James Coyne sued me for cyberbullying

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In this blog, I first describe the formal complaint of Dr James Coyne against me, launched a week after my blog post about tone on social media in August 2017. Coyne claimed that I am “aligned with racism” and show “hostility towards patient populations”, concluding that “something needs to be done quickly”. Second, I discuss the lawsuit Coyne filed against me in May 2018, for online harassment and cyberbullying.

I am making this public now because I am far from the only early career researcher (ECR) Coyne has targeted recently. My initial response last year was silence, but I have come to the conclusion that not speaking up was a mistake. I hope that putting all information online will help other ECRs in the future so that they don’t need to go through the same shit I’ve been through.

Formal complaint letter, August 2017

A week after my blog post about tone on social media in 2017, on August 18 2017, Coyne wrote a formal complaint to officials at the University of Amsterdam. He complained about my “personal attacks in tweets”, my “bizarre behavior”, my “harassment”, my “hostility towards patient populations”, and my “alignment with some racist elements in the UK”, concluding that “something needs to be done quickly”.

Coyne’s email did not provide any evidence for these severe allegations: no links, screenshots, or attachments. This is not surprising, given that the allegations were made up. The University supported me and did not act further upon the complaints, but I don’t need to tell you how shocked I was: A senior academic lied about me, in a formal complaint, and I cannot describe how much anger and frustration and insomnia this has caused me over the last year.

In the same week, in August 2017, ECR Dr Jason Ferrel posted a link to my blog post in the Psychological Methods Facebook group. 11 days after the post, several officials at Jason’s University received a formal complaint by Coyne about Jason’s “harassment [of Coyne] on the Internet” and “interference with [Coyne’s] work with patients with chronic fatigue syndrome”. Coyne claimed that Jason “has aligned himself with members of the right-wing press”, and concluded he “could deal directly and decisively with [Jason’s] bad behavior, but it would have serious implications for the reputation of your University as a place that expresses Catholic values and tolerance for diversity”. Again, the letter contained no evidence such as links, screenshots, or attachments — as you can see for yourself1). The University did not act further on Coyne’s fabricated claims. I want to thank Jason for the courage to putting this outrageous letter online, and ask you to support him in case Coyne further retaliates. Note that Coyne also lied in the letter when he referred to me as Jason’s “friend” — I had never directly communicated with Jason, in person or online (email, phone, private message, personal meeting) before he had posted my blog on the Facebook group. He is my friend now, a year later.

In a complaint letter to the moderators of the Facebook group2, Coyne demanded Jason’s post with a link to my blog to be removed, threatening them that “not taking prompt action could precipitate formal complaints to Facebook and to collective and individual sanctions and civil actions directed at the moderators and their institutions”. The moderators denied Coyne’s request. Coyne’s responses to Jason’s Facebook post are worth reading, too. In one single thread, he — among other things — implied that a female ECR who disagreed with him is mentally ill, saying that she should see a therapist; told a female scientist who commented on the gender imbalance in the thread that she shouldn’t speak up because she is white; implied a female ECR who disagreed with him is a snake oil salesman; and attacked a researcher as a “cowardly chickenshit”.

Back in August 2017, I thought about making Coyne’s complaint letter public — but I didn’t. One reason is that I received the pretty much unanimous advice to just let it go, from both friends and colleagues. “Let it go”. “He will go away”. “Don’t feed the troll”. But the main reason is that I was afraid. And I know that’s irrational, but I thought if someone says these nasty things, both about my political views (e.g. “alignment with racism”) and my character (e.g. “Dr. Fried seems consistently thin-skinned and haughty to an extent that surely must have come to the attention of your colleagues”), it might have negative impacts on my career. Things don’t need to be true to cause reputation damage, especially when they come from senior academics with high visibility. This is the case especially if people use their eminence to give their allegations legitimacy — Coyne stressed in his complaint letter that he is “one of the most cited psychologists in the world”, and that he “could take advantage of the press coverage” of an upcoming invited talk if his demands to were not met.

I think about my decision as a mistake today, because I feel I enabled Coyne to continue by not making this public earlier.

Email from Coyne’s lawyer, May 2018

So I let it go and blocked Coyne on social media for months. More than half a year later, on May 7th 2018, I received a letter by a lawyer representing Coyne, stating that “some of your colleagues have sent a formal complaint about Mr. Coyne to several of his current and former employers and affiliations”, that I (Eiko) am therefore “obligated to compensate Mr. Coyne for the damage suffered by your illegal actions” and that I “face criminal charges”, because “Mr. Coyne suffers material and non-material damage, such as loss of income, reputational damage and psychological damage” due to my actions. I had no idea what they were talking about, and told the lawyer so. In a follow-up letter, the lawyer clarified that they are going to sue me because I had shared a blog post by Dr David Healy on Twitter, and because I had retweeted an open letter by Dr Peter Kinderman and colleagues. To clarify: I am author of neither document; I did not contribute to either document; they sued me for sharing documents already in the public domain on Twitter. Here are the two tweets in question:

Coyne sued only me, and not the authors of the letter or blog post, or anyone who else who had shared these two public documents. Coyne’s lawyer concluded: “In legal proceedings we will ask the court to award €8,500 for damages and ask for a compensation for legal fee”.

I had been working at Leiden University for only few weeks back then, and don’t need to tell you how stressful the situation was. Luckily, both my Department and the University had my back immediately, were incredibly supportive, and within a few days, the legal team took over the communication with Coyne’s lawyer.

Law suit, June 2018

A day before leaving to SIPS 2018, on June 22 2018, I received the formal law suit by mail, and was asked to come to court 2 weeks later. I was sued for the same reasons they had provided before: Sharing these two public documents. My own blog post about tone — which had prompted Coyne’s formal complaint about me in 20173 — was not mentioned, which surprised me.

Specifically, I was asked to (translated from Dutch):

  • Pin a note to my Twitter account for 3 months, stating that I apologize to Coyne, and that I made unlawful and unfounded statements
  • Pay €2,000 in damages because Coyne’s “good name” had been damaged
  • Pay the costs of the law suit, including Coyne’s lawyer

It is worth highlighting that throughout all of this, up to today when making this public, I have never received any direct personal communication from Coyne, e.g. phone call, email, or private message. He never asked me to change anything I wrote. He never asked me to change or alter or adapt my blog post. He never asked me to remove a tweet, or remove a retweet. Instead, he approached several University officials, moderators of a large Facebook group, and the Dutch justice system. I cannot stress enough how remarkable that is.

Court hearing, July 2018

On July 10th 2018 9am, we had the appointment with the judge, which lasted about an hour. The hearing was public, so I am at liberty to write about it here. I had two lawyers with me, and a translator. Coyne was there in person, too, with his lawyer. The hearing was in Dutch. I took notes. In the first 5 minutes, the judge clarified a few things, and Coyne’s lawyer repeated their summary of the law suit that everybody had received and read. The next 35 minutes, my lawyers read out a prepared statement, which had three parts. Copies of the statement and all attachments were provided to the court, Coyne, and Coyne’s lawyer.

First, my lawyers briefly described my blog post, which was not mentioned in the law suit, and detailed some of Coyne’s prior attempts to disrupt my career — his harassment via email (to the University of Amsterdam), on Facebook, and Twitter (“wimp”, “petty troll”, that I am “narcissistically injured” etc.). Since Coyne’s formal complaint came a week after my blog post, and the complaint about Jason a few days after posting the blog on Facebook, it seemed important information in order to put the law suit against me as a cyberbully into perspective.

Second, my lawyers embedded Coyne’s behavior towards me in a larger context of previous harassment, bullying, and assault. The following is a selection of the submitted documents:

  • A court document of 2003, showing that Coyne had to pay $165,000 in an assault and battery case. There are complicated reasons for not linking to the document here, but it is available in the public domain and easy to find.
  • Evidence that Coyne has targeted people online repeatedly, for years: on Twitter and/or his blog, he has referred to women as “bitch” and “bimbo”, and described people as “puritanical classist prig”, “suitable sleaze and slime trail”, “apalling sleeze troll”, “moralistic cloistered white prude”, “pompous asshole”, “moron”, “dissembling swag-bellied pignut”, “reeky, onion-eyed malt worm”, “congealed accumulation of fresh cooking fat”, and so forth
  • A document from the Board of SSCPnet, a large mailinglist of clinical psychologists, describing that Coyne was removed in 2009 due to “numerous offensive comments” and “following multiple attempts by Board members asking him to raise issues in a civil way”.
  • A letter of support by Alison Ledgerwood, administrator of the Facebook group PsychMap, describing Coyne’s repeated hostile behavior on Facebook, and stating that in the history of the group with ~9000 members, Coyne is one of 4 members that had to be removed. Thank you Alison for speaking up for me.
  • Coyne’s “Mind the Brain” blog had been shut down by PLOSBLOGS on July 31 2017: “after careful consideration PLOSBLOGS has concluded that it does not have the staff resources required to vet the sources, claims and tone contained in his posts”.
  • The University of Pennsylvania response to the Kinderman letter. The response describes Coyne’s behavior as “reprehensible”, states that the they “condemn the actions and the language that Dr. Coyne has chosen”, that the reputation of the University has been “tainted by such appalling behavior”, and that they “do not anticipate any relationship with him in the future”.
  • The University of Groningen response to the Kinderman letter, informing them that Coyne “no longer has any formal or even informal connection” with the University, and that they “have sent him a reminder of this situation and urgently asked him to refrain from implying such a connection any longer”. That was November 30 2017. During the hearing, my lawyers pointed out that Coyne still has University of Groningen listed under his affiliations (“2013-Present”). Today, a few months after the court hearing, I checked again: Coyne still lists this affiliation on his website.
  • A blog post published by Dr Jeannette Burmeister published on February 29 2016 in which she describes her own experiences with Coyne.
  • A letter of support by ECR Dr Ioana Cristea, describing Coyne’s prior harassment. Thank you Ioana for speaking up for me.
  • Letters of support by Dr Steven Hollon and Dr Richard Bentall, senior clinical psychologists, describing Coyne’s previous bullying attempts and “bizarre allegations”, and embedding his recent behaviors in a larger context (letter1, letter2). Thank you Steve and Richard for speaking up for me.
  • Previous formal letters of complaint (1, 2).

There were several further letters of support and other documents we submitted that I am not at liberty to share here, for different reasons. Obviously, I have permission to share the documents I do share, and want to thank everybody again for allowing me to make this public.

Third — after confirming this with Coyne’s lawyer — my lawyers then pointed out that Coyne was not suing Peter or any of the other authors of the letter that I retweeted; he was not suing David, whose blog I had shared; nor was he suing anybody else who had shared or retweeted the open letter or blog. My lawyers highlighted how stunning that is: If you really think that a letter or blog is libellous and damages your good name, you would try to get the content removed, and not sue one specific ECR for retweeting it. My lawyers made the case that Coyne is not going after me for sharing the Kinderman letter or the Healy blog, but for other reasons.

Putting Coyne’s law suit against me into the context above, it is odd that I was being sued for damaging Coyne’s “good name”. The way I see it, there is only one person who has damaged the good name of James Coyne: James Coyne. And don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of good here, including crucial scientific contributions, crucial patient advocate work, and crucial criticism of bad research practices. But none of that justifies or excuses any of the behavior described above.

The decision, July 2018

After about two weeks, on July 24th 2018, we received the judge’s decision: As expected, I won, and Coyne had to pay my lawyers, and also the court fee. I was advised not to share the written verdict, but I will provide a brief summary (translated from Dutch). Although my blog about tone was not part of Coyne’s law suit, the judge checked it. She wrote that my blog quotes Coyne correctly, which cannot be unlawful, and that the blog does not feature false or incorrect accusations. The judge further explained in her decision that retweeting is only unlawful if the shared content is “manifestly false and defamatory”, for which there is no evidence, in neither of the two public documents I shared on Twitter.

Conclusions

First, I want to anticipate folks misrepresenting this blog. At no point in my life did I ever refer to Coyne’s scientific work in a negative way. Neither did I, at any point in my life, refer negatively to Coyne’s work as a patient advocate. This blog post is also not about Coyne’s criticism of scientific studies or clinical trials, or his engagement for better and more open science. As I have stated many times on social media, I agree with many instances of criticism of bad research practices he has written up. This blog post also does not say “Don’t believe what Coyne says”; that would be stupid. What this blog is about is the fact that Coyne fabricated severe charges against me and other ECRs, including alignment with racism, with the apparent goal to harm our careers, and that he sued me for cyberbulling. This is the topic. Don’t distract from it.

