Week in Review: December 5–9

Anonymity prevails in PubPeer litigation; USPTO hears CRISPR IP arguments; critical incident reporting for preclinical research; brain waves and Alzheimer’s disease; Breakthrough Prizes

Dec 12, 2016
Tracy Vence

PubPeer litigation: anonymity prevails

Anonymous commenters on the website PubPeer are protected under the First Amendment, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled last week (December 7). Plaintiff Fazlul Sarkar—a former Wanye State University pathologist who pursued legal action attempting to learn the identities of PubPeer users who had alleged inconsistencies in Sarkar’s work—is still able to pursue a defamation suit against the anonymous commenters, the court noted.

“This ruling is a critical victory for freedom of speech and scientific inquiry,” Alex Abdo, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which defended PubPeer—as well as anonymous commenters Jane and John Doe—wrote in a statement emailed to The Scientist. “Scientists who anonymously review the work of their peers should not have to fear retribution for exposing the anomalies they find, and the court rightly agreed. Without the breathing space that anonymity provides, free speech and scientific inquiry would suffer.”

“I have no idea what we’ll do next,” Nicholas Roumel, the attorney representing Sarkar, told The Scientist.

The Scientist first learned about the legal threat to unmask PubPeer commenters in August 2014. By September that year, PubPeer announced Sarkar was pursuing a lawsuit. “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 Two weeks before he was going to start, the offer was rescinded,” we reported at the time. In October 2014, Sarkar filed a complaint with Michigan’s Wayne County Circuit Court. Here’s a look at what has happened since:

October 2014: 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.

December 2014: PubPeer Pushes Back
The founders of the post-publication peer review website file a motion to quash an academic’s subpoena for user information.

March 2015: Judge: PubPeer Users Remain Anonymous
A Michigan judge denies a request to reveal the identities of commenters on the post-publication review website.

March 2015: Judge Wants Info on PubPeer Commenter
In a defamation lawsuit involving anonymous comments on the post-publication peer review website, a judge requests potentially identifying information.

January 2016: PubPeer’s Appeal for Anonymity Continues
The site’s lawyers, along with renowned scientists, filed briefs to an appeals court asking to protect a commenter’s identification.

October 2016: Michigan State Court of Appeals Hears Arguments in PubPeer Litigation
Attorneys representing pathologist Fazlul Sarkar and users of the post-publication peer review website present their cases regarding the constitutionality of subpoenaing for the identities of anonymous commenters.

October 2016: PubPeer Has (Probably) Stopped Collecting Anonymous Commenters’ IP Addresses
In an attempt to avoid future subpoenas requesting potentially identifying information on unregistered users of the post-publication peer review website, the platform’s administrators have attempted to cease IP address collection.

October 2016: Investigation Finds Pathologist Guilty of Systemic Misconduct
A Wayne State University probe into allegations of research misconduct leveled against pathologist Fazlul Sarkar has found the scientist guilty of multiple instances of image manipulation, among other infractions.

October 2016: Misconduct Finding Could Impact PubPeer Litigation
Wayne State University’s conclusion that pathologist Fazlul Sarkar committed research misconduct could affect the ongoing legal proceedings related to anonymous critics of his work.

October 2016: PubPeer Requests that Court Consider Misconduct Investigation
ACLU lawyers representing the post-publication peer review site have filed a motion to admit the existence of a university investigation that found pathologist Fazlul Sarkar guilty of misconduct.

November 2016: PubPeer Lawyers Ask to Enter Misconduct Report into the Court Record
Lawyers for PubPeer have obtained and posted the full investigation report from Wayne State University, which lists more than 140 misconduct allegations against pathologist Fazlul Sarkar.

December 2016: Full Sarkar Investigation Report Won’t Enter Appeals Court Case
Court of Appeals denies a motion filed by ACLU lawyers to enter the full Wayne State University investigation of pathologist Fazlul Sarkar into the official case record.

December 2016: PubPeer Loses Battle, Hopes to Win War on Anonymous Comments
Lawyers involved discuss the latest twist in the ongoing litigation that pits pathologist Fazlul Sarkar against anonymous commenters on the post-publication peer review site.

