MD Anderson’s Bharat Aggarwal threatens to sue Retraction Watch

Bharat Aggarwal

Bharat Aggarwal, an MD Anderson researcher under investigation by his institution, has threatened to sue us.

Today, we received a letter from the Houston firm of Paranjpe & Mahadass LLP telling us to pull every post related to their client off our site within 20 days, or they’d “file a lawsuit against” us on his behalf.

On what grounds? According to the March 26 letter, which we have posted here in its entirety:

a vast majority of the statements posted on Retraction Watch are untrue and defamatory.

We called the law firm today to ask what statements in particular the letter referred to, and they said they would get back to us. We will respond appropriately once we hear the specific allegations.

Aggarwal, whose institutional bio lists him as the Ransom Horne, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Cancer Research, has been the subject, directly or otherwise, of some half-dozen posts on this blog. The integrity of his work was questioned on other blogs, particularly the now-defunct — thanks to legal threats from others Abnormal Science (you can see some of those posts here), which accused him of having manipulated his images.

Aggarwal has withdrawn, retracted or corrected a handful of articles, mainly for problems with the images. In a couple of cases, however, the reason for the removal was unstated.

The case has drawn significant interest, including a story in the Houston Chronicle.

Update, 8 p.m. Eastern, 4/10/13: Struck through “thanks to legal threats from others,” which referred to, not Abnormal Science. Thanks to commenter Eduardo G P Fox for pointing out this error.

Update, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, 4/11/13: Here’s Popehat’s take on this story: “Dr. Bharat Aggarwal’s Attorneys Make Bumptious Legal Threats Against “Retraction Watch” Blog

45 thoughts on “MD Anderson’s Bharat Aggarwal threatens to sue Retraction Watch”

  1. Consider contacting the bloggers at Popehat. They have an interest in writing about bogus legal threats and finding pro bono legal help for those on the receiving end.

    1. Hi. I’m Ken White, from Popehat.

      For purposes of writing about this legal threat, I wrote the lawyer requesting a comment. It doesn’t appear he will give one. He did use “free speech” in scare quotes, so he has that going for him, which is nice.

      I’m investigating to write. If the lawyers have, in fact, specified what content they believe to be defamatory, I’d be interested in an update.

      As a hobby, I connect threatened bloggers with pro bono representation. I’d be happy to do so in your case if you wish.


      Ken White

      1. Thanks for your interest, Ken. We’ll be posting any updates we get. And very good to know about your pro bono hobby.

        1. I’m getting a feeling that all the publication scamsters might form a defense lobby, using whatever means they can, to minimize their defamation and slip back under the radar. We need to have mutliple outlets, in the event RW gets taken out.

  2. Don’t give in to them. This reeks of thin-skinned legal bullying, and I doubt they actually have a case to pursue.

  3. Here is what I can tell, two young lawyers, from a small firm…The thuggery of some of these people trying to make threats. This web site only publishes what people did wrong. So before going after this web site, don’t do stupid stuff.

    1. Most likely, Aggarwal and his lawyers want the readers’ comments purged because the actual blog entries are not controversial at all. First Potti and now this… They want less publicity but a strong sense of pride drives them to take steps which throw them into the spotlight. Not smart.

  4. Wow, yes Abnormal science has been taken down. This is really stupid on his part and does show how sick science has become. Retraction Watch is written very carefully and covers only facts in the public domain.

    I am happy to help. Modest means, but then many modest pledges equals a large fighting fund – see the “Banana Balls” fund set up by Private Eye in the UK.
    Keep posting and tweeting, ensures the story stays live!

    1. I think inviting lawyers into science is actually a terrific idea. Threatening competition, people who publish critical of one’s research papers, reviewers who reject one’s manuscript, or simply people who didn’t cite one’s work enough thereby depriving the plaintiff of his/her rightful high citation index… Possibilities are endless.

    2. Don’t most university professors have access to university lawyers? Is it odd to use external legal services?

      1. It could be odd to use a university lawyer when the university is involved in an investigation of yourself. Moreover, I’m not sure university lawyers have much experience with this type of accusations. I know a few at my university that I’d trust preparing MTAs, NDAs, etc, but not if I’d ever need one for some kind of criminal case.

  5. Interesting letter… Especially about this Dr. entitlement to privacy. Could be an exciting legalistic question – a professor, who _published_ 600+ papers many with _public_ funds, gave over 300 lectures all over the place, whose salary of $258,205 listed as being in government employ, now all of a sudden wants his right to privacy – well, actually his right to keep troubles with the research that made him all that money and publicity out of public eye.

    1. Yes, it is quite astounding. Put a paper into the public domain, reap the rewards and then when people raise questions, hunker down in the bunker, reach for the lawyers, etc.

    2. Also note that the retractions are a matter of public record, including indexing on PubMed (and presumably Google).

    3. How did he get into the reputable M.D. Anderson ? Who supervises him or works with him ? The hiring process as well as he needs to be investigated. Where is he now ?

