Are Lawyers Ruining Science?

What’s behind paper retractions? (25)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 06/2014

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

We’re not the only ones noticing how many researchers have begun to ­“lawyer up”.

Before we get to the meat of this column, let us stipulate, the way a lawyer would: We like lawyers a lot. We’re related to dozens of them, and we’ve worked with some terrific attorneys, who have helped Retraction Watch fight the good fight. We also believe strongly in the ability of prosecutors to punish – and, ideally, deter – scientific misconduct, particularly in cases involving fraud using taxpayer dollars. Indeed, we think such lawsuits are rarer than they should be – in the United States, for example, we’re aware of only three such suits over the past decade.


We have also grown concerned with what seems to be a growing trend of scientists, journals and even funding organisations hiring, or at least threatening to hire, lawyers whose purpose seems to be stifling criticism and transparency. Consider these recent cases:

  • The European Science Foundation says it will sue an astronomy researcher, who called a research evaluation process “flawed” if she doesn’t retract the claim.
  • A researcher sues commenters at post-publication peer review site, saying that their critiques of his research were defamatory and cost him a $350,000 job offer.
  • At least two researchers threaten to sue for defamation, despite the fact that many of the comments led to corrections and retractions. The threats shuttered the site.
  • A researcher threatens to sue us because we wrote about an Expression of Concern, which he claims is out of bounds for a site called … Retraction Watch.

Erasing online memories

One might imagine scientists using Europe’s “right to be forgotten” law to take similar action and reduce the online footprint of their misdeeds, just as a concert pianist, who didn’t like a negative newspaper review recently did. He’s far from alone. Google has taken down more than 170,000 links over the past six months in response to requests springing from the law.

We aren’t the only ones who have noticed more scientists “lawyering up”. In 2011, Elsevier settled a lawsuit with a proponent of intelligent design, who claimed that the publisher had no right to retract his paper. Elsevier issued an apology, and paid his legal costs.

In October, Nature wrote that those concerned with a rising number of retractions – including their own journal – and a lack of transparency in what the notices say “should also pay attention to what must be increasing costs in legal fees, because those under investigation increasingly turn to lawyers to defend themselves and their reputations, and their employers and journals are more frequently having to respond accordingly.” The result, of course, is heavily-lawyered retraction notices, or notices that say nothing at all.

The good guys are out there

Now, we know that Nature has only recently prevailed in a nasty libel fight and we applaud them for their efforts in that case. We also believe in due process and in the right to a vigorous defence.

However, we also believe in the power of attorneys with truth on their side. Given the number of lawyers, who have offered to work with us and others pro bono to fight baseless claims, we know that the right kinds of lawyers are out there. Publishers and universities can afford to pay those people. And just think of how much support and goodwill institutions will earn from taking a stand against fraud and waste in science.

The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

Last Changed: 20.11.2014