Falsifying scientific data: Blot on Indian science

Rajesh Kochhar

Scientific frauds take place all over the world. Once the news breaks out, a country which holds science in high esteem takes swift and stern action so that the fraud is seen as an individual aberration and not systemic failure. It is disconcerting to note that the exposure of major frauds in Indian science has come from foreigners and not from within the Indian science community. There is no sense of outrage; the reaction is forced rather than spontaneous; and the action is minimal and reluctant. It is as if India likes to dabble in basic science because it is profitable at national and international level; but if any vitiation takes place, it is not our concern because after all it is ‘their’ science.

The international prestige of CSIR’s Chandigarh-based Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTech) has taken a severe beating because of the discovery that its scientists have published papers based on fabricated data. Four papers were submitted within a short span of six months, January-July 2013 and published the same year between April and October. They were retracted by the journals on 9 July 2014 on a request by CSIR which had carried out its in-house investigations following a complaint. In the meantime, some other researchers taking these papers at face value cited them in their own work. It is certain that two other 2013 papers are also fraudulent whose retraction is a matter of time. Another publication is a review essay which cites the tainted papers. It is not immediately obvious what impact this has on the review as whole. It will need some serious  effort to detox science from the effects of the Chandigarh fraud.

The first author in all the cases is a post-doc, Fazlurrahman Khan. Khan obtained his PhD from IMTech and proceeded to Georgia Institute of Technology to work in a lab there. Young men and women after their doctorate routinely go to USA for training. In Khan’s case the knowledge he gained there was not sufficient to advance science but was more than enough for subverting it. His lab professor, Jim Spain, recently recalled : ‘Khan worked in my lab for several months early in 2012 until I strongly suspected he was fabricating data.’ Khan returned to India and obtained  a two-year appointment as a Research Associate funded by the central government’s Department of Biotechnology(DBT), choosing to work at IMTech. Spain points out that Khan obtained ideas, results and conclusions from the former’s lab and fabricated data in his host institution to go with them. In this exercise, he was able to enlist the group leader, Swaranjit Singh Cameotra, as a willing accomplice.

Journals these days require multiple authors to state their individual contributions. Khan and Cameotra ‘conceived and designed’ the experiments which were carried out by Khan and the PhD scholars. Data so obtained was placed in the hands of Khan and Cameotra who analysed it and prepared the paper, with the latter taking charge of correspondence with the editors. Note that of all the authors, Cameotra is the only regular employee of CSIR.

According to official IMTech sources, Khan has since resigned from the Institute. This cannot be true in a strict administrative sense. Khan was being funded by DBT; IMTech was merely hosting him. If Khan had to resign, his resignation would have had to be accepted by DBT. It may even be that the term of his two-year associateship ended. If he indeed was permitted to resign, it is most unfortunate, because his evidence would have been vital.

It now turns out that other scientists at IMTech had viewed goings-on in Cameotra’s lab with great suspicion. According to a Times of India report, it is now being pointed out that according to log book entries, the experimental data was obtained in two months’ time, whereas a genuine experiment would have required at least six months. There have even been doubts whether the instruments required for generating the type of data reported are available in the Institute. The international prestige of Indian science would have been enhanced if the exposure of the fraud had come from within the Institute.

As it is, it was left to Jim Spain to blow the whistle. It goes to CSIR’s credit that once the fraud was brought to its notice, it immediately verified the facts and asked for retraction of the fake papers. This alacrity stands in sharp contrast to the situation prevailing two decades ago when a Panjab University paleontologist, Viswa Jit Gupta, was lightly let off by the University even though serious charges of falsifying numerous fossil discoveries in the Himalayas stood proved.

CSIR has now charge sheeted Cameotra. Government disciplinary proceedings are a long-drawn affair. One hopes that CSIR would follow the case to its logical end. It should be kept in mind that eventually even if the fraudulent scientist is held guilty, quantum of punishment can vary drastically: from mere stoppage of annual salary increment to outright dismissal. Since administrative rules are clearer cut and well-tested compared to scientific rules, it needs to be pointed out that IMTech would have paid publication charges for getting retracted papers published. A scientist submitting fraudulent research for publication and asking the government to pay for it is guilty of causing loss to national exchequer.

Scientific misconduct is of various types. Falsification of data is a far more serious offence than plagiarism. There is need to brand serious scientific misconduct as crime. If this were already the case, Khan could have been summoned to give evidence.  The most sordid part of the recent elaborate fraud is the misuse of PhD scholars.  The most important task of a scientist or an academic is to mentor the young generation. Here, the seniors for their own selfish ends are converting young scholars into criminals. Young bright men and women enroll at a prestigious institute to advance their careers by enriching science. While many of them are no doubt tempted by the shortcuts their seniors offer, others may be too scared to blow the whistle. Serious scientific misconduct like fabrication of data should be recognized as a crime. At the same time, it is important to create a system which encourages whistle blowing and protects whistle blowers.

Finally, a fundamental point needs to be made. Throughout the world, there is an excessive pressure on scientists to do high-impact, world-class research. First we create rat race for scientists and then complain that they have become rats.

(The author is a former Director of National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (CSIR), New Delhi.)

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