A scientist critic was sued, and won — but did not emerge unscathed. This is his story.

David Sanders

Retraction Watch readers may be familiar with the name David Sanders. Sanders, a biologist at Purdue University, has become a scientific sleuth, ferreting out problems in numerous papers. In one of those cases, that of Ohio State University professor Carlo Croce, Sanders ended up being sued — before an article in which he was quoted even came out. He eventually prevailed, but the episode left a mark, as readers will learn in this Q&A. (It has left a mark on Croce, too, in the form of 10 retractions and two suits brought by teams of lawyers for unpaid bills.)

Retraction Watch (RW): Carlo Croce sued you in 2017. Why?

David Sanders (DS): The initial complaint was about the contents of a letter sent by a New York Times reporter, James Glanz, to Dr. Croce in which Mr. Glanz poses a series of questions about a number of matters including image mishandling and plagiarism in the papers of Dr. Croce.  Mr. Glanz cited a synthesis of some of the opinions I expressed to him as a source.  An article on the front page of the New York Times about Dr. Croce by Glanz and Agustin Armendariz resulted from their investigation.  The complaint was later expanded to incorporate a quotation from me in the New York Times article and some material in an article published in another newspaper.  The New York Times and the journalists were also sued. [Editor’s note: Croce lost that case, too.]

RW: What was your immediate reaction when you learned you were being sued?

DS: Honestly, initially I thought that it was amusing.  Then I began to consider the costs of defending against the lawsuit.  I decided to investigate the policies of my University on defending employees who are engaged in professional activities.  It has always been my experience that knowing the rules and playing by them is a powerful approach.  Fortunately, I already had an appointment to meet with the President of my University, in my capacity as Chair of the University Senate.  He had seen the article in the New York Times and, upon my explaining the situation to him, he initiated the process of the evaluation of the case by the legal team at the University.  Eventually, the University agreed to a substantial underwriting of my defense, which was conducted by skilled outside counsel.

RW: Your university paid your legal costs, but did the experience take other tolls?

DS: I am quite grateful to my University for covering the costs.  The leadership in my College and Department, however, did not recognize my scientific-integrity efforts as valuable.  Indeed, it was conveyed to me that some of my investigatory endeavors, although they were not directed towards articles with authors from my University, were unwelcome.  There was a concomitant withdrawal of resources from my laboratory and me.

RW: What did you learn through the progress of the case?

DS

  • Federal judges and their staffs are notably diligent in reviewing relevant case law and the evidence when they decide cases.
  • Dr. Croce is very proud of his h-index, and the lawsuit was supposedly costing him millions of dollars. [Editor’s note: See Croce discuss his h-index in this exhibit from the case.]
  • Dr. Croce tends to end responses to discomfiting questions with the word “okay” in the interrogative intonation.
  • Dr. Croce is a serial plaintiff, and there had been allegations of improprieties in his laboratory long before I investigated his articles.  
  • The pseudonymous Clare Francis had identified problems with articles of Dr. Croce and brought them to the attention of journals and the Ohio State University before I was made aware of the separate image and textual overlap issues that I identified. [Editor’s note: See emails to and from Francis in this exhibit from the case, as well as a 2013 letter from OSU to Francis that we reported on in 2014.]
  • People can disclaim that an article is “theirs” despite being listed as an author.  In media articles about scientific advances, there are frequently quotations from individuals providing an independent evaluation whose name (often associated with an affiliation) is followed by the statement “who was not involved in the research.”  It is ironic, therefore, that authors on an article attempt to evade responsibility for violations of scientific norms therein by insisting that, for example, they were “not involved in the research” or “not involved in writing” a review article upon which they are listed as authors.
  • Many institutions and individuals insist on confidentiality but are willing to violate it when it serves their purposes.  If you make an allegation to a journal about problems in an article postpublication and include your name, you can expect that your name will be communicated to the authors even if you request that it not be so divulged. [Editor’s note: See this exhibit from the case.] It is not impossible that editors who are friends with the authors (the friendship likely played a role in why the article was published in a particular journal in the first place) will even engage in denigrating or trying to undermine the whistleblower.
  • The process of legal discovery is a puissant method for accessing the truth.  However, like the responses to public-record requests, it can be deliberately incomplete if it suits the interests of the obliged disclosers.
  • Authors may privately acknowledge that misconduct has occurred in an article while maintaining that there are no problems with an image. [Editor’s note: See this exhibit from the case, in which one of Croce’s co-authors says he will point the finger at someone else for misconduct.]

