Go ahead and Google Anil Potti.
No longer do the majority of top search results for the former Duke cancer researcher detail allegations that he falsified his resume and produced faulty research that has been retracted from renowned medical journals and led to the termination of three clinical trials. Instead, more than a dozen websites and social media accounts created in the months following Dr. Potti’s November resignation contain solely positive information about his research and medical experience.For those who don't know, Anil Potti used to be a research scientist at Duke University. He resigned in November 2010 after he retracted a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology and questions were raised about accomplishments listed on his CV. More retractions from top journals soon followed. The whole affair caused quite a stink and it remains a reasonably common topic among academics here today.
Now the Duke Chronicle reports Dr. Potti has hired a service to "manage his online reputation." The service apparently uses some fairly basic search engine optimization (SEO) tactics. Basically he's just creating a bunch of websites with his name on them so people who enter his name in Google will (hopefully) find the sites he's created before they find anything else. Dr. Kroll and others wonder if it's ethical.
OK, let's start with the basics.
Dr. Potti has apparently created accounts with the large social networking utilities - Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Nothing wrong with that. He's purchased the URL's that spell his name. Also fine. He's created some websites that say he's a doctor and that he worked with cancer patients. As far as I know nothing on the websites is inaccurate. He just leaves out the whole "retracted my papers and resigned in disgrace" thing. Which, if you're an academic, is a pretty big deal.
Yet everyone has a right to tell you what they want you to know about them. Potti is under no obligation to volunteer the fact that he got into loads of trouble at Duke. That would be like the guy who launched his campaign for a Senate seat by disclosing his drunk-driving arrest and restraining order from an ex-girlfriend at his kick-off press conference. (Yes, that really happened.)
I'm not going to put myself out there as the authority on ethics. But I can say this - if this SEO stuff represents the entirety of Dr. Potti's reputation do-over, it's a pretty stupid strategy.
All it does is sweep some significant negative information under a virtual rug - and for whom? Potti's field is clinical oncology research. This is not a large community. They all know his story. Hiring decisions in this field are not based solely on a Google search. His reputation in this field is most likely beyond repair.
Further, Potti's PR strategy (if this is actually a strategy) lacks what some of my colleagues call an "admit point." If you want to regain credibility, you have to acknowledge an error in judgment, and explain how that error won't happen again. This SEO tactic suggests Potti isn't interested in redemption, he's interested in forgetting the whole thing - and he hopes you will too.
Maybe Potti knows his career is over and he just doesn't want the scandals to be the last word on his work. Or he doesn't want his family to Google his name and read the record. If that's what this is about, then the SEO tactics are fine. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking this will repair his professional reputation.