Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Meet the researcher with 13 retractions who’s trying to sue PubPeer commenters: Fazlul Sarkar

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Fazlul Sarkar

Fazlul Sarkar

Fazlul Sarkar has not had a good month: In the last few weeks, he has earned 13 retractions across four journals, the latest in the fallout from a string of legal cases that have pitted him against one of science publishing’s major players.

Sarkar gained attention in 2014 when he sued anonymous commenters of PubPeer for defamation, and for potentially costing him a new gig at the University of Mississippi. But before all that, he was a respected researcher with hundreds of published papers, 38 of which were cited at least 100 times each. He’d also received $12.8 million in NIH funding for his research. So how did it all fall apart?

With the involvement multiple lawsuits, multiple institutions, and multiple people — some of whom are anonymous — it can get complex trying to keep track of it all. So for your convenience, we’ve compiled a timeline of recent events in the case:

1971: Sarkar graduates from Calcutta University with B. Sc. degrees in physics, chemistry, and math.

1974: Sarkar earns his M. Sc. in biochemistry from Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, India.

1978: Sarkar earns his PhD in biochemistry from Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India.

1979: Sarkar does his postdoc research at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York.

1982: Sarkar becomes a research associate at Sloan-Kettering.

1984: Sarkar becomes an assistant professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

1989: Sarkar begins his research at Wayne State University in Michigan as an associate professor of pathology.

February 13, 2006: Sarkar publishes “Cisplatin-induced antitumor activity is potentiated by the soy isoflavonen genistein in BxP-3 pancreatic tumor xenografts” in Cancer. The paper has been cited 20 times since, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

June 1, 2006: Sarkar publishes “Notch-1 down-regulation by curcumin is associated with the inhibition of cell growth and the induction of apoptosis in pancreatic cancer cells” in Cancer. The paper has been cited 161 times since.

October 19, 2007: Sarkar publishes “Response to dual blockade of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and cyclooxygenase-2 in nonsmall cell lung cancer may be dependent on the EGFR mutational status of the tumor” in Cancer. The paper has been cited 45 times since.

March 13, 2009: Sarkar publishes “Genistein enhances the effect of epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors and inhibits nuclear factor kappa B in nonsmall cell lung cancer cell lines” in Cancer. The paper has been cited 55 times since.

August 19, 2009: Sarkar publishes “Down-Regulation of uPA and uPAR by 3,3′-Diindolylmethane Contributes to the Inhibition of Cell Growth and Migration of Breast Cancer Cells” in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. The paper has been cited 31 times since.

October 8, 2009: Sarkar publishes “FoxM1 down-regulation leads to inhibition of proliferation, migration and invasion of breast cancer cells through the modulation of extra-cellular matrix degrading factors” in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. The paper has been cited 78 times since.

January 5, 2010: Sarkar publishes “Down-regulation of Notch-1 and Jagged-1 inhibits prostate cancer cell growth, migration and invasion, and induces apoptosis via inactivation of Akt, mTOR, and NF-κB signaling pathways” in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. The paper has been cited 105 times since.

March 8, 2010: Sarkar publishes “Concurrent inhibition of NF-kappaB, cyclooxygenase-2, and epidermal growth factor receptor leads to greater anti-tumor activity in pancreatic cancer” in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry.  The paper has been cited 18 times since.

April 9, 2010: Sarkar publishes “Platelet-derived growth factor-D contributes to aggressiveness of breast cancer cells by up-regulating Notch and NF-κB signaling pathways” in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. The paper has been cited 31 times since.

July 23, 2010: Sarkar publishes “Down-regulation of Notch-1 is associated with Akt and FoxM1 in inducing cell growth inhibition and apoptosis in prostate cancer cells” in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. The paper has been cited 53 times since.

August 18, 2011: Sarkar publishes “Over-expression of FoxM1 leads to epithelial-mesenchymal transition and cancer stem cell phenotype in pancreatic cancer cells” in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. The paper has been cited 115 times since.

November 23, 2012: Sarkar publishes “Activated K-Ras and INK4a/Arf deficiency promote aggressiveness of pancreatic cancer by induction of EMT consistent with cancer stem cell phenotype” in the Journal of Cellular Physiology. The paper has been cited 24 times since.

2013: Sarkar begins seeking a position at the University of Mississippi.

September 13, 2013: The University of Mississippi sends Sarkar their anticipated terms for an offer of employment. The terms include a distinguished professorship, two associate directorships, a salary of $350,000 with a commitment to help garner an endowed professorship, and a startup package of $750,000 along with hiring various assistant professors and research associates.

At the same time, the university begins its vetting process for Sarkar.

November 9, 2013: A PubPeer commenter starts a discussion regarding the images for Sarkar’s paper “Down-regulation of Notch-1 contributes to cell growth inhibition and apoptosis in pancreatic cancer cells.” The original post, as well as subsequent commenters, extensively highlight the similarities in the images for this paper and others by Sarkar. It’s one of many that have emerged regarding the images in Sarkar’s papers on PubPeer.

