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.

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  1. Would the articles even have been published without Croce’s name amongst the authors?

    But the bigger question is what’s going to happen to him now that a court has essentially confirmed the charges against him?

    My guess is that both Ohio State and the Federal agencies funding him will ignore this fraud.

    1. No one really believes the Croce should be responsible for forensically examining every figure produced by every junior scientist in 1,000 papers. He’ll be seen as a victim of aspiring junior faculty.

      I’d be more interested in hearing who actually manipulated the data and if there were any patterns there.

      1. As a lawyer, I think that any lawyer whose name is on a brief is responsible for reviewing every claim in it; weirdly, I think the same ought to apply to researchers. If he wants credit when those junior scientists do a good job, he has to accept blame when they don’t. Obviously there’s a difference between negligence and outright fraud; their culpability is far higher than his.

        But if he had nothing to do with the paper and wants to dodge responsibility, then don’t put his name on the paper.

        1. I see others below made that point as well.

  2. Would that the courts had dealt with the Mann vs Steyn case so expeditiously, rather than dragging it out into now a decade long torture session.

  3. Hey I’ve had professor Sanders. Great guy.

    I didn’t know he did this, dude seems to do everything … professor, council politics, etc … huh.

  4. There are more annoying nitpickers than lawyers: doctors. This is a waste of time, unless patient damage can be shown. No one cares. Stop wasting the time of the court or start paying costs.

  5. I agree with the decision here.

    A person whose name is on a research article bears responsibility for the contents of that article. If Sanders’ statements about data being manipulated are aubstantially true, then Croce is on the hook. With the honor of having his name on a good paper comes the infamy of having his name on a bad one. If Croce wants his reputation protected, he needs to be more careful about what papers he associates his name with and do some due diligence that the work was done in an above-board manner.

    It appears Croce put his name on so many research articles he couldn’t possibly have investigated each one to ensure the work was legit. That’s his problem.

    1. I was going to write the same thing but you did it just fine.

    2. The people in a position to sanction Croce don’t want to be held to that standard.

  6. If you put your name on a paper, you’re accepting responsibility for it. If it turns out to be phony or plagiarized, your reputation rightly suffers. Be more picky on what you allow your name to be listed on.

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