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Researcher suing PubPeer was found culpable of misconduct, court documents show

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6337 (Published 24 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6337
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal

A researcher who is suing the website PubPeer in order to unmask anonymous commentators who questioned his research integrity had previously been found to have engaged in “widespread research misconduct” by investigators from Wayne State University, his former employer.

The report into the conduct of Fazlul Sarkar was obtained under a freedom of information request from the university by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, who are representing PubPeer in the case. They are seeking to introduce it as evidence and have published it online.1

Sarkar “engaged in and permitted (and tacitly encouraged) intentional and knowing fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism of data, and its publication in journals, and its use to support his federal grant applications,” the Wayne State research integrity investigation committee said in the report from 2015.

By then, Sarkar was already suing PubPeer in order to learn the names of those who commented, highlighting problems with images used in his research and suggesting that he was under suspicion at Wayne State.2

These comments, Sarkar said, had cost him a lucrative job in 2014 when they were forwarded anonymously to his prospective employer at Mississippi State University. The university withdrew its job offer in a letter that explicitly cited the comments.

Sarkar had by then resigned his post at Wayne State in anticipation of the move. The university declined to give him back his tenure when the new job fell through. Court documents showed that Wayne State had begun investigating Sarkar’s laboratory in 2012, after a request from the federal government’s Office of Research Integrity.

The investigative panel said in 2015 that “copying and re-using and manipulating images were accepted and practised by many, if not all, lab members.”

Accusing the laboratory of “tailoring results toward specific conclusions,” the report said that “even if there were no intent to deceive on Dr Sarkar’s part—which, based on the evidence, the committee finds difficult to believe—the level of carelessness needed to account for all the copying, manipulation, and re-labelling of images is so great as to define reckless on its own.”

In an email to The Scientist, which obtained an early copy of the investigation report, Sarkar disputed the university’s findings. “There was no falsification in any of my publications, there was some error—all of which was correctable,” he said. “These findings were unjust, and their recommendations were false but I had no energy to fight after they decided to turn my appeal down.”

Wayne State’s report was not made public but was shared with journals that had published research from the laboratory. It recommended 42 retractions and 10 corrections of Sarkar’s published works. There have been 18 retractions to date, with several of the more recent ones citing the Wayne State report.

Sarkar’s lawsuit against PubPeer is ongoing. Lawyers for Sarkar obtained a ruling that would identify his most prolific online critic, who posts under the pseudonym “Clare Francis,” while protecting the anonymity of others. But PubPeer’s legal team are appealing that decision, arguing that all are protected by the US’s first amendment.

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