Scientist embroiled with PubPeer engaged in “widespread research misconduct,” investigation finds

Fazlul Sarkar
Fazlul Sarkar

An investigation into a scientist suing PubPeer commenters over criticisms of his work has concluded that the researcher engaged in widespread misconduct and should retract 42 papers.

The investigation report by Wayne State University, obtained by The Scientist, reveals that Fazlul Sarkar created a research environment that encouraged productivity but cut corners when it came to integrity:

The Investigation Committee finds that the evidence shows that Dr. Sarkar engaged in and permitted (and tacitly encouraged) intentional and knowing fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism of data, and its publication in journals, and its use to support his federal grant applications.

According to The Scientist, the university investigated more than 140 allegations of misconduct, ultimately recommending that 42 papers be retracted and 10 others receive correction notices. Sarkar already has retracted 18 papers.

News of the report comes as judges in Michigan mull Sarkar’s suit. The court heard from lawyers representing both sides of the case earlier this month, after PubPeer appealed a previous ruling that the site must unmask the identity of one anonymous commenter.

Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing PubPeer, told us he wasn’t surprised by the conclusions of the Wayne State investigation, since an expert hired to review the PubPeer comments about Sarkar’s work had concluded the concerns were legitimate.

I think that [the report] makes the legal case even stronger. We’ve argued all along that it’s important to test the claims of a defamation plaintiff before you let them unmask their anonymous critics. This is exactly why.

Although appeals are usually decided based on the evidence presented in the previous case, Abdo told Retraction Watch he is “considering the possibility” of seeking to supplement the record with the results of the Wayne State investigation.

Nick Roumel, the attorney representing Sarkar, told us he didn’t believe the findings of the report would have much impact on the appeal:

I regret that the report was released. It has absolutely no bearing on the issues being faced by the appellate court. Those legal issues remain important not only to Dr. Sarkar, but for everyone else in Michigan who wants to hold anonymous commenters liable for potentially defamatory speech and other misconduct.

The fact of the investigation results regarding Dr. Sarkar could, however, come into play if the case is sent back to the trial court, for example if there is a trial. Defendants may be able to use it as a defense, depending on the circumstances.

Bill Burdett, the attorney representing the anonymous commenter at the heart of the case, declined to comment.

According to the report:

The evidence shows that Dr. Sarkar failed to establish or maintain standards of quality control in record keeping, or to exercise due diligence to correct unacceptable practices. The Committee concludes, based on an examination of the evidence, that Dr. Sarkar’s failures of mentorship and laboratory management rise to levels of recklessness that enable irresponsibility, uncritical collegiality, acceptance of poor laboratory practices indiscriminant [sic] awarding of authorships, and ultimately resulted in widespread research misconduct by him and others.

For more information, check out our timeline on this case.

Update 10/20/16 8:30 p.m. eastern: PubPeer has asked to file a supplemental brief, including the results of the Wayne State investigation. You can read the brief here.

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18 thoughts on “Scientist embroiled with PubPeer engaged in “widespread research misconduct,” investigation finds”

  1. Truth is [usually] a defense against libel.

    Although I’m not a lawyer, it does seem to me that having “absolutely no bearing on the issues being faced by the appellate court” is an absolute that is likely untrue.

  2. This is a good step forward. Many institutions only consider scientific misconduct to be proven if there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that those responsible did it intentionally. With that burden, many simply claim they are incompetent or bad supervisors and are escape responsibility. It is very difficult to prove someones thinking. I applaud Wayne State for their stance in this. Although, one wonders if this vigorous action would be applied to less egregious cases. Wayne State has other scientists under scrutiny.

  3. 18 + 42 puts the litigious Dr Sarkar onto the leaderboard, a fine effort. What is most remarkable, given that science claims to be self correcting is how rare it is for comments on multiple papers from the same stable on PubPeer to result in some sort of institutional action. Most often we remain waiting for Godot.

    1. It depends on whether Wayne State fired him for cause.

      The whole thing is ludicrous. Libel is not a matter of saying negative things about a person. It is LYING about a person in a way that damages their reputation. The only person who is responsible for the diminished reputation of Dr. Sarkar is Dr. Sarkar.

  4. I remember reading the comments about Fazlul Sarkar being listed as a faculty member in a Malaysian University. Is he setting up a similar research environment over there?

    Sarkar and the anonymous commenter are not the only ones being affected by this saga, the co-authors of those 42+ papers to be retracted too.

  5. VT
    I remember reading the comments about Fazlul Sarkar being listed as a faculty member in a Malaysian University. Is he setting up a similar research environment over there?
    Sarkar and the anonymous commenter are not the only ones being affected by this saga, the co-authors of those 42+ papers to be retracted too.

    In all papers this year, still listed as Wayne State scientist:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=sarkar+fh+2016%5Bdp%5D+not+retraction

  6. The motion by the ACLU to introduce the results of the investigation into the research of Dr. Sarkar has been granted by the court of appeal. Is this a game changer?

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