MeToo paper investigated as academic threatens legal action

Article on MeToo movement in Iran named researcher, who denies wrongdoing, as ‘serial abuser’

February 29, 2024
Iranian Kurdish woman who was circumcised at eight stands in silhouette by a window
Source: Gelawej Ahmadi/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images

A researcher of the MeToo movement faces investigation by a publisher and potential legal action after describing a fellow academic as a “serial abuser” in a journal paper.

The article by Donya Ahmadi, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Groningen, analyses the MeToo movement against sexual violence in Iran and the backlash against it. It was published in Women’s Studies International Forum.

In one sentence, Dr Ahmadi describes a researcher now working for a UK university as an alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse who had been named online by victims. The paper says that the man, who studies Iranian politics, is “a serial abuser accused of at least three counts of prolonged sexual and psychological abuse”, and claims that he has revealed the identity of his accusers online.

The researcher has denied any wrongdoing.

Elsevier, the publisher of the journal, confirmed to Times Higher Education that the paper was “under investigation”.

“We are following the journal policies and Cope [Committee on Publication Ethics] guidelines for these kinds of allegations. Unfortunately, as the investigation is still ongoing, we are not able to comment further,” a spokesman said.

Speaking to THE, Dr Ahmadi said that she wrote the paper in response to “a poverty of academic knowledge” on MeToo in Iran and said that she included the reference to the researcher because the allegations against him had circulated widely on Farsi-language social media.

Dr Ahmadi said that she had received an email from the academic’s lawyer shortly before Christmas, threatening legal action if the article was not taken down. She offered to remove the sentence referring to the individual, but this was rejected.

Dr Ahmadi warned that researchers could be dissuaded from covering similar subjects if she was compelled to take the paper down.

“This is a loud and clear message to women academics working on the field of sexual violence: don’t come anywhere near these topics. That’s how it feels to me,” she said.

Alison Mudditt, chief executive of the Public Library of Science (Plos), said that periodicals needed to exercise “extra care” on articles relating to sexual misconduct “given the sensitivity of these situations, the vulnerability of both the accused and victims, and potential legal ramifications for the authors and journal”.

Authors might want to name an individual accused of abuse in order to support victims or protect others, she said, but this “increases the risk of defamation claims against the authors and/or publisher, particularly if the accusations have not been confirmed”.

“Care needs to be taken in reporting this type of work to distinguish between allegations and accusations versus documented convictions or investigation findings,” Ms Mudditt said.

Routledge last year withdrew a book chapter after complaints by a Portuguese sociologist who alleged he had been identified in relation to claims of harassment.

Dirk Voorhoof, an emeritus professor in freedom of expression at Ghent University, said academics facing legal action could often “rely strongly” on article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to freedom of expression, but this had to be balanced against article eight, which protects the right to privacy and the protection of reputation.

A successful defence, he said, would depend in part on “whether the author of the article can convince a court that the method of her research is OK, and that she has based these accusations on sufficiently reliable sources or can give evidence of the allegations”.

Anna Bull, a co-founder of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual harassment in higher education, said that academics researching this topic were facing a growing tide of legal threats.

“Publishers and higher education institutions need to learn more about how abusers use defamation to try to silence people who speak up about sexual violence and harassment, and to support researchers to be able to write about sexual violence and harassment in academic outlets in ways that don’t put them at risk,” she said.

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