PubPeer: Pathologist Threatening to Sue Users

The forum’s founders have obtained legal counsel and are preparing for the possibility of user information being subpoenaed as part of a lawsuit.

Sep 22, 2014
Kate Yandell

FLICKR, BRIAN TURNERThe post-publication peer review forum PubPeer, which last month announced it was being threatened with legal action, today (September 22) released additional details about the alleged “legal threat.” PubPeer’s founders have received three letters objecting to comments made on the site from Nicholas Roumel, a Michigan-based attorney, written on behalf of pathologist Fazlul Sarkar of the Wayne State University School of Medicine. The forum’s founders also announced the site is being represented pro bono by San Francisco-based attorney Nicholas Jollymore. Jollymore told The Scientist there have been no formal legal proceedings at this point.

There are dozens of threads posted to PubPeer discussing Sarkar’s work. In an e-mail to The Scientist, Roumel wrote: “I am concerned about many posts and may begin legal action against anonymous commenter(s). That may lead me to subpoena information from PubPeer. As to whether I have independent grounds to sue PubPeer itself, while I do not rule that out in the future, I don’t have sufficient facts and law on my side to do that right now. That may change depending on what is uncovered.” Sarkar did not respond to The Scientist’s requests for comment.

Roumel said that the anonymous comments on PubPeer cost Sarkar a tenured position at the University of Mississippi, where he had accepted a job offer. Two weeks before he was going to start, the offer was rescinded. Sarkar remains at Wayne State.

“The irony to me is that PubPeer wants anonymity . . . because they don’t want to lose their jobs,” said Roumel. 

PubPeer’s founders have also reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “We don’t have a formal arrangement right now, but they know that we’re here in case the rights of their contributors are threatened by a lawsuit,” Alex Abdo, an ACLU staff attorney, told The Scientist.

Clarification (September 23): The Scientist first learned of the letters PubPeer’s founders received from Nicholas Roumel in an interview with Nicholas Jollymore. PubPeers founders themselves did not inform The Scientist about the letters.

Update (September 23): After this article was published, Fazlul Sarkar responded to The Scientist, directing queries to his lawyer, Roumel.