Second, there were some documents I did not post here: The full letters from Coyne’s lawyer; the actual lawsuit; the actual verdict; his original complaint to the University of Amsterdam. I did not share them in full because I have received legal advice not to share them, for various reasons. Obviously, I have all documents, and can prove (e.g. in court) that all claims I made here regarding these documents, and all quotes, are correct.

Third, a lot of conclusions remain to be drawn, and dots connected. About how Universities need to take up responsibility for burying harassment and bullying claims; how results of internal investigations at Universities are not made available to the public, allowing academics to simply move to a new position at a different University; and how senior academics can get away with this sort of crap for such a long time. Maybe an interesting story for an investigative journalist. A few weeks back, The Guardian published an article entitled “Hundreds of academics at top UK universities accused of bullying“. Among others, they found out that 14 Universities had used non-disclosure agreements to resolve bullying cases, with at least 27 staff signing confidentiality clauses in exchange for financial payouts. This is consistent with many recent stories about harassment and bullying in science (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)4. We need to think how to implement systems to a) allow folks to speak up about this at a much earlier stage, and b) where there are actual consequences for bullying and harassment5.

Fourth, before posting this, I checked a few of Coyne’s insults we had discussed in court, where Coyne was present, and that we had submitted, in written form, to Coyne and his lawyer. It’s been months since the hearing, but Coyne has not deleted these insults. They are still online, such as this one:

I want to ask you not to be quiet if you see these or similar insults or harassment, no matter if in person or on social media, and — importantly — no matter who the target is. Nobody should be spoken to like that (including Coyne!), under the guise of improving science. Speak up on behalf of others, interfere. Fact-check allegations if they come from folks who have repeatedly lied before believing them.

Recently, Ioana spoke out on Twitter about Coyne’s most recent attacks. Dr Lisa DeBruine and Dr Richard Morey started an initiative that received great support by the open science community:

Please support Ioana, Jason, Lisa, Richard, me, and others in this. Of course I don’t speak on behalf of others, but for me personally, this whole thing was an absolute nightmare, and making this public is a very difficult step. I really need your help here, and I assume it is similar for many others.

I want to conclude by thanking Leiden University, the Leiden University legal affairs team, and my old and new bosses – for their unrelenting and unconditional support. I want to thank everybody who was willing to speak up for me during the court hearing, in the form of letters, especially the ECRs who have been targeted by Coyne in the past, and who, by having helped me, risk further retaliation. And I want to thank all of you who supported me in person and in emails and private messages and chats, over the last year. Most importantly, I want to thank MVDH who helped me with all of this, and carried me through parts of it.

Footnotes:

  1. From: https://twitter.com/nullrejector/status/1041746341834227720
  2. Thanks to Dr Daniel Lakens for sharing this with me, and thanks to Daniel for his continued support
  3. And his complaint against Jason
  4. Some of these discuss much more severe forms of harassment than what I have been through, and I do not intend to put that on the same level with what I experienced
  5. in case they can be substantiated by evidence; obviously folks remain innocent until proven guilty

14 thoughts on “James Coyne sued me for cyberbullying

  1. David L. Hagen (@DavidLHagen)

    Thank you Eiko for your detailed effort to objectively expose #CyberBully James C. Coyne and document his systematic egregious use of ad hominem illogical fallacies. Such uncivil coercive efforts by @CoyneoftheRealm cause severe harm to objective science, academia, and to our civilizations. We all need to collectively stand up for civility in our online public square, as detailed in “The Case for Civility: And why our future depends on it” and related presentations by Os Guinness. I encourage readers to honor and support @EikoFried for his courageous effort to uphold the highest standards of the #ScientificMethod as so eloquently detailed by Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman in his 1974 Caltech commencement address Cargo Cult Science.
    https://duckduckgo.com/?q=Os+Guinness+civility&t=h_&ia=products http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm

    Reply
  2. David L. Hagen (@DavidLHagen)

    Eiko
    My compliments on your objectively documenting James Coyne as a cyberbully and for exposing his systematic use of ad hominem logical fallacies.

