So what happened after Paul Brookes was forced to shut down

Paul Brookes, via URMC
Paul Brookes, via URMC

Retraction Watch readers will likely be familiar with the story of Paul Brookes, the University of Rochester researcher whose identity as the person behind was revealed in January 2013. That revelation — and legal threats — forced Brookes to shutter

In a new illuminating interview in Science, Brookes discusses the legal threats he faced, how they curtailed his travel, and how his university responded, among other subjects.

The risks faced by whistleblowers are a constant thread on Retraction Watch. So did the site have an effect on his ability to do science?

Q: Did you worry that your blog would cost you your job and career?

P.B.: Yeah, I am still worried. I am 41 years old, so I have another 25 years of this to go before I retire. I have to continue to get grants, to publish papers, and obviously if there are people out there who are upset with me, then maybe they will review my grants badly, maybe they will review my papers badly. The potential for retaliation is there; there is really no way to get around this.

In the past year, it appears that this is not such a big problem as I thought. My R01 grant from NIH [the National Institutes of Health] was renewed, and then just in January we got a second grant renewed. We published papers last year without major problems. In 10 years’ time, when I am trying to publish a paper, maybe I will come across somebody who is still annoyed at me.

Later in the interview, Brookes reflects on lessons learned:

Q: Do you wish you had done anything different with your blog?

P.B.: I probably would have been more careful about anonymity, more careful about security. One of the major problems was the name of the blog; it was a little bit harsh, and also the rhetoric was maybe in some cases a little bit harsh. I am British; we swear a lot. So you will see from the things I am posting, more recently on PubPeer and other places, that I am being more careful with the language.

Read the whole Q&A here.

25 thoughts on “So what happened after Paul Brookes was forced to shut down”

  1. I was a big fan of his blog and also Abnormal Science. Unfortunately I think it would be impossible to interview the author of the last one. Note that Paul Brookes is a great supporter of PubPeer.

  2. Am not convinced was a threat to the future of Science and science funding, rather the opposite.

    Just look at the Catholic Church scandals, or the ones about the banking sector. Secretiveness and the obsession with dealing with problems in private instead of in public are the best ways for major systemic problems to explode later on.

    The fact that nobody AFAIK has stepped in to fill the S-F gap, and Brookes himself is still convinced it can only be done in complete anonimity, those are all signs that things might be pretty bad already, and the reputation of Science itself (not to mention, its funding) will be dented sooner rather than later.

  3. I wonder what his official job description is at UR? I simply cannot believe that this work could fall outside the scope of scholarly work! I guess if he was publishing anonymously the University couldn’t take credit? But why not continue out in the open? Publishing opinions of others’ “scholarly” works is half of being an academic. I’d like to hear UR’s side of this, but they really did lack enthusiastic support, as is conveyed by this interview, shame on them.

    Finally, one thing that PB didn’t consider when asked if he was worried about his long term career, re: grants, etc. It is entirely possible that this whole thing could benefit his career. If, in fact, more scientists are generally honest and want fraud free science than don’t… there should be more people who view him in a positive light following this event than those who view him less positively. Sure, haters gonna hate more than appreciators appreciate? … but if a lot of people have a generally positive view of him, they could subconsciously bias reviews of his stuff in favour of him.

  4. If you read the interview, the reaction of the university seems outrageous. The university was concerned to show that they would not back him up in any lawsuits, and they were concerned that his work was distracting him from the work he was ‘paid to do’.

    No matter what you think of his web site, he was engaging in scientific criticism. That is an inherent and important aspect of science, and I think the university has a moral obligation to defend him to the utmost.

    The universities have power, influence and money, and their reason to exist is to use these facilities to protect the academic freedom of the faculty (and students, to a lesser extent). If they are not using their resources to defend and protect the faculty, what useful role does the university play?

    1. Oh from my point of view, the university was fantastic. Back in my country they would set an example by sanctioning him as much as possible, however it is a different society and most probably most of his targets would have been close colleagues and members of the university administration. Is is always easy to evaluate the work of people you are in contact with.

