TIFR raps NCBS over handling of misconduct issue

A view of National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) campus, File   | Photo Credit: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

An investigation into allegations of data manipulation in research papers and harassment of junior researchers at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, has concluded that the institution was economical with the truth.

While it moved appropriately to retract a problematic paper, NCBS sought to entirely blame the scientific misconduct on a single researcher when others, including the group leader and Principal Investigator (PI), too were partially responsible, said an academic committee of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the parent body of the NCBS, which investigated the affair.

In a press release on Thursday, the committee said: “While the PI and the NCBS-TIFR management did handle the scientific retraction professionally, they were not wholly correct in the public statements after the malpractices were discovered. The PI had shared the “raw data” to the PubPeer site in haste and without verification. The statement in the press release of NCBS-TIFR that the malpractice was carried out by only one individual, and the statement made by the PI on her website implying that one author had left her lab abruptly were both incorrect.”

As The Hindu reported last month, a research paper, “Discovery of iron-sensing bacterial riboswitches”, was published online in the well-regarded journal Nature Chemical Biology.

Its listed authors were Siladitya Bandyopadhyay, Susmitnarayan Chaudhury, Dolly Mehta and Arati Ramesh, the last of whom was the Principal Investigator (PI) and is faculty at the NCBS. The paper evoked significant media attention given its scientific import. However, within days of publication, anonymous reviewers on PubPeer — a site that enables research papers to be discussed after publication — pointed out anomalies in the images that were submitted along with the research paper by way of proof. Dr. Ramesh initially defended the sanctity of the images but informed the Institute, which set up an investigation committee.

After an investigation, the committee recommended that the paper be retracted. The investigation committee also concluded that the images were manipulated by a single individual, Mr. Bandopadhyay. The panel’s conclusions followed questioning of members of Dr. Ramesh’s lab and accessing raw data from the Ramesh laboratory hard drives and from backup servers connected to the analytic instruments.

Mr. Bandopadhyay in later interviews to media outlets, including The Hindu, said that, while guilty of data fabrication, he was under pressure from Dr. Ramesh. The overall culture of the lab was “oppressive” and he, as well other junior colleagues, were subject to verbal abuse, he had said.

Institute Director Satyajit Mayor had then told The Hindu that the committee’s mandate was specifically to determine the stage at which data was manipulated. However, beyond the issue of data fraud, the institute was “seriously taking up” these allegations of pressure.

The TIFR committee has now recommended that the NCBS “correct the impression” of blame being unfairly apportioned. Dr. Ramesh, it recommended, should be “counselled” to be more professional in her scientific practices and her conduct in the laboratory; and an active Supervisory Committee should be constituted to oversee her lab activities, including the lab environment, lab practices, and publication practices, for a “specified period.”

The NCBS said, in response, that it accepted the committee recommendation. “We (NCBS TIFR) regret that an earlier press release gave this incorrect impression. NCBS-TIFR has already initiated several actions to promote research integrity and to ensure that grievances are addressed in a rapid, fair and transparent manner.”

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 10:53:40 PM |

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