RW: You frequently call attention to problems in the scientific literature. Did the experience change your approach?

DS: I have always focused on articles rather than authors per se, although it has been my experience that problems recur in the articles of particular authors and there is overlap in the Venn diagram of authors of articles with image manipulation and authors with articles that display instances of plagiarism or redundant publication; sometimes those facts have to be noted when matters of culpability need to be assessed.  I am far more interested in the responses or lack thereof of journals and academic, research, or medical institutions.  I endeavor even more now to leave references to names (beyond the list of authors) out of my communications with journals about suspect articles.

I have also learned that paraphrases of communications with members of the media that are never included in a publication can be the subject of a lawsuit if they are used in questioning a source.

I am more inclined to celebrate the successes of others in the uncovering of problematic research than to note all the retractions and corrections that have resulted from my efforts.

My overall experience as a scientific detective has given me the basis for proposing solutions to the distortion of the scientific literature and not just focusing on unveiling the misconduct.

RW: What advice would you give would-be sleuths? 

DS

  • Collaborate with other whistleblowers.  Receiving credit is satisfying, but if others have forgotten that the objective of research is determining the truth and not merely achieving career success and fame, we must not.
  • Individuals, laboratories, institutions, and journals are often repeat offenders.  Those who manipulate images are frequently also plagiarists and perpetrators of other forms of misconduct.  Those who permit plagiarism and redundant publication will often overlook image manipulation.   Look for connections that increase the significance of your findings.
  • The inherent conflicts of interest that arise during investigations impede the uncovering of the truth and the holding of malefactors to account.  Be patient and realize that persistence is often rewarded, although the outcomes are frequently incompletely satisfactory.  
  • Traditional media and social media can be effective allies in bringing attention to violations of scientific norms and to inducing journals and institutions to act.  When discussing the matter with a reporter, stick to the facts, provide your evidence, be willing to explain the relevant techniques and science, and provide context.  Remember, however, that the perspective of journalists is likely to be different from yours. Hers is probably “How is the public likely to be affected by the misconduct?”
  • Join us and do so, if you can, using your own name and affiliation.  Maintaining the integrity of the scientific literature is as important as expanding it.  You will be contributing to the recognition of the value of these endeavors and reducing the chance that those of us who do use our names are targeted for our efforts.  Exposing misconduct should not be mutually exclusive with conducting one’s own novel research.  If more people saw it as their responsibility to bring potential issues of misconduct to the attention of journals and institutions, the scientific enterprise would benefit immensely.

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5 thoughts on “A scientist critic was sued, and won — but did not emerge unscathed. This is his story.”

  1. I’m fiercely on the side of David Sanders in this issue, and I do not fear that Carlo Croce may sue me for saying that. H-index is not an “honesty” index- it’s just how many times your papers have been cited. A soaring h-index is often due to some of your publications being cited a lot- and this is due to many factors, including how hard you promote it (and cite it yourself). My h-index is 62, which is decent, and is due to a couple of papers in which I was clearly first to do something that turned out to be important in time to be noticed. When a paper is retracted, the citations for that paper are unfortunately not excluded from the author’s h-index. So you could publish a lot of papers that were both popular and false, and get a high h-index. In the best of worlds, I think there should be an h-index penalty for having a paper retracted- not just removal of the citations, but perhaps a demerit that lowers your h-index even more. I really hate it when scientists cheat.

    1. “So you could publish a lot of papers that were both popular and false, and get a high h-index.” This is quite correct. In my narrow field of theoretical fluid mechanics, this is how the Google Scholar “ranking” was distorted by someone with an ongoing retraction record:
      https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=search_authors&mauthors=label:fluid_mechanics

      Scientometric like h-index are meaningless when they are trivial to game, and when no one enforces any quality control.

  2. “The leadership in my College and Department, however, did not recognize my scientific-integrity efforts as valuable.”

    This is extremely disappointing, and needs to change.

  3. “Maintaining the integrity of the scientific literature is as important as expanding it.” Amen!

    The scientific community needs more people like Dr. Sanders.

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