Former postdoc threatens Retraction Watch with lawsuit over vague defamation claims

Varun Kesherwani
Varun Kesherwani

In April 2012, we wrote about a case of disputed authorship and misused data involving one Varun Kesherwani, a former postdoc at the University of Nebraska.

As we reported then, Kesherwani was first author of a paper in Cytokine. The second author, Ajit Sodhi, of Banaras Hindu University, claimed to have had no knowledge of the article and had not given Kesherwani permission to use the results. Thus, the retraction.

Since then, we have received numerous messages from Kesherwani objecting to our post — he claims it has hurt his employment prospects — and demanding that we take it down. At one point he even suggested in an email that we pay him to go away:

“If you support me financially and provide me a job, I can take this matter forward.”

But Kesherwani seems to have had a change of heart about that approach. Yesterday we received a letter from an attorney claiming to represent the researcher threatening to sue us for defamation unless we remove not only the post about Kesherwani but, oddly, the retraction notice on ScienceDirect.

Yes, you read that right. Kesherwani and attorney Michael A. Nelsen seem to think that we publish ScienceDirect. Elsevier would find that amusing, to say the least.

The letter, on letterhead from the Omaha firm Marks Clare & Richards, where Nelsen works, maintains that we have posted “inaccurate and defamatory” information about Kesherwani — allegations we humbly reject. Or, to be more precise, we don’t know exactly how to respond to, because neither the attorney’s letter nor an attached incoherent message from Kesherwani says exactly what’s allegedly wrong in the post.

The letter also advises us that we are “amenable” to a lawsuit in Omaha. No disrespect to Omaha, but we’re not particularly amenable to a lawsuit anywhere, thank you very much.

We will quote attorney Ken White, aka Popehat, who has written about other legal threats against Retraction Watch:

[V]agueness in legal threats is the hallmark of meritless thuggery.

We will also note that we have followed the same procedure in responding to this meritless letter as we have to every other such threat:

  • Responding politely saying that we needed more specific allegations
  • Posting the letter

Lawyers who are considering vague threats against Retraction Watch are strongly urged to consider this before sending us such letters — and to familiarize themselves with the Streisand Effect. Reading this might offer some good background, too.

Update, 6:30 p.m. Eastern, 12/18/14: We received what we’d refer to as a walk-back from attorney Nelsen today. In a letter, Nelsen said that he wanted to clarify “one thing” in his original letter, namely that the ScienceDirect page “should not be deleted.”

Whether he now realized that we neither control nor own ScienceDirect was left unclear.

What his client objected to, according to Nelsen, and should be “deleted immediately,” were two phrases from our interview with the editor of Cytokine. Elsewhere, however, Nelsen refers to deleting the entire “cite,” so we’re not quite sure what the request is.

Either way, we responded to say that we had no plans to make any changes to the post until he provided us documentation about any errors.

In the meantime, as long as Nelsen is telling us what we should do, we note that the aforementioned Popehat left a helpful comment below with a link we suggest Nelsen should read.

Update, 7 p.m. Eastern, 12/18/14: We have another addendum:

Ken White of Popehat has asked us to convey his greetings and best wishes to Mr. Nelson, and suggested that Mr. Nelson might also find Shlien v. Bd. of Regents, Univ. of Nebraska, 263 Neb. 465, 471, 640 N.W.2d 643, 649 (2002) (“in the absence of fraud or fraudulent concealment, the statute of limitations in a libel action commences to run upon publication of the defamatory matter even if the plaintiff is ignorant of such publication”) to be stimulating, as it was for him.

33 thoughts on “Former postdoc threatens Retraction Watch with lawsuit over vague defamation claims”

  1. Something is not right here: Why is Dr Sodhi picking on this one paper when they have several together listed on Dr Sodhi’s website?

    Varun Kesherwani and Ajit Sodhi ( 2007) Differential activation of macrophages in vitro by lectin Concanavalin A, Phytohemoagglutinin and Wheat germ agglutinin: Production and Regulation of Nitric Oxide. Nitric Oxide: Biology and Chemistry. 16, 294-305.

