Will Lawsuit Against PubPeer Chill Post-Pub Review?

PubPeerPost-publication (post-pub) review is arguably one of the most innovative developments in scientific publishing in the past few years, including at the site PubPeer.

An illustration of the widespread influence of post-pub review is the fact that PubMed recently started allowing readers to post comments about any paper.  Post-pub review drove the rapid debunking of the now retracted STAP papers. Post-pub review, which comes in two main forms (anonymous and non-anonymous), is a powerful phenomenon manifesting on a number of websites and blogs including the main one called PubPeer, which has rapidly grown in activity.

Recently, a scientist filed a lawsuit against PubPeer over post-publication review of some of his publications. This suit could have major negative implications for the future of post-pub review more generally. Over at RetractionWatch, they have an interesting piece on this new lawsuit by scientist Dr. Fazlul Sarkar of Wayne State. In September Sarkar had reportedly threatened legal action against PubPeer over negative comments made there about papers from the Sarkar lab. The allegation was that this post-pub review was defamatory. (2020 update: PubPeer is still alive and active. Also see my article on post-publication peer review in Trends in Genetics here.)

The actual suit now filed alleges that the comments on PubPeer led to Sarkar losing a job offer at the University of Mississippi Med Center that was just about a done deal. In the interim between the threat and realization of litigation, RetractionWatch reports that some PubPeer comments related to Sarkar papers were removed, but apparently the Sarkar suit alleges harm was already done.

From RetractionWatch:

“The complaint never asserts that Sarkar did not commit misconduct, but notes that he “has never been found responsible for research misconduct:”

To put the false comments publicly communicated on PubPeer in perspective, let it be stated emphatically: Dr. Sarkar has never been found responsible for research misconduct. He has published more than 533 papers. He has, to date, not had one retracted by a journal. For a tiny handful – less than 2% of his published total – he has voluntarily submitted errata. Of these errata, half have been published; for the other half, decisions from the journals are pending. These are unremarkable numbers given Dr. Sarkar’s prodigious output, and are quite within the normal range of errata, if not low.”

The vast majority of commenters on PubPeer are anonymous and the folks who founded and run PubPeer are anonymous as well. The Sarkar legal team wants the identities (or at least IP addresses) of the PubPeer commenters to then presumably pursue damages against them. It’s unclear at this time whether some of these commenters will eventually be identified. It is possible that some commenters may be unidentifiable based on how they may have placed their commenters (e.g. using a masked IP address). As far as I know, Sarkar has never engaged in any discussion of this situation with commenters on PubPeer.

Post-pub review represents a powerful new element of the scientific process. In fact, it is so new that it is still essentially an experiment that is rapidly evolving, but my view is that it is here to stay. It makes sense that scientists would discuss new papers in an open forum after the papers are published and that this would generally have a beneficial influence. However, many questions remain about the most effective forms of post-pub review and also about this current lawsuit.

Will this lawsuit put a chill on post-pub review? Could it also negatively affect the goal of getting journals themselves to open up their review processes?

This situation also raises the larger question of the potential positive roles, but also possible tradeoffs of anonymity in both pre-publication review and post-pub review. For example, what is appropriate, constructive content in a post-pub review comment and what crosses the line to inappropriate?

In addition, in other forums such as with commenting on PubMed or on other sites such as ResearchGate or F1000, could non-anonymous, but critical commenters be the subjects of litigation from other scientists?

PubPeer itself is hosting a discussion on the lawsuit.

While this lawsuit is serious business and it could have a chilling effect depending on the outcome, I predict that the lawsuit will fail.

The evolution of open post-pub review is happening right before our eyes as a revolution in science. It will be fascinating to watch it unfold. Hold onto your hat on this roller coaster ride.

4 thoughts on “Will Lawsuit Against PubPeer Chill Post-Pub Review?”

  1. Great post Paul!

    In the best of worlds, scientific publications are all about communication with ones peers — so of course follow-up communications are valuable. The old-fashioned way was to submit a comment to the journal or privately correspond with the author.

    But publishing is not just about communication. It’s also about getting a job, or keeping it, or getting that next grant, or … The players in the publishing game have many motives, some not at all honourable. Post-publication, on-line, public commenting has the potential to both improve things and make things worse.

    It will take some time and effort to establish decent and fair procedures… along with ways to enforce those procedures. Science is an ongoing project. Three cheers for that!

  2. If a scientist does not want to be criticized in public, he or she should not publish in public. That said, those who comment should be required to do so only when their names are attached publicly to their comments.

    Additionally, those who review these articles prior to publication should be identified publicly along with a clear exposition of the review process at the particular publication.

    Cloaking all this in secrecy leads to nasty suspicions and is detrimental to the field of science.

    1. There is much merit in what you say.

      Personally, I think that the review process should be double-blind until a decision is reached. Once a decision is reached, everything should be revealed…

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