Photograph of a part of the NCBS campus, Bengaluru, with modified colours. Photo: Rohit Suratekar/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
- In its independent investigation, the TIFR Academic Ethics Committee has vindicated a student’s allegation that he wasn’t alone in committing misconduct.
- The committee has recommended that his supervisor, Arati Ramesh, receive counselling and continue to work in NCBS but under supervision.
- The probe report includes other recommendations, but independent scientists say they don’t acknowledge the case as a symptom of a deeper malaise.
Hyderabad: The student whom researcher and supervisor Arati Ramesh blamed for prominent instances of fraud in a high-profile scientific paper was not the only one involved in the fraud, an independent investigation by an ethics body at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, has found.
At the time the irregularities became public, in early November 2020, Arati Ramesh, the student Siladitya Bandyopadhyay and other authors of the paper – all members of Ramesh’s lab – were at the National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru. NCBS is one of the six centres of TIFR.
The paper, entitled ‘Discovery of iron-sensing bacterial riboswitches’, was published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology on October 5, 2020. Soon after, independent commenters on the scientific review platform PubPeer found signs of images and data in the paper having been manipulated – a form of serious fraud.
Ramesh responded to the comments by sharing what she described was raw data of the experiments her group had conducted. But the PubPeer commenters found that the raw data seemed to have been faked as well.
Ramesh reportedly flagged the comments internally, at the institute, and which snowballed into two important outcomes: an investigation into the problem’s roots, from December 2020, and the start of the process to retract the paper from the scientific record from February 2021.
Nature Chemical Biology finally retracted the paper in June 2021. A week later, both NCBS and Ramesh published separate statements talking about the incident. Notably, both of them, but especially Ramesh, blamed the study’s first author, a graduate student named Siladitya Bandyopadhyay, for all the fraud.
Ramesh also accused Bandyopadhyay of abruptly leaving the laboratory, and the institute, without sharing the raw data and materials from the experiments for independent verification.
Bandyopadhyay subsequently told The Wire Science that he was not the only member of the lab to fake data for the paper. He accused his joint first author on the paper, postdoctoral student Susmitnarayan Chaudhury, of committing fraud and manipulation as well. Bandyopadhyay also said NCBS issued a no-objection certificate for his departure from the institute – a document that required him to jump through some procedural hoops. That is, he said, he couldn’t have left the institute abruptly.
Soon after, The Wire Science and The Life of Science also reported allegations of a hostile lab environment, even as scientists and science students from around the country engaged in multiple discussions on Twitter and Facebook.
By this time, according to statements from NCBS, director Satyajit Mayor had submitted the investigation report to TIFR. The TIFR Academic Ethics Committee (TAEC) then commenced an independent investigation on the retraction as well as NCBS’s probe effort.
The TAEC investigation lasted three weeks. Sources familiar with the procedure said committee members spoke to the paper’s authors, the authors of another paper from Ramesh’s lab that has also been flagged for possible data manipulation, subject experts, some members who had participated in the NCBS probe and senior scientists at NCBS.
The TAEC has submitted its investigation’s report to the institute’s director, S. Ramakrishnan. On September 16, The Wire Science received a note from Ramakrishnan’s office compiling the report’s findings.
Bandyopadhyay had told journalists, including at The Wire Science, that he had informed Mayor of another person’s involvement in the fraud and that the institutional probe hadn’t followed up on this allegation.
The TAEC has concluded that Susmitnarayan Chaudhury, the other person, was indeed involved in both forging the images and manipulating the data. To quote from the TIFR note: “There is compelling evidence which indicates that the image manipulation and result falsification in the NCB paper (now retracted) were carried out entirely by the first two authors” (emphasis added).
The note also acknowledges that Bandyopadhyay had admitted to his part – but doesn’t say whether Chaudhury had owned up to the acts he allegedly committed.
At the time of publishing this article, Chaudhury hadn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.
The TAEC also said that “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 [principal investigator] on her website implying that one author had left her lab abruptly, were both incorrect.”