      I now wonder if he did not look into his close colleagues’ works, did not find anything reproachable there, or just ignored them for the sake of his own survival?

      1. My experience, from years of whistle-blowing, is that one is damaged for life. It takes a life time to establish trust and just one e-mail to destroy a decades-old relationship. Humans are by nature skeptical, and even more so, scientists, who are always questioning things. The whistle-blowers are the equivalent in science publishing to what were considered to be the nerds, the rats, and the pricks in high-school days. This sad, imbalanced perception that somehow telling the truth is somehow wrong, is in itself a morally twisted value system that is somehow inculcated in us, maybe even from early schooling. In societies where the “control” factor is firmly in place, how can we expect otherwise? Think about the hypocrisy that surrounds us every day. If you find a rotten politician, how difficult is it to remove them from power? In some cases, not even petitions of tens of thousands is enough. Yet, if you go to the supermarket and steal an apple, you will most likely be charged with a crime. So, there is this gross imbalance not only in our mental perceptions of what is right and what is wrong, and what is more right than another right, but also in the perceived wrongness that is imposed upon us in society, either as laws, or as societal perceptions. If a scientist sees a statistically incorrect analysis, if a scientist sees a duplicated figure, or if a scientist sees plagiarized text, why should they be vilified fr reporting it and pointing it out? Why should there be such harsh resistance by peers, by editors and by publishers? The world of the whistle-blower is a lonely one. Their voices are all too few, and all too soft. There must be a rise of the whistle-blowers, and with protections, too, without repercussions, or vilification. I believe that Paul Brookes may have erred with the tone and the foul language (slang). Even though in our hearts when we discover misconduct it gives us the feeling of “this %$&#!& paper”, unfortunately, we simply can’t say %$&#!& without hurting someone’s feelings. This diplomatically false image is unfortunately simply expected from us, by society. Those who are critical of whistle-blowers also tend to be highly deflective. They either point our your own faults as the excuse, they either defend that their fault is not a fault, or justify it with anything but logic, or they stay silent, most likely when legal teams step in and tell them to shut up, or face the consequences of what they will say. The problem also lies with the term itself: whistle-blowing gives a really negative perception. It should be referred to as truth telling, and whistle-blowers should be called truth-tellers. From my experience, which has been painful, and which has seen me lose 95% of friendships among peers, because of my highly combative tone and methodology, is not regretful. I will look back, also possibly in 10 years from now and hopefully say, changes were made because of my truth-telling, and plant science has benefitted, even if only fractionally, by my actions and attitudes (and not necessarily by my science). Unlike Paul, I do not receive funding and have actively disassociated myself from research institutes, so this takes away the stress and pressure of having to secure research grants, funding and always having that nagging background stress of having to worry about what your boss is thinking, or going to do. But it introduces a new and stressful situation: how to stay active as a scientist without a base. One cannot live always looking over one’s shoulder, so a new culture needs to be fomented that doesn’t require feared anonymity from the shadows of PubPeer. Kudos to Paul for continuing the fight. I understand and empathize with the struggle of the movement.

    2. “The universities have power, influence and money, and their reason to exist is to use these facilities to protect the academic freedom of the faculty (and students, to a lesser extent). If they are not using their resources to defend and protect the faculty, what useful role does the university play?” A response that is often heard from critics of academia is that, in adopting a business model, universities’ priorities have evolved away from their original mission. In this newer model, students are seen as customers and their well-being and satisfaction are often the main priority. As such, the main purpose of our work as faculty is to maintain/increase the institution’s reputation (new discoveries, etc.) and growth (more students, outside funding, etc). Thus, ventures like that of Paul Brooks that can become a potential source of litigation and therefore be very costly are seeing as a threat to the reputation and financial well-being of an institution. They’re simply not worth the risk.

