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A group of academics has raised more than $315,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to support the legal expenses of the professors behind data investigation blog Data Colada — who are being sued for defamation by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino.
Supporters of the three professors — Uri Simonsohn, Leif D. Nelson, and Joseph P. Simmons — launched the GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for their legal fees after they were named in a $25 million defamation lawsuit filed by Gino last month.
In a series of four blog posts in June, Data Colada gave a detailed account of alleged research misconduct by Gino across four academic papers. Two of the papers were retracted following the allegations by Data Colada, while another had previously been retracted in September 2021 and a fourth is set to be retracted in September 2023.
Organizers wrote on GoFundMe that the fundraiser “hit 2,000 donors and $250K in less than 2 days” and that Simonsohn, Nelson, and Simmons “are deeply moved and grateful for this incredible show of support.”
Simine Vazire, one of the fundraiser’s organizers, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the reaction throughout academia in support of Data Colada.
“It’s been really nice to see the consensus among the academic community, which is strikingly different than what I see on LinkedIn and the non-academic community,” she said.
Elisabeth M. Bik — a data manipulation expert who also helped organize the fundraiser — credited the outpouring of financial support to solidarity and concern among scientists.
“People are very concerned about this lawsuit and about the potential silencing effect this could have on people who criticize other people’s papers,” Bik said. “I think a lot of people want to support Data Colada for their legal defenses.”
Andrew T. Miltenberg — one of Gino’s attorneys — wrote in an emailed statement that the lawsuit is “not an indictment on Data Colada’s mission.”
“What the lawsuit demonstrates is how both Data Colada and Harvard deviated from their stated processes and treated Prof. Gino’s investigation differently from other misconduct investigations,” he added.
According to defense attorney Ken White, “What the increasing prevalence of legal threats and defamation cases does is deter people from important participation in the scientific process.”
“Courts are poorly equipped to adjudicate science. Courts aren’t peer review. Our system of peer review — the people weighing in on issues and things like that — is the way that scientists approach these questions,” said White, who has previously represented and advised science bloggers on defamation issues.
Though the fundraiser has already exceeded its indicated goal of $250,000 by more than $65,000, donations remain open. Vazire said there isn’t a final target amount for the fundraiser but that all unused money will be refunded.
“We had to set a goal because that’s how GoFundMe works, but I think every little bit helps,” she said. “We’re just raising as much as we can and letting them know that it’s available if they need it for their legal funds, and if not, they’ll return it to the donors.”
The crowdfunding initiative, Vazire said, is also an effort to “put some pressure on Harvard and on the three data quality researchers’ universities to step up and support” Data Colada.
“Many of us are really shocked that the universities involved are kind of leaving them out to dry,” she said.
Jessica Flake — a fundraiser co-organizer and psychology professor at McGill University — said the retaliation against Data Colada for whistleblowing has encouraged a “culture of fear” around reporting research misconduct.
“If they are to settle out of court or to lose this lawsuit, it would be really damning for science,” Flake said. “There’s no mechanism for reporting data fraud.”
Vazire also said the backlash against Data Colada has had a “chilling effect.”
“The damage is done, even with this GoFundMe, even if Joe, Leif, and Uri win the lawsuit, and they don’t pay anything out of pocket,” she said.
“Let’s build something more, where we don’t rely on individual people who have the guts and the courage to go out on such a limb,” Vazire added. “It’s not good for them. It’s not good for science.”
According to Vazire, researchers involved in organizing the GoFundMe have had discussions of “proactively” organizing a more general fund “so that people know that there’s money there that will be there for them if they are targeted by this kind of lawsuit.”
“I think it would help offset preemptively some of the fear that is now instilled in people because of this lawsuit,” Vazire said.
White, the defense attorney, felt that such a fund would only serve as a “patch” and that people should instead work “to legally deter meritless defamation suits.”
“That’s like kids selling lemonade to buy extra health care for their teacher who’s sick. A much better way to do it would be to work harder to repair the system,” White said.
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