On 27 December 2018, I received an email from the Italian Office for Protection of Personal Data. A certain Professor Giorgio Zauli has reported me for publishing an official letter his University of Ferrara sent to me on his behalf.
Zauli is namely the rector of this Italian university, and he got into that position thanks to a large body of research in haematology and oncology. Many papers from his lab show signs of inappropriate data manipulation, in particular for the research-field typical flow cytometry analyses, but also for western blots. Zauli previously threatened to sue me and even reported me to Italian state prosecutor, this however did not lead anywhere. So now he complains about an injury to his privacy, because in Italy apparently it is possible for a rector to have his university send official headed threats to journalists, and then demand personal privacy for the very same.
University of Ferrara previously tricked me into providing them with my full address and phone number (they even demanded a copy of my ID) when I reported the suspected research misconduct in Zauli’s publications. Instead of investigating their rector (I was told my evidence is not admissible because I was not associated with the University of Ferrara), the university sent me an officially headed letter, signed by Zauli himself and threatening all kinds of legal action. The missive was stamped and sent off by university’s own mail office, it bears the head of university, and is signed by Zauli in his official capacity as rector. Yet Zauli, who declares in his complaint his university offices as his legal residence, insists that the letter was of a “private nature”. The Italian authorities now accuse me of having published this official university letter and thus of having revealed Zauli’s personal data. Those being his official signature as rector as well as his mobile phone number, which is likely a work phone, financed by the university, and hence by taxpayer.
To top it off, the Italian officials also reiterate Zauli’s ridiculous claim as a proven fact that I would spread “fake and unproven information” about him by presenting the evidence of manipulated data in his papers. In this regard it is worth noticing that Zauli never mentions a word about the primary source of that evidence, namely PubPeer. The PubPeer list of Zauli’s papers suspected of data manipulations grew much longer since my first reporting, and includes many papers from the lab of his Ferrara colleague and regular coauthor, Luca Maria Neri. None of that is any problem for Zauli, but my presentation of that obscure information for the wider public is.
This was the English-language letter I received (original here, I removed Zauli’s private email address provided there):
OBJECT: Complaint submitted by Professor Giorgio Zauli on personal data dissemination.
Dear Mr. Leonid Schneider,
on the 30st May 2018 this Department received the attached complaint, addressed to the Italian Data Protection Authority, by Professor Giorgio Zauli, who complains the publication of a post created by Mr. Leonid Schneider reporting fake and unproven information and also the scan of a registered mail (“raccomandata”) sent by the same professor Zauli, also including his mobile phone number.
This Department asks you to communicate, with all due diligence, and in any case not later than 20 days after receipt of this notice, your remarks on what is represented in the complaint and whether you intend to adhere to the requests of the complainant.
The communication, specifying any action taken or to be taken about what happened, must be sent to the email address: email@example.com. The same communication shall be sent to the complainant, who could send his own replies by the next 15 days.
Note that there are no quotation marks around “fake and unproven information“, I am indeed being accused of having done that. The “scan of a registered mail” showed that the letter was an official one, sent by the university. Yet here, I am accused to have injured Zauli’s personal privacy!
The email from the Office for Protection of Personal Data contained as attachment the above quoted letter, the original letter from University of Ferarra, signed by rector Zauli, and a pdf copy of my article where I reported about that letter. Also attached: the complaint by Zauli to this Italian authority, dated 30 May 2018. I make a copy available here, with Zauli’s private postal and e-mail address as well as his fiscal code removed.
That complaint is in Italian, it also contains my phone number which Zauli could only know because I had to provide it to University of Ferrara when lodging a notification of suspected research misconduct against him. Basically, the man under misconduct investigation abused his position as rector to illegally procure my personal data in order to subject me to legal threats and frivolous accusations with the authorities.
Here a section, translated:
“the circumstance on which this complaint is based concerns the publication, in
23 May 2018, on the following site:
as well as on the publicly shared document:
of a scanned registered letter sent by the undersigned on 18 May 2018 to Mr. Leonid Schneider, in which both the cell phone number and a scan of the digital signature are clearly visible (Annex 1).
This registered letter, of a private nature, does not in any way give the addressee
a permission to disclose the content arbitrarily.
This unfortunate situation was generated by a warning presented by the undersigned against a previous article published on May 15th 2018 by Mr. Leonid Schneider, “independent science journalist” on his own internet home page https://forbetterscience.com, with seriously defamatory content in relation to the scientific activity produced by me.
This article is visible at the following link:
This article was published and / or commented on social media:
• “Facebook”, on his personal page “Leonid Schneider”, as well as
on the “For Better Science” home page (Appendix 2-3)
• “Twitter”, at the following link: https://twitter.com/schneiderleonid
• “Linkedin”, at the following link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leonid-schneider-6a37b094 /,
as well as on the blog “Oca Sapiens” of the newspaper La Repubblica
In this regard it is also known – for mere information – that the undersigned has already engaged the appropriate authorities to protect his own defamed position following the statements contained therein.”
Again, the issue in question is an official letter sent by University of Ferrara. Zauli’s signature and phone number provided therein are the official ones of the rector of that university, no third-party data is included in the letter I published. Same rector used illegal channels to interfere into a misconduct investigation against himself and to obtain my own personal data, in order to report me to Italian state prosecutor and now the Office for Protection of Personal data. Zauli now claims that all his professional activities as public servant and Rector Magnificus, even and especially those illegal ones, are covered by personality and privacy protection.
Not just the fact is outrageous that Italian authorities are trying to prosecute me for publishing an official document from a public institution, the University of Ferrara. They fail to understand that the university is responsible for all of its communications, 100%. Neither can a rector suddenly switch into a private person mode to complain when an official letter he sent in his official function is published. The private person Zauli was not the author of that letter, he cannot complain or claim any privacy protection for his official communications in the name of his university. The whole matter should be subject to a disciplinary procedure instead.
What is also appalling is that the Italian authorities openly accuse me of having spread “fake and unproven information” about rector Zauli, solely because he says so. Why his university allows him to do all that, instead of initiating a investigation into scientific misconduct, breach of work ethics and theft of my own personal data, is beyond me. Maybe the university really thinks they are Zauli’s own personal and private property. This subservient attitude towards rectors is not uncommon, also outside Italy.
Since my last article, my readers have been exposing additional irregularities in the papers of Zauli and his Ferrara coauthors, in the comment section on my site. At which point will University of Ferrara stop Zauli and end this farce? This for example, from a Giberellini et al 2011 paper with Zauli as last author:
Those two lanes are clearly identical, duplicated in Photoshop. How about this creative re-use of a loading control, in a paper just 7 years old? Voltan et al 2011, last author is Zauli.
The samples are clearly utterly unrelated, in addition another loading control from the same Figure 2C from Voltan et al 2011 was apparently re-used in a different context two years later in Voltan et al 2013, last author is again Zauli.
Italian authorities first have to figure out who owns the University of Ferrara. Is it a public institution, or Zauli’s wider personal property? Until then, they seem inclined to persecute me for publishing this university’s official communications.
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