  5. I knew Brookes when he was a doctoral student in Martin Brand’s lab in Cambridge in the early nineties.

    I think he has acted foolishly. As he may well discover, mud sticks, and to be falsely, and anonymously, accused of fraud in the public square is a very serious matter. There are proper channels and procedures for dealing with potentially fraudulent publications; blabbing on the Internet is not one of them. Raise the matter with the appropriate researchers, your local ORI if need be and the Editors of the journal in question. Don’t just shoot your mouth off on a blog.

    1. I do agree that he acted foolishly by his tone and maybe from being sure he would not be caught , yet I understand that most (including his accused) would incur in the same mistake. I understand his frustration considering that the “proper channels” usually do not work as publishers and editors will be inclined to protect authors who pay their debts. I indeed think the open exposure of issues online in English is not only appropriate but the best way to discuss irregularities in published material of public interest. Yet one should watch the tone always consider the possibility of misinterpretation or that the accused could be somehow innocent.

    2. “Raise the matter with the appropriate researchers, your local ORI if need be and the Editors of the journal in question.”

      Surely the efficacy of those channels is what Brookes is going to compare in his forthcoming paper?

      “I found that the public papers have a seven to eight-fold higher level of corrections and retractions.”

      While one may quibble with the verbiage on Brookes’ blog, his result is based on comparing two pools of >200 papers and might well be statistically significant.

      A bunch of indefatigable Japanese stem cell sleuths have just shown that while “blabbing on the Internet is not one of” the proper channels, it is a whole lot more effective.

    3. xdd641, it seems that you having not been following this debate very carefully. There are dozens of posts on this blog and others showing that there are NO effective “proper channels and procedures for dealing with potentially fraudulent publications.”

      In his blog Brookes used the word fraud to describe the deceptive manipulation of images – with which I agree. If you can find someone who was falsely accused, name them.

      When you succeed in getting a deceptive or fraudulent paper retracted using your suggested methods (“Raise the matter with the appropriate researchers, …”) then let us know all about it. I will give you £100.

      1. “xdd641, it seems that you having not been following this debate very carefully. There are dozens of posts on this blog and others showing that there are NO effective “proper channels and procedures for dealing with potentially fraudulent publications.”

        What then, is the mechanism we see in action that leads to scores of retractions annually? Or are you suggesting that this is just the tip of the (fraudulent) iceberg?

      2. I must say it is indeed possible to get a paper retracted by the “suggested methods”, however it usually relies on a lot of effort/pressure on editors to move, and is very unlikely to succeed when dealing with politically-influential offenders and hypocritical editors, and generally costs more to the denouncer than the offenders in the long run. I must also add that I really think that retractions got more unlikely to happen after the increase in popularity of Retraction Watch, exactly because of public visibility. In conclusion, I think that relying more on public exposition and discussion than trusting editors from “suggested methods” and even actual retractions, is the best way for the advancement of science against published misconduct.

  6. Has Dr Brookes even once considered what will happen to the post doc or students who’ work was labelled as “fraud” based on his judgement alone? Will he ever be able to apologize to those who simple do not want to respond to his unfounded allegations because they do not want to deal with publicity. IF any of Brooks publication was unilaterally accused on a site like his what would be his reaction—!! I guess he will say the best way is to reply to the public allegation—but the vitriolic nature of such sites will prevent many people from responding and then how many such sites will you respond to if many people take up to this as a way of getting to people they want to target????

    1. The truth is that he will have to watch his back for the rest of his scientific life. Academia is a small world, there is no way around that. But he knows that.

        1. I don’t think so. He needs to get grants because he is at least part soft money. That’s the way it is at Medical Schools. And the more prestigious they are and the more likely you are 100% on soft money. In a sense, that is even more secure than a tenured position, while you have the grants. That is because they institution really wants your money.

  7. Wonder why Paul Brooke’s is scared of the law suits? If he is confident there was fraud in those 275 papers he should claim trial to any one who is ready to face the charges! If not he must acknowledge his mistake openly. Clearly this game of daring each other is not good for the community. This is not to say that fraud does not happen. I am just of the view that it out to be proven by a committee or else people like Paul will take this in their rather naive hands

  8. “Wonder why Paul Brooke’s is scared of the law suits?”

