PubPeer Appears to Peer Properly

Last October, the science community was all agog by the announcement that Fazlul H Sarkar, PhD, was suing PubPeer, demanding that they release the names of the anonymous commenters who had criticized numerous papers that had come from his laboratory at Wayne State University in Detroit (retraction watch: http://retractionwatch.com/category/by-author/fazlul-sarkar/). PubPeer is a website that appeared several years ago that encourages comments and critiques of almost any scientific paper that has appeared in the literature, most of which are available on the website PubMed. Sarkar is (was) distinguished Prof. of Pathology at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. I say “is” as he still appears on the list of faculty of the Wayne State Pathology Department. According to his page on the Wayne State website, Sarkar received a PhD from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India in 1978 and was a postdoctoral fellow from1978 to 1984 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY. He is or has been Principal Investigator on eight R01 grants supported by The National Institutes of health (NIH), dating back as early as 1993 and totaling more than $10 million in support. R01 grants are investigator initiated grants, the most prestigious and desirable grants obtainable from the NIH (NIH RePorter: http://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter_SearchResults). PubMed, the website for The National Library of Medicine, lists over 500 articles on which FH Sarkar appears as an author. He has obviously been an impressive and productive researcher.

The problem, it seems, is that Sarkar had been recruited by the University of Mississippi with promises of extensive laboratory space and financial support, including a munificent salary. As a result of this magnificent offer, Sarkar sold his house in the Detroit area, resigned his position at Wayne State and prepared to move south. Before actually uprooting his family, the University of Mississippi rescinded its offer, leaving Sarkar high and dry and totally in limbo. The reason for the rejection was apparently the postings on PubPeer that questioned the scientific integrity of many of the papers. Having cut his ties with Wayne State, they were unwilling to take him back. Sarkar blamed his dilemma on the PubPeer whistleblowers. The comments on PubPeer call attention to potential image manipulation in approximately 100 of the 500 or so articles co-authored by Dr. Sarkar.

An interesting in-depth article appeared on the kinja website on January 16, 2015: http://sciencemadeeasy.kinja.com/the-case-against-pubpeer-1679940590, written by a certain Faz Alam. I have not been able to obtain much information about this individual, except that he/she (I assume he) appears to hark from India, claims to have a degree in microbiology and may have attended Gannon University, Erie, Pennsylvania. He has made comments on a number of scientific blogs, and may be a reporter of sorts. In the article on the Kinja.com website, Alam summarizes an exhaustive study that he made of the citations that were listed on PubPeer as containing derogatory information. He graded each analysis as either fair (PubPeer questioning was justified), unfair (Alam disagrees with the PubPeer comment) or neutral (Alam neither agrees nor disagrees). Alam judged 89 as fair, 20 as unfair and seven as neutral. In his blog, Alam asks the rhetorical question “does this mean Dr. Sarkar is guilty of misconduct?”. To which he replies “I don’t think so. If you read all of the papers, you’ll find one repeated sentence “all authors contributed to this article equally”…. The truth is that we don’t know, and we may never know for sure.” Alam then quotes Ushma S Neill, Editor at Large, Journal of Clinical Investigation, Editorial Consultant, Molecular Metabolism and Director, Office of the President, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as saying “… If the paper goes out with your name on it, you should be able to verify every single piece of data in it and take responsibility for it.

As a result of this posting, I did a little research on my own. There are 538 citations on PubMed that list Sarkar as an author or co-author. When I access PubMed I can look at 200 citations per page. PubMed makes a notation on some papers if there are comments about them on PubPeer. I found that PubMed’s PubPeer list is not the least bit exhaustive and that only 44 of Sarkar’s papers have been singled out. On my first page of 200 citations, I found 22 that had also been cited on PubPeer. I examined each one to determine whether Dr. Sarkar had been the corresponding author and/or had supported the studies with his grants. I determined that he had been either corresponding author, grantee or both on 16 of these 22 citations. Therefore, even though all authors contributed equally, I hold Dr. Sarkar to be the principal who is most at fault because, as corresponding author, he was responsible for the data that was presented and as the grantee, he took further responsibility to make certain that the reports were accurate and complete. I agree with Ushma S Neill.

There is no way of knowing whether Dr. Sarkar himself knew that the images in these papers had been manipulated. However, it was his job to verify those images. I can attest that spotting manipulated images is not difficult. In many cases the alterations stick out like sore thumbs. Dr. Sarkar will probably never stand before a court of law but I believe the punishment that he has endured: loss of his professorship and his job is eminently justified. He does not merit any professorships anywhere. It is time for him to find employment elsewhere, outside of the University and outside of science.

Posted in ethical concerns, news item, possible fraud
One comment on “PubPeer Appears to Peer Properly
  1. Irfan says:

    Absolutely agree with you. I am a cancer clinician and I cannot describe the harm done to patient as a result of these things since these observations ultimately lead to clinical interventions. Let one person pay for his mistakes than entire humanity

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