Q: Is it ethical or legal if a researcher adds to his criticism of a group of researchers before they can respond to his criticism?

Detailed Question -

A researcher attacked the data integrity of a group of researchers in a published manuscript. A few days after his manuscript was published, he shared a link for his article before this group of authors could reply to his criticism. Is this ethical? Is there any legal liability for this act?

1 Answer to this question

Firstly, some parts of your query were not very clear. So, we have edited them for enhanced clarity.

Now, before responding to your query, we would need to consider the matter of the researcher’s published article. It’s not clear if the entire article was a criticism of the other article. If so, this may have been a perspective piece (also known as an opinion or commentary piece). This typically has the personal views of the author(s), though the views need to be well-informed and supported by rationale. These articles typically have a disclaimer at the end stating that the comments in the article are the personal views of the author.

Of course, this researcher may have a certain standing in the community and on academic platforms, and so, the criticism shared by him may be accepted as such by readers, which may be a further ‘blow’ to the group of researchers. However, you should note that this reputation is built over time. In short, what we are trying to say is that, on the one hand, this may be the personal view of the author, which may mean that the other authors need not be so agitated by it. On the other hand, it may be a well-founded criticism, and therefore, the other researchers need to consider the validity/merit of the criticism.

If this was not a perspective piece, it was probably a review article of some sort – a literature review, a systematic review, or a meta-analysis. If so, only a part of the article would have been a criticism of the other research, as review articles need to review several other articles. If this is the case, the criticism would have been a fraction of the entire piece, though of course, it could have been no less severe. But again, the authors will need to consider this aspect of the scenario.

Finally, note that this article would have been scrutinized by the journal (by the associate editor as well as the Editor-in-Chief) as also by the peer reviewers. So, it would have gone through several eyes, who would have caught a bias of any sort if it were indeed unjustified. (Of course, there are also cases of bad premises and data escaping the eyes of editors and reviewers.)

Overall, we are trying to see whether there may be merit in the criticism. This doesn’t mean that we are on the researcher’s side. We are simply aiming for a balanced viewpoint.

Coming to your specific query or two, basis only the information provided here, the researcher is quite justified in sharing the link for his piece. We understand that this happened while the group of authors was deciding how to respond. (To decide whether this was unethical, we would need more information from the researcher’s side. Given that it’s not provided, we would need to give the benefit of the doubt to him.) This also means that much opinion may begin swinging the way of the researcher, especially if he is reputed. However, what this also means is that the group of authors can consider responses to several different arguments and write a consolidated rebuttal that addresses all these arguments at one go.

How you can specifically respond to the researcher’s article is by submitting a letter to the editor of the journal where that article was published. Journals usually allow researchers to respond to critiques or criticisms of their work by other researchers. Additionally, if the researcher has shared the article on a blog/website or on social media, the group of researchers may also respond to the criticism on each of these platforms. That will also get a discussion going (and hopefully, a healthy one) among the larger community, which can only be good for science.

Finally, as for legal liability, if the researcher’s criticism is proven to be invalid, based on responses by other researchers, the journal and/or the researcher may be compelled to retract the article. Note however that retraction is typically done in the case of fraudulent data. For any further severe action, the charges and ‘crime’ would need to be severe too (such as financial losses or physiological or psychological harassment), and based on only the information given here, that may not seem to be the case. Nevertheless, the group of researchers has recourse to several actions, as suggested above. So, if they feel the criticism is not fair, they may utilize some or all of the suggested methods.

Hope that helps.

For more perspectives into what may be considered or perceived as issues of ‘academic harassment or bullying,’ you may refer to the following queries by other researchers: