in an ideal position to recruit the necessary elements for formidable lawsuits that will bring to a halt this abominable practice.

RECENT COMMENT

LIPING XIE says:

First and foremost, who says PubPeer contributors are scientific peers of anyone??? Nobody has verified whether they really are!!! This is complete nonsense and the way Retraction Watch harvests and uses the PubPeer feedback is absolutely revolting!

UPDATE FROM MAY 24, 2015

It is odd that we continue to have this discussion on these nobodies taking shots at people doing research, Cardiff University in the UK already led the way and did the right thing. Its policy now in place as described here enables automatic dismissal of all the incognito attacks from PubPeer, Clare Francis, Ivan Oransky and their associated haters!

 

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