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Court case over the anonymous criticism of scientific publications tests limits of free speech

PubPeer is an online platform that allows anonymous post-publication peer review of scientific papers. It has also become a means to rapidly flag potential erroneous findings reported in the literature and, in the last two years, has become the centre of a court case over anonymous scientific criticism and the freedom of speech.

From November 2013, PubPeer commenters began highlighting similarities between images associated with different experiments across several papers by Fazlul Sarkar, then a cancer researcher and tenured professor at Wayne State University. These comments were forwarded to the University who subsequently held an investigation into the claims, and also to the University of Mississippi who had made a prestigious job offer to Sarkar that was subsequently rescinded. As a result, Sarkar began legal proceedings against the commenters on PubPeer and called for their identities to be revealed. Last year, a judge decided that PubPeer need only release the identity of one commentator who had confirmed in a PubPeer post that they had informed Wayne State University of the image irregularities. It is possible that the commentator in question is the pseudonymous whistle-blower Clare Francis.

PubPeer and their lawyers, which include members of the American Civil Liberties Union, have appealed the decision, stating that the commenter’s identity is protected under the first amendment unless Sarkar can prove that their statements were untrue. Their appeal was recently strengthened when it was decided that an article in the Scientist reporting findings from the Wayne State University investigation could be entered as evidence. This investigation concluded that Sarkar “engaged in and permitted (and tacitly encouraged) intentional and knowing fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism of data” and recommended that 42 papers authored by Sarkar should be retracted. Of these, 18 have been withdrawn since June this year. Sarkar has rejected the findings of the investigation.

The results of the appeal are imminent and will likely prove instructive for the post-publication peer review process and the future of anonymity on sites such as PubPeer.


Summary by Alice Wareham, PhD from Aspire Scientific


Medical writing

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