    Because lawsuits are expensive, even if you win.

    Ask yourself why no one has actually sue him for libel. It is because his statements, while unwise, are backed up by what he considers reasonable evidence. In order to win at libel in the US you need to show ‘actual malice’ and falsehood. I think it would be very difficult to show malice in any case against Brooke. He was clearly motivated by a sense of what he considered to be scientific ethics. Showing falsehood would also be difficult. As far as I know he told no lies, nor exhibited a ‘willful disregard for the truth’. He can explain in court why he thought misconduct had occurred in any of his cases. Unless it can be shown that his standards were wildly unreasonable there will be no libel.

    I’m sure any lawyer will advice persons who feel aggrieved by Brooke that a suit would be expensive and unlikely to recover damages. And a suit would bring potentially unwelcome additional publicity to the original accusation.

    1. “he told no lies, nor exhibited a ‘willful disregard for the truth’. ”

      Quite often it is those who are criticized who show a ‘willful disregard for the truth’.
      When they are contacted openly or anonymously they often either don’t respond or say there are no problems at all or that the issue is completely unimportant.

  9. Some previous commentators accused P.Brookes of having damaged reputations from scientists he pointed out on his blog. Is there any proof for that? Did he really damage reputations?

    In my opinion the discussion should not be about what happend on the blog but rather what can we deduct from these observations. How can it be that a “reader” (customer) from science journals can find images in a peer-reviewed publication, publish them on a blog and put pressure on a scientist or even a whole institution?

    Two reasons come into my mind:

    1) No institutional quality control.
    It is normal practice nowadays that scientists are showered with money, without further control of the quality of their experimental work. Awards, publications and presentations are certainly no proper control. A system is required in the institutions, which assures that working processes are performed on high quality level and according to policies, and that absolutely no experimental data is lost. I don’t want to trust in someones scientific work, but I want to know it was done according to good scientific practice.

    2) No independency of science.
    Scientists are dependent from the peer-review publication system. Publish or perish. Indeed a system which is very prone to corruption.

    Maybe you know some more?


      I was thinking about Han’s list today and I thought to myself, “How is it possible that the problems related to the vilification of whistle-blowers be reduced to only two reasons?” It then dawned upon me that whistle-blowers simply don’t have any rights or protections. Think about it. Most top-tier publishers protect themselves with legal teams, and more recently with the COPE ethical crash-helmet. COPE guidelines offer protection to publishers and editors, and are hand-crafted over years to suit their needs. The Council of Science Editors or CSE offers protection to editors, publishers, and wide support of COPE ( The publishers offer protection to the editors, but a legal distance from them, and with a solid support of COPE, provided they are paying clients. Take for example the recently launched Wiley Ethics Guidelines ( Have a good look at page 22-28 (of the PDF file), or page 40-52 of the print version. Just in case you were unable to see the pattern, let me help you out a bit. Every single COPE-created “sample” letter that exists as a support letter only exists to support the editors and the publishers. However, the publishers get together with COPE to create these guidelines and letters, but they make it sound as if they are being offered ethical support by COPE. Do you see any letter that says “Dear Editor”, or “Dear Editor-in-Chief”, or “Dear Publisher”? In other words, do you see any letter, created by COPE, or supported by Wiley, that supports authors’ claims against editors, or publishers? Is there any advice in the ethical “guidelines” by Wiley that offers advice to authors about how they should deal with the editor, or the publisher, if there is a possible case of ethical violation by either? Even though the question was rhetorical, allow me to answer it for you: NO. This revolving door of power, “plasticized ethics” and I-back-you-up-if-you-back-me-up stance by the COPE-paying publishers is absolutely astonishing. In Wiley’s case, the revolving door can be clearly observed here: (look at the authorship carefully)

      Translated, in fact, none of these bodies is actually really interested in the protection of authors’ rights, or informants’ (aka whistle-blowers) rights. So much so that Wiley dedicates a whole, generous 4-line paragraph to whistleblowers, on page 2 (print) or page 3 (PDF), stating: “Whistle blowing Allegations of suspected misconduct that have specific, detailed evidence to support the claim should be investigated appropriately, whether they are raised anonymously or by named “whistle-blowers.” More information about how editors can respond to communications from whistle-blowers is available from COPE.”

