We recently obtained court documents showing that, in September, a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by cancer researcher Fazlul Sarkar against the University of Mississippi after it rescinded a job offer after reviewing concerns raised about his research on PubPeer.
Sarkar’s connection to PubPeer will be familiar to many readers — he has also taken the site to court to force them to reveal the identity of the anonymous commenters who have questioned his findings. He has accused the commenters of defamation, arguing they cost him the job offer. Today, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief on behalf of PubPeer’s appeal of the court’s most recent ruling, that the site must disclose the identity of an anonymous commenter. At the same time, some heavy hitters in science – Bruce Alberts and Harold Varmus — and technology — Google and Twitter — filed briefs in support of the appeal.
The lawsuit against Ole Miss has brought to light the reasoning behind the school’s decision to rescind their offer to Sarkar — and the key role played by the concerns raised on PubPeer.
In a letter dated June 19, 2014 to Sarkar from Larry Walker, the director of the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi, Walker chides Sarkar for not revealing the extent of the ongoing questions over his research during the interview process:
I am troubled that you did not share with me at that time the scope of the concerns reflected, the nature of the allegations, or the number of additional papers about which specific, similar accusations had been raised. It was only on receiving the anonymous emails from PubPeer.com that I saw the potential for a more pervasive problem, with questions raised on that website (PubPeer.com) as far back as October 2013, and with as many as 40 papers at issue.
The concerns had merit, Walker continued:
I have performed a preliminary review, and although I am by no means clear on all of the PubPeer.com challenges, several of the PubPeer.com criticisms appear to be valid and quite serious. The multiple instances of duplication of blots and cell monolayer images – which should represent different experiments or different treatments – suggest a very troubling pattern.
Should Sarkar come to Ole Miss, Walker said, the institution could not investigate the allegations, since they don’t have access to the materials Sarkar used to perform the experiments at Wayne State University.
At this point, we cannot go forward with an employment relationship with you and your group. With these allegations lodged in a public space and presented directly to colleagues here (I am not sure of the scope of the anonymous distribution), to move forward would jeopardize our research enterprise and my own credibility. Only when you have satisfactorily responded to and resolved these questions presented on PubPeer.com could we reconsider going forward.
Four days later, on June 23, Sarkar sent Walker an email saying the letter was not sufficient to stop his appointment — set to begin August 1, 2014 — because his final offer letter had already been signed off by David Allen, dean of the school of pharmacy, and Provost Morris Stock. His endowment agreement and appointment at the medical school had also been signed off by other officials, including then-Chancellor Daniel Jones. On June 27, Jones sent Sarkar another letter:
As the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, I write this letter to confirm that Dr. Walker’s letter to you accurately describes the University’s position. You will not begin employment at the University of Mississippi beginning August 1, 2014…We all had high hopes for our relationship, but the University of Mississippi is not in a position to resolve the many concerns that have surfaced in recent weeks. The current circumstances leave us no choice.
In response, Sarkar filed a lawsuit, seeking:
injunctive and monetary relief against The Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, the University, and Dr. Larry Walker (a University employee), in his official and individual capacities, under federal law (Section 1983 due process) and state law (breach of contract and promissory estoppel).
Walker filed a motion to dismiss the suit against him “in his individual capacity” on August 25, arguing:
Walker was not the final decision-maker as to rescission of Sarkar’s employment offer. Walker’s actions were also objectively reasonable under the circumstances.
Specifically, Walker’s motion to dismiss names then-Chancellor Jones as the final decision-maker:
Dr. Dan Jones, then Chancellor of the University, provided the requested formal rescission.
On September 24, 2015, a U.S. district judge agreed to dismiss the case against all defendants (“The University of Mississippi, et al”):
This matter is before the Court by ore tenus agreed motion of the parties requesting dismissal of this action with prejudice following resolution of the claims. The Court, being fully advised in the premises, finds the motion is well taken and should be granted.
IT IS, THEREFORE, ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Plaintiff’s claims (whether asserted or amenable to assertion) against Defendants are dismissed with prejudice. Each party shall bear its respective fees, costs and expenses.
A spokesperson for the University of Mississippi said there are no further legal actions:
The parties reached a resolution of the dispute that included dismissal of the claims against all university defendants. There are no other pending actions brought by Dr. Sarkar against anyone at the university.
We are very pleased that such luminaries are supporting PubPeer’s experiment with post publication peer review. PubPeer’s fight is not just important for the right to anonymous speech, but the right to scientific discourse.
Update 1/20/16 5:12 p.m. eastern time: We’ve received a statement from Sarkar’s lawyer, Nicholas Roumel:
The Mississippi court case was dismissed voluntarily after the parties reached a confidential settlement.
As for the status of the Michigan court case: I will continue to represent the interests of Dr. Sarkar, and the right to hold accountable those who commit malicious torts, but do not have the courage to identify themselves. I also received the various requests by organizations to file “friend of court” briefs, and I am so pleased that our small victory in the trial court has aroused so much interest. Bring it on.
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