The ongoing battle between PubPeer, a website that allows anonymous reviews of technical papers, and a researcher trying to unmask some of its users took a new turn yesterday when a county judge asked the site’s operators to hand over a piece of potentially identifying information.
Last fall, cancer researcher Fazlul Sarkar of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, filed a lawsuit against several anonymous posters on the site, claiming that their comments about apparent discrepancies in his papers constituted defamation and had caused him to lose a job offer from the University of Mississippi. He subpoenaed PubPeer for any information about the commenters, but lawyers representing the website filed a motion to quash the subpoena in December.
Earlier this month, Wayne County Circuit Judge Sheila Gibson mostly sided with PubPeer, but requested a separate hearing to discuss a comment from one user. It describes reporting discrepancies in Sarkar’s papers to Wayne State officials and receiving a response from the school’s secretary to the board of governors: "Thank you for your e-mail. … As you are aware, scientific misconduct investigations are by their nature confidential, and Wayne would not be able to comment on whether an inquiry into your allegations is under way … .”
In yesterday’s hearing, the judge inferred that the anonymous poster had accused Sarkar of misconduct in a previous e-mail, says Nicholas Jollymore, a libel lawyer with Jollymore Law Office, P.C. in San Francisco, California, who is representing PubPeer and attended the hearing. Gibson asked that PubPeer turn over identifying information to her and scheduled another hearing next Tuesday to decide whether to give that information to Sarkar and his lawyer.
Jollymore says PubPeer doesn’t have the person’s name, address, or e-mail, just the IP address from which the comment was posted, which is outside the United States. Sarkar would still need to request the person’s identify from the Internet service provider, Jollymore says.
Sarkar’s lawyer, Nicholas Roumel of Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard & Walker P.C. in Ann Arbor, Michigan, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but has indicated that he wants to ask the PubPeer user questions about how Sarkar lost his job offer at the University of Mississippi. “[W]e have no intention of publicly exposing this person’s name at this time, we just want to find out who it is,” Roumel told Retraction Watch. “We are willing to enter into a protective order and protect the identity of the commenter, and not expose it.”
Still, Jollymore contends that turning over information to anyone violates free speech protections under the U.S. Constitution for the site’s users.
One of PubPeer’s (anonymous) moderators told ScienceInsider: “If this decision creates a precedent, future online comment will be limited to trivial matters, while all discussion of serious matters will be discouraged by fear of legal entanglement.”
Jollymore, along with lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union representing PubPeer, intend to file an emergency appeal tomorrow to have Tuesday’s meeting canceled and hope to bring the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.