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Frauds in Indian scientific research

Scientific misconduct is India’s new habit.

Frauds in Indian scientific research

Photo for representational purpose only. Thinkstock

Rajesh Kochhar
Honorary Professor, Panjab University, Chandigarh

Scientific misconduct is India’s new habit. A well-regarded international open-access journal called PLOS (Public Library of Science) One has retracted a paper which it published in 2013 because of concerns “raised about results presented in several figures”. The authors have stonewalled the journal’s demand for the raw data, saying that it was no more extant. The three authors, a PhD scholar at the time and two professors, are from Panjab University, Chandigarh. The journal duly informed the university, but it is not known what, if any, reply it has sent.

The university Dean, Research, has lamented that “the biggest problem is the absence of raw data”. Predictably, the university has formed a committee which would prepare guidelines requiring that the authors preserve the data for 10 years after the paper. If the authors have fudged the data, would they hand it over to the journal even if the raw data was with them? Suppose the university has in place its guideline for the safekeeping of old raw data. What can it possibly do if the tainted scholars refused to cooperate?

Researchers throughout the world endeavour to publish their results in prestigious journals. Journals build their prestige over years by getting the submitted manuscripts evaluated by experts in the field so that once a paper is published it can safely be taken to be above a certain minimum standard. 

Vice chancellors, institute directors, selection and promotion committees, and award-giving bodies all place their trust in the reputation of the journal. Journals maintain their evaluating process even after a paper has been published, and retract a paper if found suspect. 

Here lies the irony. We are ready to benefit from the prestige of a journal when a paper is published. But we refuse to recognise the moral authority of the journal when a paper is retracted and choose to hide behind legalities and technicalities to save our own skin as well as that of our employees, co-workers and protégés.

If it be any solace to Panjab University, far more exalted players are involved in the racket. Images are an integral part of experimental biomedical research. Increased sophistication of detection techniques has made it easier than ever before to detect unethical image processing. Many old frauds that were considered safe in their time can be exposed now. There are many more skeletons waiting to tumble out from the cupboard.

Three of the CSIR labs have already been implicated in a big way. At last count, as many as 130 papers published in peer-reviewed journals by scientists from the Lucknow-based Indian Institute of Toxicology Research have been declared to be problematic. Forty such papers involve a chief scientist. Thirty-one dubious papers have emanated from the Lucknow-based Central Drug Research Institute, while the Kolkata-based Indian Institute of Chemical Biology has published 35 suspect papers. A research group at the Department of Chemistry, Bose Institute, Kolkata, has 14 papers with suspected image manipulation and/or duplication. Two papers have been retracted and two more have been corrected for image manipulation. Two senior researchers of the group admit that there has been “inadvertent misrepresentation of images”.  

A senior researcher at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, whose work has been recognised by national learned academies, has admitted to ‘unintentional mistakes’ in the images published in the papers under question. She has a total of 28 papers in the suspect list. And yet, she would not on her own approach the journals with the requisite corrections. She and her colleagues have decided to await the findings of the official committee and instructions from it. Heads of science labs and scientific organisations wield tremendous administrative power. They use it when it suits them; in other cases, they set up a committee.

Prevalence of papers with manipulated images has risen markedly during the past decade in the world. Also, authors of papers with problematic images tend to write similar subsequent papers. In India, most contaminated papers include as co-authors young researchers and PhD students who are generally more tech-savvy than their supervisors. An important task for the seniors is to mentor their young colleagues. If only the only role model available to a new researcher is his unethical seniors, what future can science have? 

The UGC and other regulatory bodies are solely responsible for bringing about a precipitous decline in Indian scientific research. There is now an unhealthy obsession with research and research degrees. Science today is a child of high technology. No policy-maker in India has ever asked the question: Given the standards of school and college education and absence of industrial prowess, how much high-quality research can India sustain? If unrealistic demands are made on the system, only fake publications and bogus degrees can be the result.

Research and teaching, in principle, are independent domains. A researcher working in a narrow field may be able to publish well-regarded papers, but still may not have a good grasp of the subject as a whole or ability to connect with or inspire the students. In our colleges and universities, the syllabus is fixed by the higher authorities and even textbooks are prescribed. The system at no stage makes use of a teacher’s research. Then why insist on a research degree for appointment as lecturer? We should (re-) introduce the post of a junior lecturer and hire fresh bright post-graduates to fill the posts. There should be two parallel channels: one for pure teachers, the other for teachers-cum-researchers. 

People should not be forced to do research, but those who feel self-motivated should be given facilities and incentives for doing research. In the present research institute set-up, no matter how high a scientist is placed, there is still a higher grade to aspire for. This craze for promotion leads to exploitation of PhD students and post-docs. After a certain stage, senior scientists should be rewarded for guiding PhDs and mentoring youngsters rather than by counting publications where very often senior scientists are no more than benami authors.

India is placing undue emphasis on publication in high-impact international journals. It should focus on school, undergraduate, and post-graduate teaching. High-quality research will follow not as a show-off but as a natural corollary.

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