In a rare and highly commendable move that has sent out a strong message to the Indian scientific community, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has dismissed a senior scientist working at the Chandigarh-based Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH) over serious charges of data fabrication in at least seven papers published in peer-reviewed journals. At least three papers published in 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE were retracted once preliminary investigation carried out at IMTECH revealed that the data were cooked up. Though Dr. Swaranjit Singh Cameotra was not directly involved in data fabrication, his complicity in the scientific misconduct became abundantly clear during the investigation. The scale of misconduct by Dr. Cameotra is way lower in comparison to the South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk and the Japanese stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata, but it is nevertheless significant. As the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) points out, a senior member is responsible for data produced by his team; being complicit to scientific misconduct on several occasions is clearly a case that merits firm action. As an editor of one of the retracted papers pointed out, the reviewers were unable to spot the fabrication as the “data appeared solid” though all the three papers had a same theme of a bacterium isolated from natural environment metabolising certain chemicals. It is, however, quite surprising that no one at IMTECH suspected foul play as the scientist published 15 papers in 2013.
The complicity of the scientist in the scientific misconduct became abundantly clear during the investigation.The only bright spot in the otherwise sorry episode has been IMTECH’s readiness and willingness to get to the root of the problem rather than brushing the allegations under the carpet, as many scientific institutions in India regularly do. One of the biggest handicaps that journal editors face when confronted with evidence of scientific misconduct by Indian researchers is non-cooperation by institutions in thoroughly investigating the matters. This is the reason why numerous fraudulent practices by Indian scientists have seldom been exposed. One of the best ways to tackle this ill is to set up a nodal body on the lines of the ORI in the U.S. Any case of scientific misconduct brought to its notice should be investigated by the respective institutions and the matter taken to its logical conclusion. Such a body should also be actively involved in “preventing misconduct and promoting research integrity through expanded education programmes”. This will go a long way in reducing the instances of misconduct by scientists. It will also greatly help in reducing the amount of trash that sullies scientific literature and prevent other serious researchers from wasting their time repeating some meaningless experiments.
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