Three papers published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2013 by a group of Indian researchers at the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), Chandigarh, were retracted by the journal on July 9, 2014. Four more papers published in 2013 by the same group are in the process of being retracted. All the papers contain fabricated data.
IMTECH is a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) institute.
All the three PLOS ONE papers have Dr. Fazlurrahman Khan, Research Associate, as the first author and Dr. Swaranjit Singh Cameotra from the Environmental Biotechnology and Microbial Biochemistry Laboratory as the corresponding author. They were published in online in 2013 on April 17, October 1 and October 8 respectively. Unfortunately, these papers have been cited by five other papers.
The four papers that are in the process of being retracted also have Dr. Khan as the first author and Dr. Cameotra as the corresponding author.
And they were published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials (on June 15, 2013), in Chemosphere (in November 2013) and the other two in the Journal of Petroleum and Environmental Biotechnology (on August 21 and November 29, 2013).
The papers that are being retracted were scrutinised by the institute and necessary action taken to retract them once the fate of PLOS ONE came to light. Dr. Cameotra is a co-author in 15 papers published in 2014 alone.
The only silver lining in the sordid tale is the institute’s keenness to investigate and get to the bottom of the issue. The proof lies in the retraction note published by PLOS ONE: “The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has carried out an investigation about several publications by this group in order to evaluate concerns raised about the authenticity of the data.
“The investigation committee… concluded that there are no data available underlying this study and thus that the published results are fabricated. As a result, [CSIR] has requested the retraction of the publication.”
“It is very unfortunate. As a director [of IMTECH], I feel bad about it,” Dr. Girish Sahni told this Correspondent. “These papers were retracted based on the findings of the enquiry committee that was formed in January to look into the circumstances. It found that the data accompanying the papers were not supported by raw data in the lab.”
“The current episode is a dark patch, but I, as Director could not foresee it….I have been able to act swiftly only once it came to light,” he said.
Unlike most institutes in India that stonewall journalists seeking information on issues such as this, Dr. Sahni was frank about the case and provided information about the case and its outcome.
According to Dr. Sahni, IMTECH was alerted by Dr. Khan’s boss at Georgia Tech who saw some similarity and overlapping of data presented in the papers and the work Dr. Khan had done while in the U.S. Dr. Khan was a post doctoral fellow at Georgia Tech, U.S. prior to joining IMTECH in 2012. He has since resigned from IMTECH.
“We immediately formed the committee to investigate the basis of the data,” Dr. Sahni said. “We wanted to know if the data were fabricated or whether there was no record-keeping.” The committee found Dr. Khan was responsible for fabricating the data.
“We must get to the root of the problem. We want to know whether only he [Dr. Khan] was involved or whether Dr. Cameotra was also involved,” Dr. Sahni noted. “Now the matter has been taken up from the vigilance angle to fix responsibility. The process has been initiated.” “We want to confront it and not hide it,” the director said. “Better to throw light and learn from the process… we certainly must retrospect…At the end of the day, we must remember that the end result of such shortcuts is not good.”
Willem van Schaik, associate professor of Medical Microbiology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who edited one of the retracted papers in PLOS ONE told Retraction Watch blog: “…These three papers were handled by three different editors, which may have made it more difficult to catch any fraud. The papers all follow the same outline: a bacterium was isolated from natural environments and was able to metabolize some unusual chemicals.
“When comparing the three papers, you will see that the graphs are very similar but not identical so even with hindsight, I find it difficult to find which data have been fabricated.
“The manuscript has been reviewed by two reviewers and needed considerable editorial effort. I am very sorry that the reviewers have had to spend their time and effort on a manuscript that ultimately turned out to be a fake.”
A torrent of tweets from Prof. Schaik provides a glimpse of his emotions after knowing the true status of the PLOS ONE paper that he edited. “Am incredibly annoyed, and a bit angry, about this: I did not suspect a thing (and neither did reviewers)” was one of his first tweets.
The other three tweets were: “Review process was looooooong (many rounds of revisions for English) but data appeared solid.”
“But I guess when data are completely fabricated, they will look solid (if incredibly uninteresting).”
And the last notable tweet was “Not sure if I now should change how I act as editor. Any thoughts? Have others been in [the] same position as editor?”