Divya Gandhi

A possible case of manipulation in a research paper by an NCCS professor awaits an eighth investigation, exposing the need for a formal mechanism to tackle malpractice in science.

In an unusually public mark of dissent, the generally discreet Indian scientific community has voiced its concern over what could be the latest case of science gone astray. The discontent is amply evident on personal blogs, website postings, and most prolifically in letters published in the recent issues of the journal Current Science.

Coming close on the heels of the plagiarism controversy surrounding a report on Indian patent law by the R.A. Mashelkar committee, this case points to a possible form of photo-manipulation. A professor and his student from the National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune allegedly duplicated old and already published photographs of a protein process from their own earlier work, presenting it as a new experiment. This was published in the prestigious international Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) in 2005.

The unprecedented attention this case has received, however, has to do with more than the alleged malpractice. The disquiet in science circles comes instead from what is seen as the failure of institutional mechanisms in dealing rigorously and impartially with such cases — and also from the frustration at the absence of a central authority to bring closure to the growing incidence of misconduct.

In May 2006 an anonymous email first brought the NCCS case to light, tipping off the Director of the NCCS, and later the JBC about possible malpractice. The JBC withdrew the paper in February 2007, a serious move that expressed its verdict on the paper.

On home turf, however, it has been a rather different story. In a controversial decision, an external committee appointed by the NCCS and headed by G. Padmanabhan, former director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore exonerated the authors in August 2006. The “allegations are not related to manipulation,” the Padmanabhan committee report concluded. It ascribed the emails to “malicious intent to spoil the reputation of NCCS.” Baffled by this verdict and anxious for a resolution, many scientists have felt compelled to examine the papers for themselves. The two sets of photo-strips of the little protein bands have since been scrutinised keenly — as many as seven times — formally and voluntarily, by committees, individuals, and institutions, and have been discussed in the public domain.

Focus on committee

The spotlight has shifted decisively from the authors of the contested paper — Bhatnagar awardee Gopal C. Kundu and his student Hema Rangaswami — to the Padmanabhan committee. Formed to bring an authoritative closure to the case, the committee has instead been embarrassingly contradicted by the JBC, which withdrew the paper, and finds itself increasingly isolated within the Indian scientific community, with its motives and investigation methodology brought under the scanner.

Among the most unyielding opponents of the committee’s judgment are the members of the Society for Scientific Values (SSV), a 20-year-old organisation of scientists concerned with science ethics. The SSV’s voluntary investigations concluded that the “similarities between the figures are too substantial to be dismissed as superficial.” The society urged the NCCS and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to “repair the damage to the reputation of Indian science caused by the JBC withdrawal” through “exemplary actions.” And the society, it appears, is not alone in its position.

A heated exchange of letters published in Current Science reflects the discord. Professor Padmanabhan has had to field tough questions from Sohan P. Modak, a retired professor from the University of Pune and co-founder of the NCCS. He has had to counter a “tirade” (in his words) from Rahul Siddharthan, Reader, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, who, following his own analysis, demonstrated that “the correspondence [of the images] seemed to be exact, in every case.”

At the IISc, two professors — a biologist and a specialist in digital image processing — also decided to conduct an independent examination and concluded that the images appeared identical. Biologist V. Nanjundaiah told The Hindu: “If the authors are found to be innocent, they deserve a public apology. But a decision has to be made quickly. This case has remained simmering for too long.”

The need for an institutionalised mechanism to deal with potential cases of misconduct has rarely been more deeply felt. For one thing, malpractice is believed to be growing. K.R. Rao, associate editor of Current Science, says he has over the last two years spotted 40-50 cases of plagiarism, which is about 10 per cent of the total number of papers he receives. He is vigilant now, banking on a “sixth sense,” simple Google searches, and even considering software to detect plagiarism. (A range of plagiarism prevention and detection software such as Turnitin is available.) “I do not want my journal to be pulled up,” he adds. If Dr. Rao has the reputation of his magazine to uphold, others in the scientific community are concerned that such cases could dent India’s credibility in the international sphere. Satyajit Mayor, a biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, observes: “We need laws to protect the country from what happened to Korean science after the stem cell debacle. Now nothing they say is taken seriously, even though important research is being done.”

To the SSV, this case is “just another statistic” in the large number of cases it has been receiving recently — which according its secretary N. Raghuram, averages one a month. “The biggest problem in Indian science,” he remarks, “is not that misconduct happens but the manner in which institutional management deals with it ... Most employers refuse to even respond when contacted, leave alone take action against the person.” The SSV might have emerged as a monitor by default, a hesitant vigilante for ethics in Indian science. But the society is voluntary and has no legal standing. This has not stopped a flood of cases from arriving at their doorstep. “India evidently needs an autonomous body with quasi-judicial powers to receive and resolve cases, a body with locus standi in the court of law,” Dr. Raghuram says, pointing to the United States’ Office of Research Integrity, which has the power to stop federal funding to institutions that fail to take action against employees found to have committed malpractice. He feels that the institutional systems must be empowered by the government with procedural standards to investigate, and with a mechanism that allows for a fearless filing of cases. “We have made presentations to the Cabinet’s science advisory committee,” he adds, “but they have not yet shown their commitment. Perhaps everyone finds it convenient to have a Robin Hood around. SSV is expected to clean up everyone else’s act, and take the flak too.” Professor Padmanabhan, who stands by his decision, concurs with the SSV on the need for a formal mechanism to tackle malpractice: “The Indian science community is inexperienced and we still do not know how to deal with these cases. The way the NCCS case has panned out has never happened before,” he told The Hindu. He proposes the setting up of a body “formed by the members of the three national science academies representing different fields to competently analyse scientific content.” And so the NCCS saga continues. The Department of Biotechnology recently called for another report from the Padmanabhan committee, a vindication of sorts for SSV’s position. But the committee’s new report of 120 pages upholds its previous findings. The DBT will hand this one over to a set of three scientists for yet another review. The verdict of this eighth (and, with some luck, final) inquiry will signal more than the fate of this specific case.