    Ajit Sodhi, Shikha Tarang and Varun Kesherwani (2007) Concanavalin A induced expression of Toll-like receptors in murine peritoneal macrophages in vitro. International Immunopharmacol. , 7(4), 454-463.

    Varun Kesherwani and Ajit Sodhi (2007) Involvement of Tyrosine kinases and MAP kinases in the production of TNF-a and IL-1� by macrophage in vitro on treatment with Phytohemagglutinin. J. Interferon & Cytokine Research, 27(6), 497-505.

    Ajit Sodhi and Varun Kesherwani (2007) Production of TNF-a, IL-1�, IL-12 and IFN-? in murine peritoneal macrophages on treatment with wheat germ agglutinin in vitro: involvement of tyrosine kinase pathways. Glycoconjugate Journal, 24 (9), 573-582.

    Ajit Sodhi and Varun Kesherwani (2007) Signaling molecules involved in production and regulation of IL-1? by murine peritoneal macrophages in vitro on treatment with Concanavalin A. International Immunopharmacol. 7, 1403-1413.

    1. Best to read up on the original story. In brief: According to Dr Sodhi part of the data presented in the retracted publication had already been published elsewhere, part of it was part of a submitted manuscript…

  2. Umm… the letter actually ends with “Please govern yourself accordingly.” Does anyone seriously use this phrase anymore, or is it code for “My client is an idiot, but I’m willing to take his money. Please ignore this letter.”?

  3. I think that calling this letter “incoherent” is way too generous. It’s simply illiterate. One has to wonder how failing 3rd grade English affects one’s career prospects as a scientist…

    1. That’s one good reason why some people, especially outside the US, refrain from commenting on blogs. There is always someone there let you know that his English is better (generally unfounded), to remind you that you are not a native English speaker or to correlate your scientific skills with English language proficiency. Even on PubPeer, you find the same people insulting your choice of words and diverting the attention from the real issues raised. I still wonder how blogs’ moderators allow these comments to go through …

      1. Gu Fu, what exactly do you find in my statement that is “insulting” or “unfounded”? I believe that my evaluation of the email in question is accurate – as far as finding it illiterate (I can go over it pointing out all of its many errors), although the exact grade estimate may vary with country and even a school district. Moreover, my statement is not diverting the attention from the issue at hand, it further explores it. I didn’t exactly spell it out – assuming that I don’t have to on this blog – but it was alluding to the fact that by attacking RW the plaintiff not only attracted more attention to himself but also exposed the flaws in his character and education. That’s all.
        As for the rest of your lament – I don’t see a problem with people who lack proficiency in English refraining from commenting on blogs written in English. I wouldn’t try to Google-translate-blog in the languages I don’t know (that would be N-2). Yes, most scientific blogs are in English but that’s because scientific communication now is largely conducted in English. So if a scientist wants to be understood by his/her peers he or she have to acquire proficiency in English. It’s that simple. There is no need to be insulting about someone deficiencies, of course. On the other hand I find it insulting when one sends out a manuscript for review riddled with spelling errors and sporting grammar that makes for many “WTF are they trying to say?!” moments…

        1. I agree with Gu Fu even more now that I have read your reply. Yes, most scientific communication is now conducted in English: if you would like it to remain that way, then the least proficient speakers can do is to be generous towards those who are trying to express themselves in an unfamiliar language. I find Kesherwani’s letter perfectly understandable, and at least a couple of others here have correctly deciphered it, inasmuch as we seemingly agree on our interpretation of it.

          1. It is not about what I’d like, it’s more about what it is. The reality – whether you like it or not – is that scientific communication nowadays is conducted in English. I don’t really see how a scientist that has anything noteworthy to say can be unfamiliar with English. The reason for that being that before having something to say a scientist would do us all a favor first to learn a great deal, and he or she would have to do it in English. Naturally it is often not the case. There is a multitude of “scientists” out there who have nothing to say and who had learned next to nothing. But all of them want to publish something…

        2. On the other hand I find it insulting when one sends out a manuscript for review riddled with spelling errors and sporting grammar that makes for many “WTF are they trying to say?!” moments…

          If you had so much difficulty parsing Kesherwani’s E-mail (the main failings of which are in simple number agreement) that you felt the need to make a more or less content-free remark and then follow it up with a two-paragraph defense, I’m inclined to wonder what’s enough to set off your Offend-O-Meter in a manuscript and, indeed, whether you have the temperament to be reviewing EFL submissions in the first place.

