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Doctor Goes After Retraction Watch, Unleashes Streisand Effect

Doctor Goes After Retraction Watch, Unleashes Streisand Effect

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I had never heard of Dr. Bharat Aggarwal before last week. Nor had I heard the term “meritless thuggery.” Now the two phrases are bouncing around in my head like a Tegan and Sara song.

How did this happen? Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus wrote about Aggarwal for Retraction Watch. Aggarwal threatened to sue. And now writers are talking about how wrongheaded the legal threat against Retraction Watch was, including Ken White at Popehat, who called it “meritless thuggery” and wrote:

In March, Dr. Aggarwal — through the Houston firm Paranjpe & Mahadass LLP — threatened to sue Retraction Watch and demanded that Retraction Watch delete all of its posts about Dr. Aggarwal. The letter is here. It is an unusually foolish entry into the genre of ill-considered defamation threats.

To help you make your own judgment call, I’ve put together a timeline below.

January 2012 – Bharat Aggarawal, a cancer researcher at MD Anderson in Houston, tells Retraction Watch that the research center is investigating his work following critiques by writers – including the now defunct Abnormal Science – that he may have manipulated images used in some of his studies. Aggarwal is a very well published researcher with more than 500 articles to his credit. He told Retraction Watch, “I think that somebody out there is putting this whole thing together and their mind is made up.”

February 2012 – The journal Cancer Letters withdraws a paper authored by Bharat Aggarwal. The article, “Cardamonin Inhibits Osteoclastogenesis Induced by Tumor Cells Through Interruption of the Signaling Pathway Activated by Receptor Activator of NF-κB Ligand,” was published in December 2011. The journal writes, “This article has been withdrawn at the request of the author(s) and/or editor. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause.”

March 2012 – Biochimica et Biophysica Acta withdraws one of Aggarwal’s articles.

October 2012 – Antioxidants & Redox Signaling corrects another Aggarwal article.

March 2013 – The Journal of Molecular Medicine corrects two images that had been published with an article by Aggarwal in December 2010.

April 2013 – Baggarwal’s attorney threatens to sue Retraction Watch, apparently acting on his own, without MD Anderson’s backing.

Oransky has been the most consistent in writing about the case. And now the lawsuit has generated interest among writers everywhere. As Ken White at Popehat writes:

Dr. Aggarwal and Mr. Mahadass, I'd like you to meet the Streisand Effect. You're going to have a lot to talk about. Query: have you met before? Mr. Mahadass, before you sent a bumptious letter making legally unsupportable threats against a blog with a wide audience, did you know about the Streisand Effect, and did you advise your client about the potential consequences of your letter?

The Streisand Effect – when an attempt to shut down coverage of a topic generates more coverage – is working. George Johnson at Discover magazine’s Fire in the Mind blog wrote about the case. And, as you can see on Muck Rack, some of the smartest and most influential health and science writers in the country weighed in, including Steve Silberman, Joe Rojas-Burke, Dan Vergano, Bora Zivkovic, Marshall Allen, Deborah Blum, Ed Young, Curtis Brainard, Charles Ornstein, Andrew Seaman, and Eric Berger.

These are people who love a good story, and they don’t scare easily.

I had dinner with Ivan Oransky not long ago. In addition to being the Reuters Health editor and Retraction Watch co-founder, he is sort of an oracle in the health blogosphere, and I asked his advice on a range of issues, including how to handle threats from people who don’t like what you write. Oransky’s only agenda is to help the public understand the scientific process better and to provide an independent assessment of often opaque judgment calls made by journals and the scientists who publish in them. What happens in journals may seem miles away from most people’s day-to-day lives, but the published scientific literature has a real impact. It is used to set policies and practices that in fact do have an impact on everyone’s day-to-day life in terms of the medicines available to them, the techniques physicians use in the operating suite, and a range of other issues. We are fortunate to have Oransky and Marcus on the case.

You can be assured we – along with the rest of the science and health writing community – will be watching what happens with Aggarwal’s papers with much more interest now.

Image by TipsTimes via Flickr

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“Racism in medicine is a national emergency.” That’s how journalist Nicholas St. Fleur characterized the crisis facing American health care this spring, as his team at STAT embarked on “Color Code,” an eight-episode series exploring medical mistrust in communities of color across the country. In this webinar, we’ll take inspiration from their work to discuss strategies and examples for telling stories about inequities, disparities and racism in health care systems. Sign-up here!

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