PubPeer has suffered a setback in an ongoing lawsuit filed by a scientist who alleges the site’s anonymous commenters cost him a job.
This week, judges in the Court of Appeals in Michigan denied the request of the American Civil Liberties Union — which is representing PubPeer — to include an investigative report as part of evidence in the case. The report, by Wayne State University, found the plaintiff — Fazlul Sarkar — had committed widespread misconduct, and should retract scores of papers.
Alexander Abdo of the ACLU told us:
With or without the report, the record in the case highlights why it is critical to require defamation plaintiffs like Dr. Sarkar to substantiate their claims with evidence before unmasking their critics. We remain hopeful that the Michigan courts will agree.
Nick Roumel, who is representing Sarkar, had a different perspective:
It was our position all along that it was unlawful to attempt to introduce the investigation results into the appellate record. Appeals, as a rule, are decided on the record developed in the trial court; and in this case, the trial court did not have any evidence regarding the investigation.
PubPeer’s attempt to introduce the investigation results, in my opinion, was an improper attempt to influence the Court of Appeals panel. The best analogy I can think of is, for example in a criminal case, “What does it matter if the defendant got a fair trial? He was guilty anyway!” Certainly if this case ever makes it back to the trial court, the investigation results will be relevant. But the point of this appeal is strictly to determine the standards to be used by the trial court for cases of this type, when faced with subpoenas against anonymous persons. Not whether Dr. Sarkar is “guilty” or not.
As it stands, PubPeer has appealed a ruling in March, 2015, in which a judge ordered the site to unmask one anonymous commenter. The latest decision means the Court of Appeals will make its decision without considering the results of the investigation.
The decision from the court of appeals, Roumel told us,
could be tomorrow or next year…
For more information, check out our timeline about the case.
Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.