Editorial: A blot on Indian science

That getting papers published in scientific journals, reputable ones included, using manufactured data is virtually child’s play has been made painfully evident by a team of scientists at the Chandigarh-based Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), which functions under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Three papers that the team published last year in the PLoS ONE journal were retracted on July 9 after an internal investigation by the institute found unequivocal evidence of data fabrication. Four more papers are in the process of being retracted. All the seven papers have the same research associate as the first author and the senior scientist of the institute as the corresponding author. So much was the expertise in data fabrication and “presentation” involved that the reviewers and editors of all the papers failed to spot them. That even with “hindsight” one of the editors was unable to figure out which of the three “similar” but non-identical graphs in the three papers had been fabricated, is proof enough. The same must hold true for the four other papers as well. There is no difference whatsoever in terms of scale or implication between the current case and those involving the South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk and the Japanese stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata. As much as the stem cell researchers shamed their respective countries, the Indian researchers’ unethical practice is a blot on Indian science.

The only consolation in the face of this serious affront to science is that unlike many institutions in India that do not investigate such frauds committed by their scientists, IMTECH has shown the spine and tremendous alacrity to get to the bottom of the issue. While the first author has already paid the price for his commission, the scientist’s role is now under scrutiny. By virtue of being a senior author in all the seven papers, he has much explaining to do to prove his non-involvement in the scandal as some data in the PLoS ONE papers are “not supported by raw data in the lab.” More than the setback suffered by the institute, it would face a barrage of criticism and ridicule and lose all the goodwill it earned as a result of its actions if the probe does not remain unbiased and fails to bring out the truth. There is an important lesson to be learnt from the way South Korea acted without any bias to prove Hwang’s guilt and thereafter withdraw his licence and suspend him. Meanwhile, steps need to be taken immediately to teach research students the ethics of doing and reporting science. For instance, journals have found numerous instances of unacceptable manipulation of images, often arising from researchers’ eagerness to produce perfect pictures.

Published in The Hindu on July 23, 2014