One of the owners of the whistleblower site Science Fraud, which went dark yesterday in response to legal threats, has identified himself, and explained what happened.
In July 2012 I registered the domain name www.science-fraud.org, and started a website, a clearing house for people to report suspicious data and other problems in the published scientific literature. This was motivated by several factors, primarily frustration at the current channels available for dealing with scientific misconduct which one encounters on an almost daily basis (more on this later). Aided by dozens of helpers, who both submitted material to the site and helped in analyzing suspected data, a triage system of sorts was developed, such that only the most egregious examples were posted. Over the course of 6 months, we documented over 500 problematic images in over 300 publications, amounting to tens of millions of dollars in misappropriated research funds. Most of the grunt work (pulling PDFs, assembling images, writing posts) was done in my spare time, and the website was funded out of my own pocket. For rather obvious reasons (retaliation, personal safety, my own scientific career) it was necessary to run the site anonymously, with most of the work being attributed to a fictitious person, Frances deTriusce (an anagram of science fraudster), who could be reached by a gmail account firstname.lastname@example.org.
He describes some lessons:
1) Naming the site Science Fraud was probably a bad move. Certainly the name ruffled a lot of feathers, since the connotations of the word fraud are clearly damaging. Something more benign like “questionable-science-images.org” would probably be a better choice.
2) Language choice counts. If you know me, you know I curse a lot; I’m not the most politically correct individual on the planet, and sometimes my character broke through into the text describing the cases reported on the site. This may have caused offense, and if you were personally offended by the language I used, I formally apologize – it’s all been taken down now.
That being said, the factual data posted on the site remains intact in the scientific literature, and I remain utterly convinced that posting images from publicly available documents, questioning their integrity when there is sufficient evidence to suggest a problem, is in no way grounds for a libel or defamation suit. In short – don’t shoot the messenger. If you didn’t want your scientific data to be questioned, you shouldn’t have published it!
We have to agree with Brookes’ assessment, for the most part, and learning lessons is always a good thing. But we should also note that the site went beyond simply questioning the integrity of the images; it also accused scientists of wrongdoing and questioned the scientists‘ integrity. Put together with what Brookes acknowledges was offensive language, there are a lot of clear-minded attorneys who would disagree with his conclusion that there is “in no way grounds for a libel or defamation suit.”
Perhaps we’re just used to thinking as journalists whose publications are at risk if we wander too close to the libel line, and some Retraction Watch commenters — mostly anonymous — are happier with Science Fraud’s approach than with ours. Fair enough: As we’ve noted a number of times, Science Fraud’s analyses led to a number of corrections and retractions. But the end doesn’t justify the means, certainly not in court. And a number of commenters seem to agree.
That’s not to say we’re hoping for legal action against Science Fraud; we’d much rather, as I’m sure Brookes would, have everyone find a way to continue appropriately and constructively criticizing the literature. We can be even more sure of that because Brookes pointed out a few authors who “did the right thing” — just as we try to do, when we see clear retraction notices ackowledging error, for example:
They left comments detailing their plan of action, they published corrections, and we made efforts to correct and update posts when this happened. This is how it’s supposed to work – REAL scientists are not afraid to defend their data, and don’t need lawyers to do it for them.
Brookes ends with next steps:
My plan for the coming weeks, is to assemble a coalition of the willing, an assembly of like minded individuals who are sick of the current system. The new website would have a less inflammatory name, and its authorship would be commonly owned by a group of individuals, all scientists willing to be named, such that no one person could be held personally liable. We would triage and analyze cases in much the same way as currently done on science-fraud.org, with each case being agreed to by at least 3 individuals before posting. As a start, we would re-post much of the material that was recently taken down from science-fraud.org, following this additional peer review. If you’re a scientist and wish to sign on for this endeavor (using your real name), please email me.
He also says he may set up a legal fund.
Updated, 3:30 p.m. Eastern, where asterisk appears, to reflect that Brookes’ post has been taken down from his site.