Scientist faces off with PubPeer commenters in new hearing next week

Fazlul Sarkar
Fazlul Sarkar

On Tuesday, a Detroit courtroom will hear arguments in a case against PubPeer commenters, in which a scientist alleges their criticisms of his work cost him a new job at the University of Mississippi.

This isn’t the first time both sides have met in court: Fazlul Sarkar first gained attention in 2014 when he sued anonymous commenters of PubPeer for defamation; in 2015, a judge ruled that all but one of the commenters should be allowed to remain anonymous. PubPeer has filed an appeal, earning the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as Google and Twitter.

Meanwhile, Sarkar has earned 18 retractions, many citing an institutional investigation at Wayne State University.

We spoke with attorney Alex Abdo at the ACLU, who is representing the PubPeer commenters in this case, about what to expect at next week’s hearing.

Retraction Watch: What will happen at this hearing?

Alex Abdo: The hearing will be an oral argument on the cross-appeals in the case. It’s always hard to predict what will happen at an oral argument, but generally, they consist of the judges asking lawyers for both sides questions about their legal theories, clarifying any confusion about the facts, and testing their tentative (or perhaps not so tentative) conclusions about the case. Sometimes judges are very active in their questioning; sometimes nobody asks a single question. I highly doubt this will be a case of the latter, but we can’t know in advance.

There won’t be any testimony at this hearing, though. It will just be the lawyers presenting and the judges asking questions.

RW: Will there be any rulings?

AA: Appellate courts generally do not issue any rulings at hearings like this. It is not inconceivable, but it would be unusual. Of course, we might get a sense of where the judges stand based on what they say or what they ask, but some judges are very careful not to let on where they stand, and sometimes they come out very differently than how you would assume they would based on their questions.

All of this is to say that we can’t really know what will happen at the hearing. We might get a clear sense of which way the court is likely to rule (this happens fairly often), but the hearing could also be very inconclusive if the judges ask few questions or give few hints about their leanings.

For more on this case, check out our timeline.

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One thought on “Scientist faces off with PubPeer commenters in new hearing next week”

  1. Instead of wasting the court’s time going after posters who put up legitimate and validated concerns, he should worry about being prosecuted for fraud. If he used any of the data in the retracted paper to win grants, he has broken the law and can be jailed for a long time. Senator Chuck Grassley is on the war path to make sure such individuals are prosecuted.

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