Members of the Ramesh lab “were unanimous in declaring that she would never have supported any unethical practice,” according to the TIFR note.
However, the note from TIFR characterised Ramesh’s failure to properly check the raw data, which contained clear signs of fraud, as “scientific carelessness and lack of diligence”. It added that as “the corresponding author” and the lab’s principal investigator, she “must bear the overall responsibility”.
About Bandyopadhyay’s, and others’, allegations that the work environment in Ramesh’s lab was toxic, the TAEC found “substance in some [of these] allegations,” according to the note. But the text also states unequivocally that neither the lab environment nor Ramesh’s behaviour could justify the misconduct.
At the time of publishing this report, Ramesh hadn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.
The TAEC also recommended that Ramesh’s lab operate under the supervision of a committee that would oversee activities here, including publication practices.
Bandyopadhyay found that the TAEC report had done a good job of setting the record straight, that he wasn’t the only person to commit the misconduct. But he also expressed disappointment that it didn’t address the pressure that Arati Ramesh exerted in the lab.
In addition, Mayor had sent an email on July 14 to the NCBS academic community implying that only one person had manipulated data. Bandyopadhyay said this part of the record should be “corrected” as well.
Apart from making recommendations vis-à-vis Ramesh’s lab and leadership, the TAEC also directs suggestions at Bandyopadhyay and Chaudhury, other authors of the paper in question, and NCBS and TIFR.
While saying that the paper’s other junior authors should receive letters stating they had no role to play in the manipulation, the TAEC recommends that Chaudhury’s current institute (according to one account, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico) be informed of his involvement in the fraud.
According to the note, Bandyopadhyay’s then-institution had been informed of his role in December 2020. (After NCBS, Bandyopadhyay joined a biotechnology company.) The report doesn’t recommend any more action against him.
Next, according to the note, the report requires NCBS to issue a new press release that sets the record straight, in line with the TAEC’s findings. Specifically, the note asks that the new release clarify that Bandyopadhyay wasn’t the only individual involved in the fraud.
Third, the TAEC recommends that TIFR create a ‘Student Support Cell’ through which all students can approach TIFR staff or senior students about any issues.
Fourth, according to the TAEC, TIFR is to instate “appropriate mechanisms” to monitor the working environment at the institute – but doesn’t say what these mechanisms could be or what they will need to achieve.
Finally, the TAEC mandates “orientation programmes” for the “academic community to increase awareness about academic ethics and the implementation of best academic practices.”
According to the note, the TAEC also investigated alleged misconduct in another paper from Ramesh’s lab. This one, published in the Journal of Molecular Biology in June 2020, came under the scanner when science-integrity expert Elisabeth Bik reported that two images from two different experiments looked more similar than they could be.
The TAEC concluded that this was the result of improper labelling, and said it hadn’t found evidence of manipulation. The TIFR note cautioned that “a careful scrutiny of the manuscript” would have been able to avert this mistake.
After TIFR released the TAEC’s findings, NCBS did issue a new press release. It mostly followed the TAEC’s recommendations but also left many details out.
For example, it expressed regret for the “incorrect impression” created by the previous press release, and said, “The conclusions of the TAEC investigation were broader in scope but consistent with the main conclusions of the NCBS-TIFR investigation report (2020).”
But the TAEC had found fault with one of the main findings of the NCBS probe – that only one individual had manipulated data in the retracted paper.
The new release also said, “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”. But there are no specific details.
NCBS director Mayor didn’t comment.
While the TAEC’s efforts improved on NCBS’s probe, some issues remain unaddressed.
According to the TAEC, Ramesh’s ‘authoritarian’ conduct couldn’t justify her students’ misconduct. But Prajval Shastri, astrophysicist and former researcher at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, said although this particular issue is complex, scientists must remember that their “obligations … include mentoring the next generation to become thriving, independent, nurturing scholars themselves, in a non-hierarchical yet respectful ambience.”
