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NCBS: When a Paper Is Published but One Author Is Found Guilty of Misconduct…

NCBS: When a Paper Is Published but One Author Is Found Guilty of Misconduct…

The National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. Photo: NCBS

New Delhi: A paper published by the journal Nature Chemical Biology, authored by researchers from the prestigious National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, in October 2020 was retracted in June 2021. Many scores of papers written by Indian scientists are retracted every year, but this ‘episode’ has attracted extra attention.

There are a few reasons for this. First, NCBS is a high-profile institution – well-funded, well-staffed and producing multiple important results on topics of biology. Second, NCBS has been in the news of late for a study of bats some of its researchers conducted in Nagaland in 2019. Both government bodies and influential politicians used language to describe this study that suggested the researchers had acted with disregard for the law. (They were wrong.)

Third, the now-retracted paper announced an amazing discovery: of iron-sensing RNA in a bacterial species, involved in a previously unknown cellular mechanism. Fourth and last, independent experts soon reported, on the PubPeer science discussion platform, that the published paper contained multiple images that clearly appeared to have been manipulated. So its retraction drew some attention.

(Note: The Wire Science published an article on December 17, 2020, discussing the paper’s findings.)

In nine months

The fact that NCBS acted proactively against one of its own papers is commendable. If this seems like a low bar, it is not: the norm in the country has been for institutes to ignore complaints, or set up internal committees that often acquit those accused of misconduct in completely opaque fashion. Arati Ramesh’s lab at NCBS conducted the study and she is listed as the paper’s corresponding author. According to sources at the institute familiar with the internal inquiry, she reported the concerns on PubPeer in early November 2020 to the director, Satyajit Mayor. The institute then set up an internal committee, with both internal and external members, that concluded after additional inquiries that the paper would have to be retracted.

That the paper was withdrawn from the scientific record so quickly, within nine months of publication, is also good. It is not unheard of for retractions to take years – in one instance, more than a decade. A study published in March this year found that the average time-to-retraction for papers retracted from the biomedical literature, and coauthored by Indian scientists, was 2.86 years.

Part of the reason here is that Arati Ramesh responded to the concerns on PubPeer by sharing more data and images from her team’s experiments.

Compare this behaviour with, for example, the paper that scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, uploaded in 2019 claiming they had achieved room-temperature superconductivity. At the time, an independent physicist named Brian Skinner found that one of the images in the paper contained a repeating pattern that should in fact have been random – often a sign of manipulation. However, the authors didn’t respond to this concern nor in fact to any queries from the press, leading to speculation running rampant.

Pointing fingers

This said, the NCBS retraction episode also had a problem that has been unfortunately common with issues in papers written by Indian scientists, and offers important insights into how research is documented and published.

NCBS scientist Mukund Thattai told The Wire Science that the institute had completed its internal inquiry in November 2020 – a month after the paper was published. Nature Chemical Biology retracted the paper on June 30, 2021, and a week later, NCBS published an official press release reporting the retraction from its end. Arati Ramesh is quoted in this release saying, “As the corresponding author, I must bear responsibility and am deeply shocked, disturbed and very saddened that such scientific misconduct could happen under my watch.”

Ramesh published another statement on her website, in which she repeated this line but also said: “The specific data that were flagged came from one author, who left my lab abruptly within a few days after the investigation (without turning in the correct constructs/strains related to this project and without sharing some of the ITC[footnote]Short for ‘isothermal titration calorimetry’[/footnote] raw data).”

In 2012, when scientist S.B. Krupanidhi was asked why some of his papers – co-authored with C.N.R. Rao, then scientific adviser to the Indian government, and some students – contained plagiarised text, he pointed the finger at one of the students. A similar thing happened with the controversial Mashelkar committee report of 2007, chaired by former Council of Scientific and Industrial Research chief R.A. Mashelkar. Many scientists asked to explain potential signs of misconduct in their papers have pointed fingers at others.

It is commendable that Arati Ramesh took full responsibility – as she is the corresponding author as well as the head of the lab that conducted the study – but the need to point to one member of the study team is debatable, more so when that is a younger scientist or student.

