Lancet gets in touch with Current Science authors on litchi disease ethics issue

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The paper in Current Science where Dr. Jacob John and others accuse the Lancet paper authors for not crediting their papers published in 2014.

In response to an article I wrote on February 3 about Dr. Jacob John raising ethics issues about the way the authors of the Lancet Global Health paper had failed to properly acknowledge his team’s work on Muzaffarpur mystery disease, the journal has got in touch with Dr. Mukul Das, one of the authors of the Current Science papers, for more details.

Dr. John, Dr. Das and others had published two papers in 2014 (May and August) and another one in December 2015 in Current Science wherein they report clinical similarity between ackee poisoning in Jamaicans and the Muzaffarpur illness. At a time when the Lancet authors were looking for a viral cause, Dr. John’s team had correctly zeroed in on methylenecyclopropylglycine (MCPG) toxin in litchi as the likely reason for illness and reported the findings. The team found consumption of litchi and skipping the evening meal as likely reasons for children exhibiting dangerously low blood glucose level and acute encephalopathy early in the morning leading to death in many cases. They also found the presence of MCPG toxin in litchi through chemical analysis and recommended infusing 10% dextrose within four hours of disease onset to save lives.

While the January 30 paper in the Lancet Global Health has acknowledged and cited all three papers, it does not give due credit to the work done by Dr. John’s team. “They quote our study but don’t honestly say what we have found. They have borrowed all important information connected with the illness from us,” Dr. John had told me.

litchi1“Dr. John and I would jointly be sending our response on Monday or Tuesday [February 6 or 7],” says Dr. Das. “It is very decent of the Lancet to have got in touch with us and seek our clarification on this issue. That shows Lancet is careful of its credibility, careful that any such issue is immediately sorted out. I admire Lancet. This is what we want from every journal publisher, every investigator and every paper. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” says Dr. John. “We never complained to Lancet or the media. It is the media that got in touch with us as they knew about our work. That makes us happy.”

Precedent

The authors from Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Delhi’s National Centre for Disease Control, India (NCDC) have indulged in scientific misconduct in a paper published in January 2015 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the authors of the Lancet paper cite the possibility of exposure to MCPG, a toxin in litchi, as a likely cause of acute hypoglycemia and encephalopathy in some children. The paper does not even cite the May and August 2014 papers in Current Science by Dr. John’s team.

Dr. John and Dr. Das had exposed the “scientific misconduct” by the authors in a correspondence published in Current Science. “They were creating a precedent by publishing in MMWR, which is a CDC in-house publication. It gave us a clue to their mind and now it is an extension of that mentality by citing us so we don’t complain but not giving us the credit that we deserve,” says Dr. John.

Published in The Hindu on February 5, 2017

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