A view of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. Photo: NCBS
New Delhi: In late June 2021, NCBS researcher Arati Ramesh and the members of her lab had a paper in the journal Nature Chemical Biology retracted after independent experts found that multiple images in the paper had been manipulated to claim a significant, but fraudulent, discovery.
Since then, both NCBS and inSTEM, an affiliated institute located on the NCBS campus, and where Ramesh’s partner Sunil Laxman is a principal investigator, have come under the scanner. Statements issued by NCBS and Ramesh after the retraction stoked controversy for their wording. Ramesh also came under fire for throwing one member of her research group under the bus for the retraction despite being the team’s principal investigator.
Following reports by German journalist Leonid Schneider, follow-up articles by The Wire Science and The Hindu, and social media discussions involving prominent journalists and scientists, the director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, issued a statement saying the institute was looking into the issue as well.
NCBS was originally a department in TIFR set up by renowned neurobiologist Obaid Siddiqui in 1992, before becoming a full-fledged research centre. NCBS, inSTEM (short for ‘Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine’) and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, located adjacent to each other, together form the ‘Bangalore Life Science Cluster’.
NCBS’s current director is biologist Satyajit Mayor; TIFR’s current director is physicist S. Ramakrishnan.
Ramakrishnan said in his July 16 statement that the NCBS inquiry committee’s “final report is currently under review by the TIFR Academic Ethics Committee, who will determine if further investigation and/or action are warranted.”
Since Nature Chemical Biology retracted the Ramesh et al paper, independent observers have trained their attention on her other papers, as well as those of Laxman and other prominent members of the institute they’re affiliated with. For example, famous science integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik flagged another of Ramesh’s papers, published in 2020. Others have called attention to papers coauthored by Laxman and published in 2005, 2006, 2006, 2011 and 2020.
In both cases, the commentators have spotlighted images that may have had been manipulated – considered an egregious form of research misconduct around the world.
More recently, papers coauthored by Apurva Sarin, the director of inSTEM, have been flagged as well. These ‘flags’ are all on the PubPeer platform, an “online platform for post-publication peer-review”.
Note, however, that unlike with the Ramesh et al article, commenters on the posts regarding papers coauthored by Sarin are still seeking clarifications, and haven’t flagged any problems at the same level as the Ramesh et al paper.
Nonetheless, it appears that the Ramesh et al paper and the fallout from that incident may have prompted observers to fan out and take a closer look at other papers by the same individuals and their colleagues.
In the PubPeer post that led to the retraction, commentators revealed multiple manipulated images in the paper and demanded raw data from the authors. Ramesh subsequently shared what she said was raw data from the study’s experiments. But the commentators were dissatisfied because the supposed raw data also contained signs of manipulation – even as Ramesh insisted that there were no problems.
These events played out from late October 2020. (PubPeer posts don’t include dates.) Nature Chemical Biology posted an updated to the paper’s webpage in December 2020 and eventually retracted it on June 30, 2021.
A search for Sarin’s name on PubPeer returns posts on seven separate papers or articles, all published between 2002 and 2021. The most recent flags were raised in the early hours of July 29, of papers published in 2002 and 2020.
For the 2020 paper, published in Cell Death Discovery, two commentators asked for raw images and Sarin had responded by uploading some (as at 9:36 am). Similarly, for the 2002 paper, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, a pair of commentators asked her to explain one particular image. Sarin responded.
The post had also received a supportive comment from Peter Vandenabeele, a cell biologist at the VIB-UGent Centre for Inflammation Research, Belgium. He wrote that the “experments … were partially performed in my lab when Jishy Varghese had an internship and in the lab of Apurva.”
An email to Sarin asking about the posts on PubPeer of her papers as well as those of Laxman hadn’t elicited a response at the time of publishing this article.
A user named Leptonia Omphalinoides had posted the only comments on the 2003 and the 2016 papers (as at 9:36 am). In the 2003 paper, Omphalinoides flagged two images – labelled figures 1 and 4 – parts of which, the user wrote, were “much more similar than expected”. In the 2016 paper, Omphalinoides highlighted a seeming repetition in two parts of figure 3E supplement 1. There were no repsonses by Sarin, or others, on these posts at the time of publishing this article.
The issue with the guidelines, “for the use and interpretation of assays for monitoring autophagy”, was broader. Published in the journal Autophagy on February 8, 2021, they list at least 2,299 authors. PubPeer commentators’ concern was how the guidelines managed to receive the agreement of so many people, and whether such a feat was really possible.
Others noted that the guidelines had received more than 7,600 citations since being published. A citation is what happens when one scientific paper invokes the ideas presented in another paper with attribution. It’s common for institutes around the world to use citations as a proxy measure of the ‘success’ of a paper, and in turn the ‘success’ of its author(s), when they are being considered for promotion, etc.
However, since the guidelines had almost 2,300 ‘authors’ – including Sarin – and have over 7,600 citations, the PubPeer commentators were concerned about people attaching their names to the guidelines to inflate their citation counts without necessarily contributing to the contents.
For now, TIFR’s Ramakrishnan told The Wire Science, “the TIFR ethics committee will deal with this issue” – referring to the retraction of the Ramesh et al paper. “They will look into all details pertaining to this case and report to me.” He didn’t respond to questions about the committee’s composition and mandate.
It remains unclear if TIFR will be launching a new and independent investigation into the retraction, or if the committee will address allegations of a hostile working culture at Ramesh’s lab at NCBS. These claims emerged after NCBS and Ramesh had issued their statements but before Ramakrishnan’s July 16 statement.
Note: This article was edited at 6:31 pm on July 29, 2021, to make the relative severity of the issues regarding papers coauthored by Sarin clearer.