A Michigan judge has ruled against a motion by PubPeer to protect the identity of an anonymous commenter, and asked the post-publication peer review site to give her any information they have about the commenter.
According to one of the lawyers present, the site said in court the only identifying information it has is an I.P. address. The judge will decide March 24 (Tuesday) whether or not to share the I.P. address with the lawyer representing a cancer researcher who has demanded PubPeer release information about those who have written anonymously about his work.
On March 5, PubPeer had a better day in court, when the judge agreed to allow the site to protect the identities of its other anonymous commenters. For the remaining commenter, the judge asked to hold another hearing yesterday.
During that meeting, the judge ordered PubPeer to produce “identifying information for that commenter,” said Alexander Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union, who helped represent PubPeer in this case:
The court scheduled another hearing for Tuesday to determine the terms of a protective order that would govern disclosure of that information.
Obviously, this is not the outcome PubPeer wanted. Abdo told us:
We are disappointed with the ruling and are weighing our options for how to continue to fight for the right to anonymity of PubPeer’s commenters.
The case began when Fazlul Sarkar of Wayne State University sued the people who commented anonymously about him on PubPeer, and demanded that PubPeer release their names. Sarkar, who has not been found to have committed research misconduct, claims he lost a lucrative job offer at the University of Mississippi, likely as a result of the posts.
Here is the comment in question:
(June 18th, 2014 4:51pm UTC)
Has anybody reported this to the institute?
(June 18th, 2014 5:43pm UTC)
Yes, in September and October 2013 the president of Wayne State University was informed several times.
The Secretary to the Board of Governors, who is also Senior Executive Assistant to the President Wayne State University, wrote back on the 11th of November 2013: “Thank you for your e-mail, which I have forwarded to the appropriate individual within Wayne State University. As you are aware, scientific misconduct investigations are by their nature confidential, and Wayne would not be able to comment on whether an inquiry into your allegations is under way, or if so, what its status might be.
“Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention”
The latest ruling doesn’t entirely unmask the commenter, Sarkar’s lawyer Nicholas Roumel told us — even if the judge gives him the person’s I.P. address, he may not be able to trace it to an identity. Still, the verdict was “more favorable to our side than to PubPeer’s.” If he is able to identify the commenter, he said the goal is to simply ask that person questions to determine how Sarkar’s potential employer, the University of Mississippi, received information that cost him the job opportunity:
I made it clear in court that we have no intention of publicly exposing this person’s name at this time, we just want to find out who it is…We are willing to enter into a protective order and protect the identity of the commenter, and not expose it.
Part of the reason this particular comment is noteworthy, explained Roumel, is that the person appears to be at the heart of the issue and may know more about how Sarkar lost his job opportunity.
The ACLU has published a website about this case, including the legal documents associated with the motions. They write:
The subpoena to PubPeer jeopardizes the anonymity essential to PubPeer’s mission and, importantly, protected by the First Amendment. The constitutional right to anonymity is not absolute, but it protects anonymous speakers from being unmasked unless those suing them can make out a preliminary showing of merit to their legal claims. That protection is essential to ensuring that the right to anonymity continues to serve – as the Supreme Court has long observed – as “a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”
Like Retraction Watch? Consider supporting our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, and sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post.