Monday, October 27, 2014

Someone really doesn't like Fazlul Sarkar

For those of you following along at home, Retraction Watch has been covering the story of Wayne State professor Fazlul Sarkar. Thanks to anonymous commenters at PubPeer uncovering some obvious image manipulation issues, he's had a distinguished professor position at the University of Mississippi withdrawn. Because of this, he's subpoenaing PubPeer to make them give up the IP addresses of the commenters so that he can sue them. 

As laughable as that is, I note this little tidbit from his complaint:
Defendant(s) Distributed Defamatory Postings Throughout the Wayne State Research Community Falsely Communicating That Dr. Sarkar Was Subject of a Senate Investigation 
69. After being rejected by Mississippi, upon settling in to resume his work at Wayne State, sometime in the first or second week of July, 2014, Dr. Sarkar was stunned to find that someone had widely distributed – in mailboxes throughout the Medical Center there - a screen shot from PubPeer showing the search results and disclosing the number of comments generated for each research article listed on the page. 
70. In the upper left corner of the document is a header which is designed to make the document appear as if it is from the National Institute of Health; it reads: “6/9/2014 // .rassle./.O./ORI/e.hibit 1/45 ORI ..S.” Additionally, in large letters diagonally across the page, as 20 if it were stamped, are the words: ACADEMIC EXPRESSION OF CONCERN; and under that, also diagonal, the words: GRASSLEY NIH/ORI/371-xx-xxx/folio A/exhibit C 1/45 [Exhibit A] 
71. Charles Grassley is a Senator from Iowa who is well known to have taken an interest in National Institute of Health matters, including research fraud. 
72. The clear inference from this document is that Sen. Grassley was investigating Dr. Sarkar and that the PubPeer postings were evidence in that investigation. 
73. In fact, that is completely false. This was verified by a WSU inquiry to the NIH’s Office of Research Integrity, and undersigned counsel’s own investigation with Sen. Grassley’s staff, which included discussions with three members of Sen. Grassley’s special counsel. 
74. Distribution of this doctored and false document by Defendant(s) throughout Dr. Sarkar’s department was maliciously intended to embarrass him, harm him, and defame him. 
75. It is highly probable, if not certain, that the same person(s) who did this despicable act is/are the same person(s) who posted on PubPeer and alleged making a complaint about Dr. Sarkar to Wayne State, and then learned of his employment with the University of Mississippi. 
76. These Defendant(s) have but one aim: to bring down and destroy the career of Plaintiff by any means necessary, while hiding in the shadows of anonymity so that they themselves suffer no consequences. They deserve no protection of their identity from this court.
Gotta say, if this (the distributing of the PubPeer posts in the mailboxes) is actually true, that's pretty cruel.

(Also, I love the fact that the J'accuse image is done with Comic Sans.)


  1. Such a thing (the Grassley email) makes you look childish and dumb. It might also make people wonder if the image manipulation charges weren't all made up; I assume the journals are not common, so that people might have a hard time disproving the implied claim. (That doesn't mean the commenters themselves couldn't have done it, but they'd have to be angry enough to suspend their rationality.) And I thought only creationists still used Comic Sans.

    Of course, the cynic in me wonders if the emails actually come from the PubPeer commenters, but instead from someone else who might have an interest in impeaching the credibility of PubPeer. I wonder who would have such an interest?

    I also wonder (less cynically) how he knows that the anonymous spammer was one of the commenters - without IP addresses or other ID, how could he?

    1. Hap, you've raised an interesting question, which is: was the action on the complaint In Real Life or online, by e-mail? I had interpreted item 69 to mean 'physical mailboxes', which, in my opinion, brings the campaign to a whole new front.


  2. OK, I assumed it was email, but it sounds like a screenshot, printed and distributed. Sorry. That would imply a local, though, wouldn't it? (Unless they were mailed into WSU, which wouldn't be that hard, but would leave postmarks and things to follow had he called the WSU security.) It would explain why he thinks the leavers were the same as the PubPeer people - because he thinks that someone at WSU has it in for him, and they would be the likely choices for a campaign on PubPeer.

    It still doesn't help the commenters' cause, if the senders were the same as the commenters, sneding the letters makes them look like children, or poor losers in a game of department politics, which are the same, probably. The faking looks like something a spiteful teenager would do, and still might make people question their honesty, if the false letters were theirs.

    1. BTW, I agree completely on the question of whether or not it's a good idea to fake official investigations: it's a terrible idea.

    2. Have you been to Wayne State? Security is busy patrolling the perimeter and manning machine gun nests.

    3. Have YOU been to WSU? It's the safest University campus in the state of Michigan.

    4. Well, I dunno about that. Tiane Brown was a friend of someone close to me, and she's not the only student to be snatched off of campus and found dead. And someone just fatally shot a WSU cop. I wouldn't call it 'the safest', although I suppose at Northern Michigan U you can actually get eaten by a bear.

  3. The more I think about, the less I understand how Sarkar's complaint makes sense. The PubPeer work (assuming it's accurate, which is likely) probably isn't actionable, and unless there were something else potentially libelous, probably doesn't merit outing the commenters. The fake Senate investigation document, on the other hand, could be libelous (untrue and intended to defame), but it isn't clear that it's the same people that commented wrote and distributed it (because it weakens the commenters' case and credibility severely and makes it likely that a judge would give them up if he connects the two). Is there anything else (textual analysis? printing/PhotoShop consistencies?) that would make someone reasonable assume they're from the same source? If not, it could be a frustrated professorgrad student/post doc/high schooler/kindergartener (at least in moral and mental capacity) who doesn't like Sarkar using the PubPeer pictures to nail hiim. There would then be multiple different John/Jane Does, not just one. His lawyer would then seem to be going fishing and wouldn't seem likely to catch anything. (BTW, if it isn't obvious, IANAL (or someone with legal knowledge)). The only way to connect the two would be to already have the PubPeer data in hand and to know enough about the Photoshop bombing to know if they could have been the same people (if they're both MI residents/IP addresses, for example), which I wouldn't trust Sarkar or his lawyer to do and don't know if the judge can do beforehand.

  4. Retraction Watch has a new post on this story, including links to the motion to quash Sarkar's subpoena as well as an affidavit detailing forensic analysis of some of the images in question by John Krueger (former ORI). Holy smokes.

    1. I guess that unintended consequences are beyond Sarkar's capacity to understand (of course, if his lab did what it looks like it did, then perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise).


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20