Pathologist Sues PubPeer Users

A professor who was terminated from a new job before he’d even started is suing users of the post-publication peer review forum for allegedly making defamatory statements.

Oct 27, 2014
Tracy Vence

FLICKR, BRIAN TURNERWayne State University pathologist Fazlul Sarkar is suing certain users of the post-publication peer review forum PubPeer, demanding that the website’s moderators release identifying information pertaining to anonymous comments that—according to his lawyer, Nicholas Roumel—allegedly contain defamatory statements about Sarkar.

When The Scientist first reported on a perceived legal threat to the website in August, Sarkar’s identity was not yet released, nor were his chief complaints. A month later it was revealed, through Roumel and a post at PubPeer, that anonymous comments posted to the website allegedly cost Sarkar a job. According to Retraction Watch, officials at the University of Mississippi rescinded an offer Sarkar had already accepted based on anonymous comments posted to PubPeer questioning some of the pathologist’s publications.

In a complaint filed with Michigan’s Wayne County Circuit Court (posted by Retraction Watch), Roumel noted that Ole Miss’s offer of tenured professorship to Sarkar included, among other things, a $750,000 start-up package, an annual salary of $350,000, relocation expenses up to $15,000, lab and office space in two locations, up to two additional research associates plus administrative support, and moving expenses for lab and senior personnel. Sarkar, who was slated to begin active employment in his new role on August 1, resigned from Wayne State University on May 19. He also made an offer on a home in Oxford, Mississippi, and put his home in Michigan up for sale. But in June, Sarkar received a letter from Mississippi terminating his employment. The letter cited “a series of emails forwarded anonymously from . . . PubPeer.com, containing several posts regarding papers from [his] lab.”

“Having abruptly lost his expected job with the University of Mississippi just weeks before he was set to begin, and also having already submitted his resignation to Wayne State University, Dr. Sarkar was facing a dilemma of grave and immediate concern to him and his family—having gone from his choice of two prestigious tenured positions at major research universities, to zero—with great uncertainty about his immediate employment future,” according to the complaint.

In addition to the identity—or identities—of those who posted negative comments on his work, Sarkar is currently seeking damages against the defendant(s) “John and/or Jane Doe.”

As part of Sarkar’s legal action, PubPeer has been subpoenaed to provide commenters’ identifying information by November 10, Retraction Watch reported.