    Reply
  3. Carmen Valiente

    I’m so sorry you had to go through something like that. I send you all my support and affection. J. Coyne’s responses and behaviors seem totally unjustified and out of place. I hope you can put this behind soon and get on with your outstanding work.

    Reply
  4. Michael C. Neale

    Eiko – I’m so sorry to hear of your experience. In my opinion, a counter-suit against Coyne would have a decent chance of success. It is time someone taught him a lesson. However, I admire your work and would much rather you spent time on it instead! The other detractor is the possibility that there is genuine psychopathology behind his behavior and some compassion may be warranted.

    Groeten
    Mike

    Reply
  5. Jamie Pennebaker

    Thank you for this remarkable blog post. I had only experienced Coyne’s outrageous behavior as part of the regrettable coverage of the PACE trial in the Journal of Health Psychology. I had no idea how many times Coyne has repeated these actions with others over the years. It’s a pity because Coyne was once a thoughtful and creative voice in the field.

    Reply
  6. Juliette Peters

    Het spijt my heel erg dat dit met je gebeurde, en dat je al die stress moet doorstaan. Maar ik ben so trots op ye dat ye tegen deze man opging in de manieren die ye hebt, & met totale Integriteit. Volgens mij zouder, maar weinig mensen zijn opgestaan zoals jij. Bedankt. Juliette Peters, Te Anau, New Zealand.

    Reply
  7. Alec Grant

    Great that you’ve written this, Eiko. Coyne is so unbelievably toxic; a moral and ethical catastrophe who moves from university to university, attempting to or actually wrecking people’s lives along the way. He’s misogynistic, arrogant, hubristic; probably the most deeply unpleasant, fury-evoking man I’ve ever had personal experience of in my entire life. That he has gotten away with it for so long speaks to his insulation within intersecting fields of power. May he always be called out.

    Reply
  8. Steve Politzer-Ahles

    My condolences that you had to go through all this. I’ve had some deeply unpleasant interactions with the guy on facebook before and now I feel very lucky to have not wound up in his sights. Here’s hoping this will be the last of it that you get subjected to. Thanks for coming forward about your experience (and, on the side, thanks for all you do for our community!)

    Reply
  9. Anon academic

    I see colleagues retweet his content at times and cringe, yet I am scared to post a public response because I know he could attempt to destroy me. This is the definition of closing public discussion. The fraud with his university affiliation is simply bizarre that they seem to have no teeth to stop him. If he actually had an employer, perhaps this behavior could be addressed some other way.

    I experienced a similar incident in posting a (data-based) critical comment of a colleague’s paper who, days later, emailed me many paragraphs describing how he would destroy my career. This included through legal action, mean-girl emailing “400 colleagues” about me, and asking journals to take my name off papers on which I was lead PI. So far, it appears to be a bluff. The major difference may be that he is at a (small) I was able to contact and ask them to intervene in his harassment and threats. I don’t think Coyne is alone in his approach, so it is very helpful to see how others have dealt with similar threats.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  10. Sam Schwarzkopf

    Thanks for this post. His behaviour is no secret but this is the most detailed account of how bad (and bizarre!) it gets. I have heard some describe him as a “keyboard warrior,” implying that you don’t need to take this too seriously. While most of his harassment probably doesn’t go beyond online crudeness your account shows that he does take it much further at times. Besides, online harassment is still harassment.

    Reply
  11. Nicolas Van der Linden

    Your reaction is as admirable as Coyne’s actions are despicable.

    I wish you all the best in the recovery from this and good continuation in you career,

    Nicolas

    Reply
  12. Richard Bentall

    I feel for you. To be the recipient of this kind of abuse and bullying is very distressing, and I imagine particularly so when you are starting out on your career. Coyne’s behaviour towards you is the most naked a form of bullying I have encountered in a long academic career. Like all bullies, he struck at a person who he thought lacked power and was vulnerable but he was wrong on both counts. Well done in standing up to him and congratulations for seeing him off.

    Reply

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