          I’ve edited plenty of accepted papers that contained generous helpings of genuine word salad. (I’ve noted before that sudden transitions into perfectly lucid prose are an excellent tip-off that it’s time to start checking whether passages need to be rewritten to paraphrase, rather than copy from, a citation.) These have invariably come with a — mostly superfluous — warning from the EO that special attention to the language is going to be needed.

          Not every publisher bothers with manuscript editing these days, of course, and I also have gotten to see referee reports from papers that have been deemed unacceptable in their current condition based on language issues. One thing that’s stood out is that the reviewers who make a stink about this and offer little else of constructive value tend themselves to word their complaints rather poorly. I’ve come to wonder whether this reflects some sort of overarching “Your ESL is not up to my ESL!” trip.

          If you’re going to be “offended” by a manuscript, I suggest you do everyone a favor and not agree to review it.

          1. Did I say I found it difficult “to parse” that particular e-mail? I did not. I found it to be illiterate. For somebody who claims to edit other people’s work you pay way too little attention to the actual content of the stuff you read. Anyway, it is really simple – when I compose my manuscript I make an effort to communicate clearly, which includes – but isn’t limited to – sticking to proper grammar and spelling. I expect a similar effort from the people whose manuscripts I review. Moreover, in my experience people who don’t bother to run a spell-check on the manuscript more often than not don’t bother to run controls.

        3. The letter of Kesherwani is not incoherent. It should have been edited for grammar, but its meaning is clear. As for maligning non-native speakers of English for lack of proficiency in English, let me make it clear that I have found numerous native speakers of English to write equally poorly. Sometimes, they call it blank verse or modern poetry.

          1. OK I will also jump in to defend non-native English speakers. Scientific discourse should be clear, not exactly poetry. In the blogosphere I really feel every member of the scientific community should be encourage to manifest his opinions, as well as in the scientific context. It is quite rare seeing comments here from my Brazilian colleagues, for instance. I am a speaker of English as a second language, like most in my department, including the PI, who is a great scientist despite minor grammar mistakes and some funny accent.

            Of course when submitting a paper for publication one should make sure language and grammar is as clear and correct as possible, from consulting with native speakers. However some unordinary choice for wording should be alright, if meaning is clearly conveyed. I feel the email is perfectly understandable and the main inconsistencies lie outside the realm of sheer grammar.

  4. The story is fascinating, because there are a few core issues here. I suspect that this situation is not all that uncommon, for the simple reason that many scientists seem to (incorrectly) equate “corresponding author” with “take responsibility for whatever is in the paper, take care of all submissions and let us know when the paper is accepted”. There are two vague aspects, however, that Varun Kesherwani alludes to on April 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm on the other RW page. Kesherwani claims: “I have not received any response to my mail to the journal” and “the journal did not inform me about the content of retraction notice and it was published with out my knowledge.” This is actually quite important – but independent of the lawsuit – because it seems to indicate that the journal issued a retraction without the knowledge of Kesherwani, even though it purported to be known by both authors. Who is telling the truth here, Kesherwani or the Cytokine editor? The second publically unknown fact is the core issue here, in this retraction, namely the duplicated data which Dr. Sodhi seems to have also claimed. Kesherwani claims “About data, I do not know which data of nitric oxide and J of interferon cytokine research have been duplicated. I have never been responded to these queries.” This is also extremely important. Surely, Sodhi has to indicate precisely what data was duplicated, and surely the editor of Cytokines has to also provide that proof publically? So, if any of these three proponents does not come forward publically at RW to show the exact duplicated data, can someone please list what they have perhaps discovered to be the “duplicated” data. It is fascinating, because a retraction has indeed appeared without the core evidence being shown publically (I believe). This is one issue.

