An investigation into a scientist suing PubPeer commenters over criticisms of his work has concluded that the researcher engaged in widespread misconduct and should retract 42 papers.
The investigation report by Wayne State University, obtained by The Scientist, reveals that Fazlul Sarkar created a research environment that encouraged productivity but cut corners when it came to integrity:
The Investigation Committee finds that the evidence shows that Dr. Sarkar engaged in and permitted (and tacitly encouraged) intentional and knowing fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism of data, and its publication in journals, and its use to support his federal grant applications.
According to The Scientist, the university investigated more than 140 allegations of misconduct, ultimately recommending that 42 papers be retracted and 10 others receive correction notices. Sarkar already has retracted 18 papers.
News of the report comes as judges in Michigan mull Sarkar’s suit. The court heard from lawyers representing both sides of the case earlier this month, after PubPeer appealed a previous ruling that the site must unmask the identity of one anonymous commenter.
Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing PubPeer, told us he wasn’t surprised by the conclusions of the Wayne State investigation, since an expert hired to review the PubPeer comments about Sarkar’s work had concluded the concerns were legitimate.
I think that [the report] makes the legal case even stronger. We’ve argued all along that it’s important to test the claims of a defamation plaintiff before you let them unmask their anonymous critics. This is exactly why.
Although appeals are usually decided based on the evidence presented in the previous case, Abdo told Retraction Watch he is “considering the possibility” of seeking to supplement the record with the results of the Wayne State investigation.
Nick Roumel, the attorney representing Sarkar, told us he didn’t believe the findings of the report would have much impact on the appeal:
I regret that the report was released. It has absolutely no bearing on the issues being faced by the appellate court. Those legal issues remain important not only to Dr. Sarkar, but for everyone else in Michigan who wants to hold anonymous commenters liable for potentially defamatory speech and other misconduct.
The fact of the investigation results regarding Dr. Sarkar could, however, come into play if the case is sent back to the trial court, for example if there is a trial. Defendants may be able to use it as a defense, depending on the circumstances.
Bill Burdett, the attorney representing the anonymous commenter at the heart of the case, declined to comment.
According to the report:
The evidence shows that Dr. Sarkar failed to establish or maintain standards of quality control in record keeping, or to exercise due diligence to correct unacceptable practices. The Committee concludes, based on an examination of the evidence, that Dr. Sarkar’s failures of mentorship and laboratory management rise to levels of recklessness that enable irresponsibility, uncritical collegiality, acceptance of poor laboratory practices indiscriminant [sic] awarding of authorships, and ultimately resulted in widespread research misconduct by him and others.
For more information, check out our timeline on this case.
Update 10/20/16 8:30 p.m. eastern: PubPeer has asked to file a supplemental brief, including the results of the Wayne State investigation. You can read the brief here.
Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.