Belated action on scientific misconduct in India

The Calcutta Telegraph carries the sordid story of scientific fraud, establishment denial, paper retractions and finally establishment acceptance of the misconduct.

The Gopal Kundu controversy

A controversy erupted in National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune in 2006 when an anonymous mail alleged that the authors (H. Rangaswami and Colleagues from the group of Dr. Gopal Kundu) may have misrepresented data in a paper published in Journal of Biological Chemistry. The allegation was that they had rehashed the same set of data which they had published earlier. An internal committee of the NCCS advised the authors to take back their paper, however an independent committee led by G. Padmanabhan, a former director of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, concluded that there was no manipulation in the data. This led to some heated debate between Indian Scientists with several viewpoints being presented. On 23 February 2007, the Journal of Biological Chemistry withdrew the paper amid allegations of data manipulation. The authors still maintain that the two papers used different set of data though similar experiments.

However the panel set up was not as independent as claimed. Its members were chosen by the Government and – as often when things get politicised in India – they returned a “politically correct” white-wash. But now as The Telegraph reports:

An apex association of Indian scientists today debarred for three years a senior biologist who had been accused of plagiarism by international scientific journals three years ago but was exonerated by a government panel of top scientists.

The unprecedented action by the Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences, after an internal investigation by its ethics committee, appears to vindicate claims by some scientists that the government-appointed panel had tried to shield the accused.

At its annual meeting in Goa today, the academy endorsed the decision by its ethics committee (which was accepted by the academy’s council in July) and barred Gopal Kundu from participating in the academy’s activities for three years, beginning August 2010.

Nor can Kundu, a research scientist at Pune’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), propose any candidates for fellowship of the academy during this period.

The prestigious US-based Journal of Biological Chemistry(JBC) had in February 2007 withdrawn a research paper by Kundu, accusing him of reusing images he had published in an earlier paper.

Another journal, Glycoconjugates Journal, too, had withdrawn a paper by Kundu because it had substantial similarities with a paper he had himself published previously in the JBC.

Better late than never but what is more important is the relatively low value given to ethics by the scientific establishment. Ethics, misconduct and scientific rigour can always be trumped by political correctness. Rahul Siddharthan writes in his excellent post:

An internal investigation at Kundu’s institution found him guilty of misrepresenting data, but a subsequent investigation by an external committee of six eminent scientists exonerated him completely, declaring themselves entirely satisfied that the images, though visually similar, were “indeed different.” I subsequently made my own analysis and published it in Current Science, who followed it with a response from G Padmanaban, the head of the committee that exonerated Kundu.

………

To me, this case is not really about Kundu. It is about our complete lack of appreciation of scientific ethics, and our tendency to “close ranks” when trouble arrives. To succumb to this tendency even after an international journal has conducted its own investigation and made its own decision, and to justify it with a paltry two-page report, merely makes us a laughing-stock.

So it is a good thing that the Academy has, belatedly, tried to correct this.

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