  6. This reminds me of the things Ben Goldacre was writing in Bad Science, where quacks and people selling supplements and remedies with all kinds of inflated bogus claims would sue Ben. I thought in this case it was due in part to the ridiculous British libel laws which were written without a thought to scientific issues. It’s deeply troubling that Science Fraud is down from legal threat and now Retraction Watch facing the same issues.

  7. My great fear is that all the negative press involving retractions, highly controversial cancer center directors, conflicts of interest, etc., is coming at the worst possible time, so that all of this feeds into a public malaise about science in general and funding for health-related research, specifically. I can just hear some of those budget cut-happy geezers on Capitol Hill snickering to themselves as they let the NIH implode, saying things like “most of those scientists are crooks anyway,” and “let the private sector fund medical research – they’re the ones inventing the new drugs after all.”

    1. I often worry about the same thing, but we all know that these problems exist, and it looks much better for us if the academic scientific community is seen to be dealing with shoddy publications publicly and promptly. That means it needs to be a fully open process, however embarrassing that may be at times. More generally, we need to represent ourselves fairly and honestly to the people who are actually paying us, much as we may dislike this task; even if they don’t understand 99% of what we do, they deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.

      1. “More generally, we need to represent ourselves fairly and honestly to the people who are actually paying us”

        They are not the people who are paying us. We are all paying them and each other, when you think about it. And it’s not like the “people who are paying us” are doing a good job at representing themselves fairly and honestly. These days, if you represent yourself fairly and honestly you are history.

  8. Just a quick comment: I do not think Abnormal Science Blog was taken down because of legal threat, but because of personal (health?) problems of the owner. I think Science Fraud Blog was actually among a few I know which was taken down because of political/legal pressure.

    I very much hope Retraction Watch will keep going for a long time, and that other blogs likewise increasing transparency in science are born.

    1. P.S. I said so as I thought the demise of these two outstanding blogs might have been mixed in the part “…the now-defunct — thanks to legal threats from others — Abnormal Science…”.

  9. Well, Paul — while you are probably right that “generally speaking “real” scientists don’t need lawyers” — in reality in some cases, “real” honest scientists (professors and postdocs and students) do need lawyers (and experts in research misconduct cases like me) to help them defend their rights against unfair actions by university committees and officials in some cases.

    For example, in one case, university officials posted an investigation report — finding misconduct by one person — on a university website, unredacted, naming several coauthors who were being referred to another committee for further investigation, because they were coauthors — while failing to inform these people that there was any allegation (or inquiry) directed against them. Such public disclosures, in violation of university and federal regulations [wherein all investgations are required to be kept confidential by institutional officials], are extremely unfair and damaging to reputations, and such people need lawyers’ help against such abuse.

    1. Alan R Price said: “all investgations are required to be kept confidential by institutional officials”.
      Yes, that’s why we need lawyers; to stop universities from being transparent.

      1. Universities vary widely in their rules about transparency and willingness to actually follow them, but generally their rules include due process, and require at least informing people. Ideally, when credible complaints are lodged, schools should quickly inform *all* those relevant, do inquiry/investigation expeditiously and confidentially, and then publish results in both directions. I.e., if complaints are judged valid, they should say so, and if not (especially if complaints already public), should also say so explicitly, and in cases of multiple authorships, should be as clear as possible about which people if any were deemed at fault, and which were not. Of course, this can be really messy with lots of coauthors, especially if spread across institutions.

        Without knowing the details, it sounds like the university was trying to be transparent, but didn’t do it very competently. Maybe the situation was too complex, but I’m slightly surprised the investigation committee didn’t explore more diligently and generate a report that covered everybody … and then publish that. But, Napoleon’s dictum “never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence” might apply.
        Some schools have standing committees that look at such issues, so they have experience. Other schools select investigation committees where few if any have ever done this before.

        For examples of 2 famous (and rarely, well-documented) cases, where schools followed rules and were very open about what they were doing, see pp.68-q69 of PDF here,.
        Of the first “The Churchill case has to be one of the messiest, complex and most
        contentious misconduct cases that is publicly documented.” Of the second, “Universities not only have the duty to protect the public from research misconduct, but to protect faculty from widespread false claims”

  10. The best disinfectant remains bright sunlight. Free and open debate remains the only way to test ideas. We only have to look at the all to numerous examples of political systems where there is little light and less debate and measure their capacity for civilisation and for innovation.

  11. Sorry, I may have missed something: why was the phrase “– thanks to legal threats from others – ” deleted in the original entry?

  12. I’m starting to think if we can device a psyche eval test that would light up those amongst us who are prone to committing bad science. But thats not a happy thought, is it?

  13. Thank you Retraction Watch. For a number of reasons I cannot reveal my identity. My firm deals in venture capital acquisition for various scientific concerns. Thanks to your site we have been able to steer away from several individuals we were considering. Finding clear and honest data is very difficult concerning members of the scientific community. Individuals who attempt to deceive are quite sophisticated in their manipulations. A disappointing truth but we applaud your site’s efforts to shine light on this darkness.

  14. Dunno where you are located, this is my first post, and I”m too lazy to go back and look, but California has an ‘anti-SLAPP’ statute that may apply if you are in the People’s Republic. . . . provides for attorneys fees, costs and punies if someone tries to SLAPP you . . .

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