Harvard professor targeted in cyberstalking, online harassment case

The smear campaign against Loscalzo is extensive, involving numerous emails from untraceable accounts. These emails not only target Loscalzo but also attempt to influence editorial decisions and tarnish his reputation among colleagues.

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A Harvard Medical School professor has become the subject of a series of malicious emails and online harassment.

Joseph Loscalzo, former chair of the department of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, described the situation as an “aggressive cyberstalking and harassment campaign” in a letter to PubPeer, an online forum used for scientific critique. 

The letter, obtained by Retraction Watch, alleges that PubPeer has been utilized as a platform for attacks, with anonymous comments questioning the integrity of at least 15 of his papers.

PubPeer, known for its role in identifying scientific misconduct, including data manipulation, has denied responsibility for how its platform’s posts are used.

Boris Barbour, a co-founder of PubPeer, maintained that the site operates within fair guidelines and has removed a few comments that lacked context. However, he stated that most comments appeared to be valid and that the platform wouldn’t halt legitimate discourse.

Barbour said: “We’re not yet the president of the internet. All we can do is tend our own garden and make sure that what is on PubPeer is fair according to our guidelines.”

He explained, it is either posted “by a trusted commenter and subject to post-moderation as required,” or will be examined before it’s posted. 

“We’re set up not to know who’s commenting and not to know if it’s the same person,” Barbour said.

“It’s not as if it’s revenge porn or some fabrication or something. We to date have never yet practiced a moratorium under legal threat,” he added.

Past controversy

The controversy around PubPeer is not new. Other renowned scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof, have criticized the forum for lack of transparency and censorship. Legal actions have also been taken against PubPeer and scientific sleuths like Elizabeth Bik for exposing research issues on the website. 

In a notable case, a Wayne State University cancer researcher unsuccessfully attempted to subpoena PubPeer for commenter identities after losing a job offer due to critical posts.

Loscalzo’s situation is further complicated by his past association with Piero Anversa, a researcher who left Harvard University after being implicated in academic misconduct. While Loscalzo has not been implicated in Anversa’s deception, the campaign against him seems to weaponize PubPeer in an attempt to discredit him.

The smear campaign against Loscalzo is extensive, involving numerous emails from untraceable accounts. These emails not only target Loscalzo but also attempt to influence editorial decisions and tarnish his reputation among colleagues. Some emails, sent under aliases, link to PubPeer comments and call for investigations into Loscalzo’s work. Others go as far as to label his lab as ethically compromised.

In a turn of events, emails defending Loscalzo, signed by a “Jennie Lee,” began appearing. These emails, also from anonymous sources, aimed to protect Loscalzo from slander and research integrity allegations. However, the authenticity and intent behind these defense emails remain unclear.

Mounting speculations

Speculations about the source of these attacks center around a South Korean medical student who briefly worked in Loscalzo’s lab. The student, having been cleared of misconduct allegations in South Korea, might be connected to the campaign, as the harassment began shortly after these events.

In this scenario, even Bik, known for her role in scientific integrity, was drawn into the fray. After receiving a tip, she flagged potential issues in some of Loscalzo’s co-authored papers, although she noted that these seemed to be minor problems.

The situation remains unresolved as Loscalzo continues to face these cyberattacks. The recent submission of a fraudulent paper under his name to Preprints.org, intending to further harm his reputation, highlights the ongoing challenges he faces in this ordeal. 

“No doubt, after the paper is published, the plan would be for the malicious culprit to post errors on PubPeer that would be used to defame us yet again,” Loscalzo said.

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