August 15, 2023, #50
On 9 August 2023 Kelsey Piper wrote an article for the news website Vox with the title: “Is it defamation to point out scientific research fraud? A Harvard professor accused of research fraud brings a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the university and her accusers. What comes next?”¹ The story is about the same topic as the News Feature of 4 July 2023 about the Data Colada report on possible fraud by Francesca Gino². What makes this story instructive is not whether the Data Colada accusations were true or false, but whether possible legal consequences could discourage those investigating and reporting. Gino is suing the three authors of the Data Colada post plus Harvard University “for ‘not less than $25 million.’”¹ Her lawsuit argues that “the researchers failed to consider other explanations for the ‘anomalies’ in the data sets analyzed…”¹ Piper also provides a link to the lawsuit. She writes: “Having read her case and spoken to defamation experts, I think Gino is unlikely to win at trial.”¹ This sounds like good news for the defendants, but “it will take years — and be extraordinarily expensive — to settle the factual question in court of whether the statements are true.”¹ Truth is not necessarily the issue. Piper writes: “often, scientists whose theories are challenged are trying to resort instead to silencing their critics with the courts.”¹ Lawsuits can certainly have a chilling effect on open scholarly debate, as Piper writes: “If other researchers didn’t occasionally dig into weird results and look for signs of manipulation, many cases of data falsification would never be noticed…”¹ Checking on research results is an integral part of the modern scientific process. Such checking ought ideally to happen during peer review, but time-pressure often means cutting corners. The peer review system is imperfect, and post-review corrections are a normal part of the academic process. The risk is that a lawsuit could, as Piper writes, “make future academics who notice something off in others’ work more reluctant to speak up about it.”¹
1: Kelsey Piper, ‘Is It Defamation to Point out Scientific Research Fraud?’, Vox, 9 August 2023, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2023/8/9/23825966/francesca-gino-honesty-research-scientific-fraud-defamation-harvard-university. 2: Lief Nelson, Uri Simonsohn, and Joe Simmons, ‘ Data Falsificada (Part 1): “Clusterfake”’, Data Colada, 17 June 2023, http://datacolada.org/109.