She said it is important for institutions to probe what institutional structures or factors promote ‘authoritarian’ behaviour, which she says is “all too common”.
Similarly, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Hyderabad said on condition of anonymity that he had hoped the TAEC report would shed light on the power imbalance between principal investigators and students in a laboratory.
Surya Narayan Sahoo, a PhD student at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, said that “in a research lab, the dynamics in the lab … often incentivise ‘fraud’ at different levels.”
Other than the principal investigator’s conduct, how journals and funding agencies evaluate research are also responsible for doing so, he added.
“Often, the objective of an experiment is not exploration but finding a ‘definitive’ result of something” – as was the case in the now-retracted paper. “This may not be explicit in the research objective but is often a major part of what the investigator would want to publish. Not getting the desired result is often treated as ‘no outcome’, even if all the methods are properly followed.”
Sahoo also pointed out that principal investigators have a lot of power over a student’s career and so impose undue pressure, which may then motivate students to commit fraud.
Another issue is the value of the ‘student support cell’ and orientation programmes that the TAEC has recommended.
Shastri welcomed the idea, saying such a cell could benefit individual students “under some circumstances”. But she also warned that the cell could be ineffective when a “student has concerns that reflect on senior academics”. According to her, this is because many students may not be able to overcome the fear of their scientific careers getting affected, and even when they do, “the outcome may not be necessarily fair”.
Sahoo also deemed the cell an ineffective measure. According to him, many institutions already have student support cells set up, but they have been limited to helping students with issues like changing the supervisor or changing the thesis subject.
Sahoo also expressed concerns that a student support cell may not be empowered enough to comment on scientific integrity.
“Often, the principal investigator is the ‘expert in the field’ in a particular institute and will go unquestioned by the support cell regarding the methodology,” Sahoo said. He also echoed Shastri’s concerns about a student’s career, saying the implications for a student who chooses to complain about unethical workplace practices are very different from those for the faculty member.
“Complaining against workplace practices would, beyond a point, make the student suffer,” Sahoo elaborated. “The faculty [member] would at worst lose time and some students, but the student who approached the student cell with the issues would potentially lose a recommendation letter, authorship in much of the work already done, and potentially lose a career in science.”
Third, the orientation programmes regarding workplace practices for faculty members: Shastri said they should be targeted at “rethinking … how we construct merit at a systemic level.” For her, the environment in science institutions needs to change from a “competitive and hierarchical one” to a “collaborative and nurturing one”.
Sahoo extended his opinion of student support cells to these programmes as well – that they may be ineffective, especially because of how Indian science incentivises competition.
“Just like ‘making environmental science compulsory’ … does nothing to improve the environment, the orientation of faculty members would do almost nothing to the work culture,” he said. “The incentives – with emphasis on publication quantity for awards and further grants – for scientists would [pollute] the work culture at the expense of ethics.”
Finally, on the point of the TAEC letting Ramesh continue working in her laboratory under the supervision of a committee, Shastri said that this decision “smacks of the bad-apple syndrome” – the belief that this is one isolated incident. According to Shastri, the NCBS incident is only a symptom of a deeper systemic problem, and the report has failed to “acknowledge” it and “ask how best to rectify it”.
At the same time, Sahoo said it would be unfair to demand harsher punishment against Ramesh. Doing that would only have perpetrated both Ramesh’s and her lab students’ suffering, he said.
But while more retributive action is disagreeable, more redemptive action may be wanting. Both the associate professor at the University of Hyderabad and Sahoo said Bandyopadhyay could have been extended another opportunity.
The TAEC has given the principal investigator, Ramesh, a “second chance”, and the associate professor said this should have been extended to the students who’d been found guilty of misconduct as well. Sahoo said Bandyopadhyay could have been allowed to pursue science for some time1 under a similar supervisory committee.
Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans science writer, communicator and journalist. They currently work with the feminist multimedia science collective TheLifeofScience.com, and tweet at @queersprings.
Bandyopadhyay’s current job doesn’t involve doing science↩