Admittedly, Ramesh has an important responsibility here: to own up to a mistake but at the same time to not condemn her entire lab, and all its scientists and students, to ignominy for one person’s missteps.

Arati Ramesh. Photo: NCBS/TIFR

Everyone whose name is listed as one of the authors on a paper must be expected to understand the paper’s contents and vouch for them. However, the latter may become an untenable ideal when we account for power and responsibility imbalances in the lab. A PhD student who did everything right may not be deserving of blame when, say, the head of the lab will have had more opportunity and, again, power to call out problems in an experiment or a draft paper.

At the same time, science is a team effort. There are many examples in India and around the world of senior scientists insisting their names should be included in all papers published by their students and mentees, even if the scientists didn’t contribute anything particularly useful. To wash one’s hands off only when the proverbial faecal matter hits the fan but to partake of the benefits until then would be unfair.

Ramesh’s statement on her website also partly identified the alleged offender vis-à-vis the retracted paper, by mentioning that this person recently “abruptly left” NCBS. She also added that this person did not share any of the “correct constructs/strains related to this project” and left “without sharing … raw data”. If this person was indeed a young scientist (in the formal sense) or a student, it would be all the more reason to not single out their offense in such stark terms and, perhaps to a lesser extent, to not attempt to protect NCBS’s reputation by commenting on whether they had left the institute.

Scientists must stop pointing fingers at people they share their labs with if the pointees wield less power. Even if the mistake is especially devious, they must think thrice before calling them out – and even then do so in a way that doesn’t preclude a second chance for the offender. This is because the processes that exist on paper allowing younger scientists and students to raise their voices against wrongs or to contradict their senior peers’ views still don’t bridge the gap between the psycho-social factors a person operates in and the institutional ethos that promises to hear what they have to say – if only they will say it.

Equally importantly, while a leader-scientist must ensure the ‘innocent’ don’t suffer for the mistakes of others, they must also not deflect blame to such an extent as to erase the collaborative nature of scientific work, especially their own participation.

Insular view of science

Some have asked how the paper was published in the first place given the sheer amount of manipulation in so many images. One scientist told The Wire Science that while various institutes in India, and in fact elsewhere, have implicit data integrity policies, how they are implemented often varies from one place to the next. Some institutes require all publications to pass through the offices of one or a few ‘senior’ individuals, whose names are often affixed to the paper. Some others specify standard operating procedures but trust their colleagues to abide by them without requiring oversight.

Ramesh alluded to the latter having been the norm in her lab. But after the retraction, Ramesh wrote, her team would move to a “trust but verify” model.

One of the problematic images in the paper (5d), annotated by PubPeer user Leucanella Acutissima. Source: PubPeer

The data-integrity problem becomes harder, in a manner of speaking, when data is collected from the field – by multiple individuals led by one or two supervisors who simply can’t be everywhere at once. To this end, field researchers are expected to maintain detailed notes of their activities and observations. One could argue that there is still room for error here, but this is why it’s important to understand how implicit trust is essential to good science.

In fact, both the institutional culture and our conception of scientific work are implicated in the overarching (in the broadest sense) cause of research misconduct, at least in India. A big reason why India is home to so many journals that will publish any paper – even if it makes no sense – is that there are so many scientists trying to get papers published. This is the result of an old government policy that required even teachers, who had no time for research, to publish papers to be considered for promotion, irrespective of what the papers were about.

The government here was, and government-funded institutes are, as much to blame as the tendency among many scientists themselves to consider their papers to be the be-all and end-all of scientific work. This attitude is dangerous because it ignores one’s contributions in the form of mentoring, teaching, organising seminars and workshops, conducting field work and even administrative work. We celebrate some of India’s greatest scientists as having been “institution builders”, but institution-building seldom figures in most conversations about what constitutes good science.

Taken together, these pressures to “publish or perish” have resulted in a glut of papers but a paucity of good scientific work, and force scientists (both rookie and veteran) to have papers published at all costs. There should be no doubt that the offenders in the NCBS incident, whoever they were, committed serious mistakes, that they ought to be held accountable, and that the institute must install measures to ensure such a thing doesn’t happen again. But saying this happened simply because one person mixed up science and Photoshop would be disingenuous.

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