November 10, 2013: The pseudonymous Clare Francis emails the secretary of the board of governors at Wayne State University regarding the PubPeer comments. In the email, Francis writes:

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

They also say

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

March 11, 2014David D. Allen, dean of the school of pharmacy at the University of Mississippi, formally extends an employment offer to Sarkar that includes the terms listed above. Sarkar agrees and is set to begin on July 1, and later rescheduled for August 1.

May 15, 2014: Tenure is approved for Sarkar at the University of Mississippi.

May 19, 2014: Sarkar submits his resignation to Wayne State.

June 7, 2014: According to a letter from Larry Walker, the director of the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi, written to Sarkar several days later, Walker received

a series of emails forwarded anonymously from (sic?)PubPeer.com, containing several posts regarding papers from your lab. These were also sent at about the same time to Dr. Kounosuke Watabe, Associate Director of Basic Sciences for the Cancer Institute at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. I learned yesterday that several were sent on the weekend of 14 June to Dr. David Pasco, Assistant Director of the National Center for Natural Products Research.

June 18, 2014: A comment posted on PubPeer asks if Wayne State has been notified:

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, who is also Senior Executive Assistant to the President Wayne State University, 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”

The second post will become a point of contention in Sarkar’s case against PubPeer after the judge rules that the commenter must be identified.

June 19, 2014: Walker sends a letter to Sarkar to terminate his employment, due to the concerns raised by the PubPeer commenters. Walker writes to Sarkar:

I am troubled that you did not share with me at that time the scope of the concerns reflected, the nature of the allegations, or the number of additional papers about which specific, similar accusations had been raised. It was only on receiving the anonymous emails from PubPeer.com that I saw the potential for a more pervasive problem, with questions raised on that website (PubPeer.com) as far back as October 2013, and with as many as 40 papers at issue.

Because of this, Walker says Sarkar will not be able to work at the University of Mississippi:

At this point, we cannot go forward with an employment relationship with you and your group. With these allegations lodged in a public space and presented directly to colleagues here (I am not sure of the scope of the anonymous distribution), to move forward would jeopardize our research enterprise and my own credibility.

June 20, 2014: Sarkar attempts to rescind his resignation from Wayne State.

June 23, 2014: In an email to Walker, Sarkar claims that Walker does not have the ability to stop his appointment by the University of Mississippi because it has already been signed off by the dean and provost.

June 27, 2014: University of Mississippi’s then-chancellor Daniel Jones writes to Sarkar, confirming that Sarkar will not have a position at the institution:

As the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, I write this letter to confirm that Dr. Walker’s letter to you accurately describes the University’s position. You will not begin employment at the University of Mississippi beginning August 1, 2014…We all had high hopes for our relationship, but the University of Mississippi is not in a position to resolve the many concerns that have surfaced in recent weeks. The current circumstances leave us no choice.

August 11, 2014: Wayne State re-appoints Sarkar, but only for one year through July 30, 2015 and in a non-tenure track position as a Distinguished Professor.

August 18, 2014: PubPeer moderators disable a discussion topic thread due to a legal threat. They write:

Although it is unrelated to your posts, we have decided that “personal” topics are quite likely to attract further legal activity. As a matter of strategy and out of respect for those helping us with legal issues, we think it would be prudent to work through the issues of our first legal case without having to fight on several fronts at once.

August 24, 2014: In a separate thread, the PubPeer moderators clarify the situation. They explain:

PubPeer has recently received a legal threat from a scientist aggrieved at the treatment his papers are getting on our site.

They also provide a few specifics as well as the potential ramifications of the case:

The prospective plaintiff is a US researcher. Commenters on PubPeer apparently felt that some of the gels he has published display regions of unexpected similarity. In the context of the rise of post-publication peer review and its relatively uncharted legal territory, we believe that this case has several interesting aspects (at least for external observers), regarding tactics, jurisprudence and social media.

October 9, 2014: Sarkar sues the PubPeer commenters posting on his papers, claiming that those posts cost him his job at the University of Mississippi.

October 13, 2014: The judge subpoenas PubPeer and orders the site to reveal the names of its users by November 10.

March 5, 2015: PubPeer celebrates a near-complete victory. The judge rules that all but one of the commenters should remain anonymous. The hearing for the decision regarding the final commenter, responsible for the June 18, 2014 post claiming that Wayne State had been notified, is postponed until March 19.

March 19, 2015: The Michigan judge rules that PubPeer must hand over any information they have regarding the final commenter. While PubPeer does not know the name of the anonymous commenter, they do have identifying information in the form of an IP address.

March 20, 2015: PubPeer files a motion to stay enforcement so that they can file an appeal regarding the judge’s ruling.