    The issue of suing RW is another issue, and some parallels might be drawn between this case and the Fazlul Sarkar case vs PubPeer. Namely, what does it really advance suing a blog? At the end of the day, Kesherwani still loses, so how will trying to get a couple of bucks and more bad advertising help him? May I suggest to Kesherwani that the best way to deal with the critics is to take them head-on, even if that means a terribly painful process. There is nothing more blunting than the raw truth, discussed openly, and given the fact that we are seeing more open and transparent environment, please come forward to discuss openly and publically, to reach a consensus and understanding. I believe that suing is not going to fix this retraction, or this problem, or soothe your bruised ego. Of course, I also encourage Sodhi and the journal editor, and even an Elsevier management spokesperson to engage publically on this blog with their readership (surely the request is not that odd given that Elsevier carries over 12.5 million of scientists’ copyrights?).

  5. “[V]agueness in legal threats is the hallmark of meritless thuggery.”

    Oh, how this takes me back to one of Andrew Wakefield’s many lawsuits. In 2005, I think. His lawyers point blank refused to tell me what it was that I had published (“the words complained of” as we say in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom) with which they took issue. They said it wasn’t for them to tell me.

    He didn’t ‘alf get a beating from the judge, however.

  6. Is Varun Kesherwani really that determined to have Retraction Watch come up as the first hit when anyone searches for his name?

  7. Nelson (or more likely, a drafting assistant) writes: “Because this article has a national circulation, you are advised that you are amenable to a lawsuit in Omaha, Nebrasa.”

    This is obviously intended tell us that a Nebraska court would have personal jurisdiction over Marcus. The “circulation” hint tell us that Nelson is comparing this blog to a newspaper that is distributed and sold nationally, establishing economic ties to every state in the process. But that’s more than a little stretch of reality: no one in Nebraska is paying Marcus anything to receive a copy of the content on this blog. I don’t think that that argument would carry much weight with a judge. Certainly this would not satisify the “minimum contacts [which] must be purposefully directed towards the state by the defendant” under the International Shoe doctrine.

    1. Certainly this would not satisify the “minimum contacts [which] must be purposefully directed towards the state by the defendant” under the International Shoe doctrine.

      Given Nebraska’s enthusiasm about extending its jurisdiction as far as it can get away with (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-536(2)), it’s a good thing there’s not a Retraction Watch store.

  8. If I have read the backstory correctly, Kesherwani’s complaint is really with Cytokine for publishing a Retraction note which he did not feel was just. Eventually he persuaded the editors to retract that Retraction and replace it with another one which is vague on the reason and apportions no blame. I can’t see anything about your 2012 coverage which is unfair to him or damages his employment prospects — it centres on the new corrected no-blame retraction notice.

    Now Kesherwani wants Retraction Watch to pretend that the original 2008 blame-apportioning retraction never happened, to collude with Elsevier in wiping the slate completely clean and expunging all trace of it. But the 2008 retraction did happen. If it traduces his reputation (as he seems to believe), then he should seek redress from Elsevier, not from the people who remember it.

    1. Nebraska law says:
      “The following actions can only be brought within the periods stated in this section: ~~Within one year~~, an action for libel or slander.”

      Retraction Watch says:
      “In ~~April 2012~~, we wrote about a case of disputed authorship…”

      Well, that’s pretty amazing. I guess that’s case closed then.

      1. I guess that’s case closed then.

        Assuming that Nebraska is not so atavistic as to have not adopted the single-publication rule.

  9. Arkell v Pressdram would be a suitable response 🙂

    It is interesting that as we learn and adopt social media to communicate and engage in various forms of post publication peer review that the number of legal threats seems to go up, and their credibility down.
    Bottom line: Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum. We all make mistakes, but don’t make it up!
    What a week at RW – first the grant and now an injection of humour!

  10. Actually, Kesherwani’s letter is quite coherent (after making allowances for the fact that english is not his native language), and even sounds sincerely pained, and Herr doktor bimler seems to have correctly deciphered it. If he is indeed not at fault, then I have some sympathy for him.

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