Are lawyers ruining science?

labtimes 6-14Regular Retraction Watch readers may have noticed that legal issues seem to be popping up more often in the cases we cover. There has been a lawsuit filed against PubPeer commenters, for example, and Nature last month blamed lawyers for delayed and opaque retraction notices.

It was those cases and others that prompted us to write our most recent column for Lab Times with a title mirrored in the headline of this post. As we note in our column, there are a lot of great lawyers out there, some of whom — for example, those at WordPress — have helped us

fight the good fight. We also believe strongly in the ability of prosecutors to punish – and, ideally, deter – scientific misconduct, particularly in cases involving fraud using taxpayer dollars.

Still, as we write:

We have also grown concerned with what seems to be a growing trend of scientists, journals and even funding organisations hiring, or at least threatening to hire, lawyers whose purpose seems to be stifling criticism and transparency.

Read the rest of the column here, and let us know what you think.

9 thoughts on “Are lawyers ruining science?”

  1. The world of science/publishing/academia is just catching up to the rest of the world. One only has to look a the cost or profit in lawsuits. When a lawyer can make 60% plus cost on settling a lawsuit why not file. The deep pocket target list for lawyers is well known from doctors to insurance companies, drug manufacturing,medical devices, product liability (which results in some very amusing product labels), even governments.

    The educational/science community has been spared, but as universities and labs have increased their assets and business models they are now ripe for the picking, from students suing schools for failure to educate to fraud in research. As an “Officer or the Court” I can tell you that it will only get worse as the science/education lawyers find new ways to sue (and they will) Researchers will sue because they didn’t get a grant, they will sue each other over stolen ideas the list can go on. As more money is injected into the system the better chance to get sued.

    All this is a result of failure to enact tort reform (from loser pays, to monies a lawyer can get from a settlement).

    When an education system graduates more lawyers than engineers, when the United States has more lawyers then the rest of the world combined, when the make up of our legislative and executive branch (federal, state and local) the majority of which are lawyers.When lawyers contribute almost 120 million to election campaigns

    Do you really think this will change or that science will somehow be exempted?

    1. Somehow scientists must find a way around this as scientific debate must continue and better results achieved, otherwise investors will quickly shun from funding research

  2. Investigating research misconduct can be a very complex and time consuming ordeal for everyone involved. When those being investigated opt for legal representation, the process becomes even more complicated and the investigation can drag on for many years. But, the latter need not happen when the evidence is relatively clear-cut and, especially, when a journal editor has the courage to do the right thing and issue an expression of concern and/or retraction based on that evidence. For an illustrative example of the latter, see RW commentator, Alan Price’s and Robert Daroff’s upcoming paper in Accountability in Research:

  3. This post is completely legally and ethically bankrupt. How do you not get that when it comes to lawyers and the law, you gotta have a system in which both sides of a dispute are entitled to zealous expert representation? I mean how is this supposed to even work? Retraction Watch gets legal representation, because their purposes are “good”, but commercial publishers don’t, because their purposes are “bad”? And who’s supposed to decide which legal assertions are valid and which aren’t? Oh right, courts are AFTER THEY ASSESS THE ARGUMENTS ON BOTH SIDES AS PRESENTED BY LAWYERS.

    The attitude here that it is objectively obvious to distinguish between valid and invalid legal claims is deeply disturbing, especially coming from supposed scientists.

    1. Retraction Watch gets legal representation, because their purposes are “good”, but commercial publishers don’t, because their purposes are “bad”?

      I’m failing to see where exactly you’re extracting this summary from, leaving me with the canonical default.

    2. Pure science is about the free exchange of ideas (no matter how smart/stupid/etc they may be) when lawyers are brought in it will muffle this free exchange and everyone will parse their words not explore areas for fear of offending/getting sued by someone, not a good thing for real science, even now some very worthy ideas/subjects are not funded because of lawyers. People who do not deal with the law have no idea that the “LAST” thing that any court or lawyer wants is the truth. Opinions are argued in court and truth is subject to interpretation.
      No one wants to keep someone from a fair hearing or representation on a subject but science was about the search for truth, now it will be about who has the best lawyer.

  4. Of course not.

    First of all, it is a gross exaggeration to say that the phenomena in question are “ruining science”. Science goes on, unruined. Delays of retractions certainly hurt science, but haven’t come close to ruining it. Opaque retraction notices are annoying, but not catastrophic. Chilling effects on internet comments are something to be concerned about, but science went on for milenia with no internet. On my list of things that are bad for science, this sort of thing is nowhere near the top. The authors’ special concern with retractions has distorted their perspective.

    Second, as a comment above suggests, blame placed on lawyers is largely misdirected. Clients hire lawyers and instruct them to pursue lawsuits and make threats. Other targets for blame are, arguably, journals and institutions that do not show enough backbone in the face of legal threats and laws that allow unreasonable legal actions (UK libel law comes to mind).

  5. Thanks, Miguel, for noting our new online paper – it is available for free download for a limited period at

    Robert Daroff, Editor Emeritus of Neurology journal, and I detailed the legal, allegation, and investigation history for the Office of Research Integrity’s (ORI) earliest and one of the most contentious cases, which we resolved as Editor and ORI chief investigator, and make available as a model of cooperation, in this article in Accountability in Research.

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