March 30, 2015: Sarkar and his lawyer Nicholas Roumel file an appeal regarding PubPeer’s motion. They argue that PubPeer is a non-party in the case because PubPeer is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and therefore they cannot be allowed to make such a motion.

March 31, 2015: PubPeer files its appeal to reverse the judge’s earlier ruling.

April 9, 2015: A supplemental brief filed by Sarkar and Roumel reveals that Wayne State was made aware of the PubPeer comments by the pseudonymous Clare Francis. Roumel stated to Retraction Watch that he and Sarkar simply wanted to know if Francis had any part to play in the University of Mississippi rescinding its offer:

I made it clear in court that we have no intention of publicly exposing this person’s name at this time, we just want to find out who it is…We are willing to enter into a protective order and protect the identity of the commenter, and not expose it.

May 27, 2015: Sarkar files a lawsuit against the University of Mississippi, seeking

injunctive and monetary relief against The Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, the University, and Dr. Larry Walker (a University employee), in his official and individual capacities, under federal law (Section 1983 due process) and state law (breach of contract and promissory estoppel).

August 25, 2015: Walker files a motion to dismiss the suit against him in individual capacity. The motion states:

Walker was not the final decision-maker as to rescission of Sarkar’s employment offer. Walker’s actions were also objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

The motion also identifies Jones, then-chancellor, as the final decision-maker.

September 24, 2015: A U.S. district judge dismisses Sarkar’s case against all defendants in the Mississippi case, not just Walker:

This matter is before the Court by ore tenus agreed motion of the parties requesting dismissal of this action with prejudice following resolution of the claims. The Court, being fully advised in the premises, finds the motion is well taken and should be granted.

IT IS, THEREFORE, ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Plaintiff’s claims (whether asserted or amenable to assertion) against Defendants are dismissed with prejudice. Each party shall bear its respective fees, costs and expenses.

Roumel told Retraction Watch at the time:

The Mississippi court case was dismissed voluntarily after the parties reached a confidential settlement.

January 19, 2016: The ACLU files a brief in support of PubPeer’s March appeal. Other briefs are filed by scientific heavy hitters Bruce Alberts and Harold Varmus, as well as Twitter and Google, all in support of the right to speak anonymously.

April 26, 2016: An employee recognition ceremony at Wayne State includes Sarkar on its list of retirees.

June 15, 2016: The Journal of Cellular Biochemistry retracts five papers published by Sarkar. All of the retraction notices cite inappropriate manipulation or re-labeling of the images that was discovered during an investigation into Sarkar’s work by Wayne State University as the reason.

June 17, 2016: The Journal of Cellular Physiology retracts two papers published by Sarkar. Like before, the retraction notices both cite manipulated images as the reason for the retractions and again mention Wayne State University’s investigation.

July 13, 2016Breast Cancer Research and Treatment retracts two of Sarkar’s papers. Once again, the retraction notices indicate that the papers both contained image manipulations, but they do not cite the Wayne State University investigation.

July 29, 2016Cancer retracts four of Sarkar’s papers in the journal. Continuing the tend, the retraction notices cite image manipulation as the reason for the retractions. The journal also cites the investigation into Sarkar’s work by Wayne State University in its notices.

August 18, 2016: The International Journal of Cancer retracts five of Sarkar’s papers. All the notices mention an institutional investigation and are for issues related to images.

October 19. 2016: An investigation report from Wayne State University, obtained by The Scientist, concludes that Sarkar should retract 42 papers, after creating a research environment that encouraged misconduct.

November 17, 2016: ACLU releases Wayne State University’s full investigative report.

November 29, 2016: Judges deny ACLU’s request to include the investigative report in the record.

By our count, Sarkar has also issued 10 corrections in addition to his 18 retractions.

We’ll update this timeline as new events unfold.

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Written by Michael Koziol

August 12th, 2016 at 9:30 am

Comments
  • Paul Thompson August 12, 2016 at 10:15 am

    OK, PubPeer does not have to disclose any persons, except the anonymous contributor mentioned in the entry dated March 5, 2015 and March 19, 2015. I do not see the resolution to this issue. Was the IP address disclosed, or has that been quashed?

    • Anonymous August 12, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      An IP address in itself is essentially useless, of course. If the commentator was registered as a Peer that’s potentially a different matter. Interesting to see how this plays out.

      • Ken August 14, 2016 at 8:16 am

        It depends. If someone used an Internet cafe or similar then yes. If they used their university computer or home internet it should be traceable.

  • Roobaker August 13, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Update: He is laisted as being on the facult of Medicine at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

    https://umexpert.um.edu.my/fsarkar.html

  • KK August 14, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    This is really a good summary. All in one place. MK and RW should be applauded for this compilation which is going to be a useful document for us who teach responsible conduct to graduate students.

    • Graduate Students August 15, 2016 at 6:08 am

      Graduate student – can confirm, RW is teaching me how to falsify data and not get caught better.

      Keep them coming!

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