The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Libel Case Involving Controversy Over Allegations of Manipulated Medical Research


From Croce v. Sanders, decided last Wednesday by the Sixth Circuit (Judges Raymond Kethledge, Amul Thapar & Chad Readler):

Carlo Croce's name appears on over 1,000 scientific research articles. Sometimes all he contributed to the article was an idea, while another scientist conducted the research and wrote up the results. A different scientist, David Sanders, discovered that some of these papers contained manipulated data and plagiarized text. When Sanders went to the press with his discovery, Croce sued him for defamation….

Dr. David Sanders is a biological-sciences professor at Purdue University. He makes a practice of discovering and reporting instances of data falsification and fabrication in scientific papers. So when he received a tip about manipulated images in a scientific article about lung cancer, he took a look. One of the images depicting a protein analysis appeared to have been manipulated.

Among the paper's authors was Dr. Carlo Croce, a celebrated cancer researcher and professor at the Ohio State University. Croce's name appeared last—suggesting that the paper came from researchers at Croce's lab but that Croce did not himself conduct the experiment. Sanders, concerned about what appeared to be intentional manipulation of data, kept digging. He ultimately discovered problems in about thirty articles that listed Croce as a co-author.

Sanders reported his concerns to the respective journals. But he found their responses unsatisfactory, so he contacted a reporter from the New York Times, James Glanz. He told Glanz about the problems he'd discovered in the articles, and Glanz investigated. As part of his investigation, Glanz sent a letter to Ohio State and Croce, asking for comments. The letter described the alleged problems in "Croce's papers"—papers that Croce had co-authored. In the letter, Glanz named Sanders as the source of the allegations. Glanz's investigation led to a New York Times article about Croce: Years of Ethics Charges, but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass.

The New York Times article prompted a follow-up report by Meghan Holden of the Lafayette Journal & Courier, a paper local to Sanders's university. The article, Purdue Biologist Calls Out Cases of Scientific Misconduct, described the thankless and risky work of identifying research misconduct in the scientific field. The piece referenced the New York Times article and said that the costs of whistleblowing "didn't stop Sanders from alleging that [Croce] falsified data or plagiarized text in more than two dozen articles Croce has authored." …

Croce identifies six allegedly defamatory statements—two from each document. Of the six, five are either statements of opinion or substantially true. And Croce has offered no admissible evidence in support of the sixth statement, only hearsay. Thus, the district court correctly granted summary judgment to Sanders on each of his claims.

For details, see the opinion, which strikes me as correct.