December 2016: PubPeer Wins Appeal on Anonymous Comments
The Michigan Court of Appeals rules that anonymous commenters on the post-publication peer review website are protected under the First Amendment.

CRISPR IP battle: arguments heard

Who can claim the US intellectual property behind CRISPR gene-editing in eukaryotic cells: scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard or researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and their international colleagues? That’s the question US Patent and Trademark Office judges considered during oral arguments held in Alexandria, Virginia, last week (December 6).

At the heart of the arguments was “obviousness,” said Mark Rohrbaugh, the National Institutes of Health’s special advisor for technology transfer, during a panel discussion held at the American University Washington College of Law after the hearing. “Was this the system that just happened to successfully easily move from a prokaryotic to eukaryotic system? Were they just lucky in that? Or was it predictable and obvious based on the prior art that it could move from one system to the other?”

Senior Editor Jef Akst was on the scene: see her Facebook Live dispatches and a recap outlining the scientific issues at hand, as well as the parties’ possible next steps.

CIR for preclinical research

Preclinical researchers at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, this month (December 1) debuted LabCIRS, a critical incident reporting system in which lab members can report mistakes and other matters anonymously. The team described its tool in PLOS Biology.

“There are quality issues in clinical medicine—reproducibility—and part of that has to do with the basic quality of the experiments that we do” in preclinical research, study coauthor Ulrich Dirnagl told The Scientist. “With these complex machines and many people working, errors happen, mishaps happen, and many errors that occur are repeated because they are not properly communicated. It became clear that we need more structure to put quality into the system.”

Brain waves and Alzheimer’s disease

In Nature last week (December 7), MIT researchers and their colleagues showed that stimulating neurons to produce gamma waves at a frequency of 40 Hz reduces the occurrence and severity of several Alzheimer’s disease–associated symptoms in a mouse model.

“It’s a pretty striking result that at one particular frequency with which they entrained the brain . . . they were able to reduce, in the mouse at least, all three hallmarks of Alzheimer’s pathology,” Rudolph Tanzi, who leads genetics and aging research at Massachusetts General Hospital and was not involved in the work, told The Scientist.

Splicing and life span

Why caloric restriction is associated with extended life spans in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans has only been in part explained. Writing in Nature last week (December 5), Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that dysregulation of RNA splicing is linked to aging.

“The take-home message of the paper is that control of splicing is one of the key linchpins that actually may explain the association between dietary restriction and longevity,” said Lorna Harries of the University of Exeter in the U.K., who was not involved in the work. “What’s been known previously is that [splicing] is associated with age and longevity . . . but this is the first report where we’ve been able to actually infer any sort of causality.”

Antibotic resistance in environmental viromes

Viromes from a diverse array of environments have been found to contain bacteriophages that harbor antibiotic resistance genes, scientists at the Catalan Institute for Water Research in Spain and their colleagues reported in Environmental Pollution last month (November 24).

The study makes “a pretty strong case that antibiotic resistance genes really do exist in the virome,” said Andrew Singer of the UK Natural Environmental Research Council’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who was not involved in the work.

Modeling pre-extinction

Armed with the “Beastcam,” an array of 30 cameras, members of the Digital Life Project are working to preserve the physical details of species facing extinction, in 3-D. “The basic goals are education and conservation,” said Duncan Irschick at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is leading the initiative. “One really big goal is just digital heritage—a lot of animal species are going extinct. Obviously, a 3-D model isn’t going to save them, but it highlights their beauty, gets people excited, and gives conservation groups new leverage to compel people.”

Other news in life science:

Elsevier’s Answer to the Impact Factor
CiteScore, which ranks twice as many journals compared with publications assigned impact factors, makes its debut during a contentious time for journal metrics.

Breakthrough Prizes for Life Scientists
Awards of $3 million each go to five researchers in the life sciences, recognizing their pioneering work on autophagy, DNA-damage response, Wnt signaling, and more.

IUCN Declares Giraffes Vulnerable to Extinction
The iconic mammals have been declining in number for decades and could face extinction if conservation measures are not enacted.