Indian scientist in the news for wrong reasons

Once again the unethical behaviour of an Indian scientist has led to the retraction of a highly cited paper published on July 19, 2013 in the journal Science .

“Inappropriate data handling” by Rabindra N. Mahato, the first author of the first author of the paper (“Ultrahigh magnetoresistance at room temperature in molecular wires”) has led to its retraction. The paper was about manipulating the current in a string of molecules with a magnet.

According to Retraction Watch, the paper has been “cited 41 times since it was published in 2013, earning it a designation of “highly cited” from Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge!”

“Inappropriate data handling” by Mahato was “such that the experimental results are not accurately represented in the paper. This makes it, in our eyes, impossible to solidly underpin the conclusions made in the report,” Wilfred G. Van der Wiel, the senior author of the paper from the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology, University of Twente in The Netherlands, noted in his Retraction Letter published in Science on October 9, 2015.

Dr. Mahato was a Postdoc at the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology when the paper was published. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the School of Physical Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He pursued his Ph.D at IIT Madras between January 2006 and December 2010.

It all started when “suspicion arose with regard to data collected” by Dr. Mahato when some of the co-authors tried to undertake follow-up research. “In follow-up research, we had difficulties reproducing the results of Dr. Mahato in our own lab,” Van der Wiel told Retraction Watch. And this, in turn, “led to a thorough investigation by the co-authors.”

In response to an email question whether “inappropriate data handling” meant that Dr. Mahato had falsified or fabricated the data, Prof. Van der Wiel in an email to me said:  “The term “inappropriate data handling” has been carefully and deliberately chosen. Whether the terms falsified and fabricated are applicable should be determined in a separate, independent investigation. As co-authors we are not in the position to draw such conclusions. The present Retraction Letter is solely intended to inform the scientific community about the retraction of the paper and the underlying motivation of the authors.”

Prof. Van der Wiel went further to state that only a “separate, independent investigation” can determine whether the inappropriate data handling was deliberate or not. “The way the first author handled the data does not meet our standards for appropriate data handling. This was already enough reason for us to immediately retract the paper.”

It is to be noted that the co-authors took a bold but right step in retracting the paper on their own even before someone else could spot the problem. By doing so, they have saved the scientific community from not wasting time on repeating their work and being wrongly informed.

“Retraction is an extreme measure. Based on our findings, and our high standards regarding the handling of scientific data, the authors are 100 per cent convinced this was the right thing to do,” Prof. Van der Wiel said.

Published in the Hindu on October 26, 2015