Open Post-Pub Peer Review of Cheaters

Sep 22 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

There is an interesting story over at retraction watch.

Last month, PubPeer announced that a scientist had threatened to sue the site for defamation. At the time, all PubPeer would say was that the “prospective plaintiff” is a US researcher” who was “aggrieved at the treatment his papers are getting on our site.”

Today, PubPeer revealed the that the prospective plaintiff was Fazlul Sarkar, a distinguished professor of pathology at Wayne State University in Detroit. Sarkar’s attorney, Nicholas Roumel, tells us that Sarkar had a job offer from the University of Mississippi, which rescinded it after seeing comments about his work on PubPeer.

The part that interests me is, as you might predict, that the offending "comments" at PubPeer detail retractions, suspicious figures and basically edge right up to calling Sarkar a cheater. A data faker. A fraud.

If it is indeed the case that this guy had a job offer at a different University and it was revoked, we may finally be seeing a clear success of post-publication review.

One of the thornier problems involved with nailing a data faker is the twin whammy of Universities having no skin in the game once a data faker has departed their employment and a general fear of being sued for defamation if data faking cannot be proved.

There was a prior case detailed on this blog in which a pair of scientists hop-skipped-and-jumped across three Universities until eventually disappearing. There is a fair bit of high quality rumoring that they finally got busted for data fakery.

There are other cases, even in the ORI findings, where a given scientists seems to have a short tenure at a given University and moves quickly along. Eventually, the person is busted and it may become clear that some of the fraudulent work stretches back to a prior appointment.

What one wonders is how many times a scientific fraud departs his or her University before an investigation can come to a conclusion? Gets out of Dodge before the posse arrives.  Given the usual lengthy process of investigation, she or he would know long before any finding can be made public that the heat was coming. Long enough to search out a faculty appointment elsewhere. Perhaps at a lower-profile institution that cannot believe their good fortune that such a high-flier wants to work there (and bring all that grant money!).


Maybe this is a case where the University got wind of the cheating before they hired the guy. Thanks to publicly available comments on his suspicious data.

6 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    "If it is indeed the case that this guy had a job offer at a different University and it was revoked, we may finally be seeing a clear success of post-publication review."

    You make it sound as if the sole purpose of post-pub review is a witch hunt. Reveal the fakers!! I don't think that was the intention behind PubPeer.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Oh? What else is it good for?

  • Jmz4 says:

    I don't have a problem with the "witch hunt" aspect of it. If it was a mistake, no big deal, if its fraud, you deserve anything the commentators can throw at you.
    However, DM, it is actually pretty good for clarifying or updating aspects of papers, as people have taken to linking to papers which update methodology:

    Occasionally I also see constructive conversations with the authors. This is a lot more common in computational stuff, for the time being. I check my papers regularly for comments, but I don't think that's standard practice yet. Soon it will be, I think, since they've just added browser extensions to comment on papers on the journal's sites (and pubmed), which should raise their visibility. Once that happens, I think we'll see a lot more utility for PubPeer for non-fraudulent papers.

  • qaz says:

    Was there a real investigation here by either university or by a neutral party (say ORI)? Or has this person been judged and convicted by the rumor mill?

    It's one thing to start an investigation because of anonymous rumors and "defaming" claims. It's another thing completely to convict on them.

    (Reading the sites, it looks like Sarkar claims that the pubpeer complaints were also sent to Wayne State University, suggesting they may have done their own investigation. But is not clear. Nevertheless, I think it is important to make sure that convictions are based on proper investigations, not rumors.)

  • drugmonkey says:

    So a University has to follow legal standard of proof, on matters that they have no power to investigate thoroughly, before deciding not to extend an offer of employment?

  • johnny chimpo says:

    Um. Wow. I just interviewed for a job in that department.

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