      Other than this, where are the rights of protection to authors? Where are the guidelines by COPE, CSE, WAME, ICMJE, the big 4 publishers (Elsevier Ltd., Springer SBM, Taylor and Francis, Wiley) that offer clear guidance, sample letters and robust support and advice? The best you get are FAQ pages with dozens of standardized and useless Q&A’s, “Contact Us” online submission forms that rarely result in a response, and absolutely no, in most cases, transparent editorial information, for example editors’ contacts.

      I therefore conclude that there is a sharp divide between “US” and “THEM”. They are desperately trying to close that divide by making PR-friendly submission systems, “journal publishers” that respond to broad queries in marketing-based, user-friendly tones, and flashy sites and tools that make authors’ super-egos bulge, but in reality, there is a wall between “THEM” and “US”. And “US” can broadly be considered authors + whistle-blowers. I have alluded to the militarization of science in another blog entry and have indicated at least once before that the “system” that is being put in place is alienating and targeting scientists, not protecting them:

      Scientists are gradually being vilified and abandoned, made to look like the sharks and also given to the sharks.

      My advice is don’t let the hood be pulled over your eyes, because “their” techniques of evasion are brilliant. While keeping an eye out for peer misconduct, let’s start to create a counter-force that keeps the editors and publishers and “ethics” bodies under constant surveillance and in check. Otherwise, we will be reduced to a pool of robots, whose every move and thought is controlled by their neo-Orwellian policies, and the work we do and publish will be as bland as water-microwaved chicken breast. One who looks at RW, and at this apparent explosion in retractions, will be easily fooled into thinking that this is about finding justice by editors and publishers against the bad, vile, and unethical scientists. But, dig a little deeper and your will begin to realize that this is a war, and if we do not call out “their” errors, and keep them in check, and start to do this very, very quickly, you might as well get ready to run for the emergency exit soon. The stage has now been set: In the last 1-2 years, I have never seen so many online agonizingly scrutinizing checks, and revised and re-revised policies and ethical norms coming quickly into place. See, for example, how quickly Elsevier’s ethics campaign evolved from late 2012, now being a central pillar and link to each and every log-in page (e.g., ). Despite this, read carefully the Elsevier “Ethics” pages carefully: It states, “We are committed to ensuring that advertising, reprint or other commercial revenue has no impact or influence on editorial decisions. In addition, Elsevier will assist in communications with other journals and/or publishers where this is useful to editors. Finally, we are working closely with other publishers and industry associations to set standards for best practices on ethical matters, errors and retractions–and are prepared to provide specialized legal review and counsel if necessary.” Not a single word about how protection, advice, council or support is offered to authors (in fact notice how the list of responsibilities of authors is the longest while the list of responsibilities of the publisher is shortest). Note how such massive resources and most likely funding (and lobbying) is being made to fortify this science-militarization tool, euphemistically called the “PERK Kit”, when even the most basic things, the definitions of authorship, are contradictory and thus invalid:

      Not to mention how ethics can be “twisted” to suit the economic model of militarize and plunge. In one concrete case, businesses that offer services to improve manuscripts published in these journals are never acknowledged, but have served as significant editorial functions that are not indicated, making them perfectly candidate “ghost authors”, which is absolutely unethical according to the exact same publishers and “ethics” bodies. Yet, when an author has failed to declare A, B, or C for providing some material support, the scientist is vilified. It is this hypocrisy in ethics that I am calling out, and calling out to the broader scientific community to be aware of:

      “The plan” is being solidified, and I fear that something quite catastrophic is emerging. You may think that my veiled suspicions and criticisms may sound like some nut-case conspiracy theory, a new one, but mark my words, and base my logic on the first part of my comment:

      Ask yourself, when there is a retraction, WHOSE rights are (truly) being protected?

    2. JATdS, you have got a valid point there, but this is not where I wanted to go with my comment.

      In my opinion PB is not even a whistleblower, because he didn’t reveal any secrets from an organization, but instead pointed out the obvious. He refered his observations to published data which were in in the public domain and are representations from experimental data. Therefore, PB was an attentive reader and scientist. No secrets, no mysteries. Ok, maybe a little too sarcastic.

      Reader from scientific journals and publishing scientists can be seen as “customers”, who pay for journals they acquire or publish. They keep financing publishing companies. Scientists keep the money flowing and publishers remain grateful and happy as long as they hold enough market shares. So, better don’t expect too much interests from publishers in good scientific practice. COPE is a good start. Now continue with guidelines and end with legally binding statutes, because the published marterial it is not about stars and politicians, but about the well-being and health of our society.

      In my experience many scientists are hard to please customers and would really like to read and cite publications based on high quality data. But unfortunately they don’t get served high quality, because experimental data is never quality controlled. So it is a matter of luck, or trust or believe, wether you hold a high quality publication in hands or not. Whether experiments will be reproducible or not. Wether public money was wasted, animals were sensless killed and experimented with, or not. In my opinion the current system is in many ways unethical.

      I also would like to add one point to my previous comment:

      3) Limited/low responsibility of corresponding/last authors.

      1. Hans, actually we are agreeing but from different perspectives. I totally agree that PB is not a whistle-blower. As I indicated in my other comments above, the term is distorted by the publishers to give “truth-tellers” a bad name and a negative stigma. So, publishers will call us whistle-blowers, supportive scientists will call us “truth-tellers” and unsupportive scientists, critics, cynics and those who just don’t get it, will call us rats, or even worse. I totally agree with you. If we find a duplication and report it to the authors, their faculty and to the editor and the journal, why should this put us in a negative light? What are we doing wrong except for telling the truth? I admit, and I am guilty of this on several occasions, the frustration and desperation can take over. Unlike the PR teams that work for these commercial publishers, who will stay calm, and give you cool, polite and always supportive-of-the-publisher comments, we, the scientists and “truth-tellers” are mocked, ridiculed and told that what we are seeing is false, even though we clearly show that figure 1 was published in paper A and in paper B. This war I describe is not about truth, or the “ethical” kindness of publishers to want to correct the literature. It is only about trying to save their image so that they can keep reaping profits. The fact that their campaign is getting more desperate and aggressive, and the fact that they are responding less and less to complaints, and the fact that the retraction notices are all self-plagiarized texts with lawyer-manipulated self-confessions by authors already indicates how bad the desperation by publishers is. I don’t know which author or which paper said it, but several papers have alluded to errors, fraud and misconduct being grossly unreported. In the plant sciences, this is DEFINATELY the case. Imagine, I just found one serious case of duplication today by a famous team in which one of the duplicated papers was in the journal in which the author serves as an editor. Of course, bet your bottom dollar that when I report this case tomorrow to the journal and the institute, I am going to be projected as a monster, a trouble-maker and a villain. I will be back with an update, including exact journal titles and names, possibly tomorrow, after I have made my complaint. In fact, this case is extremely serious because it is undermining trust and is showing the corruption I believe exists in the editor board of this particular Elsevier journal. The bottom line is this: publishers only love the facts that scientists confirm is correct, because this gives them a factually valuable product to sell. But they hate seeing errors pointed out and have now, no option but to correct the literature, or face public embarrassment on blogs such as RW. As it is each retraction is in some way an embarrassment and tarnished image for such publishers because it reflects that peer review was less than perfect and that the publisher was unable to detect errors when it was actually falsely projecting an image of quality control and “academic standards”.

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