By K.S. Jayaraman, Bangalore, July 14 IANS | 5 months ago

It is rarely that work of Indian scientists grab worldwide attention. But last week, a group of scientists from a research institute in Chandigrah entered the international spotlight - although for wrong reasons.

Between January and May 2013, the group from the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH) had published three research papers in PLOS ONE, a reputed science journal having its headquarters in San Francisco.

In what has come as an embarrassment to the Indian science community, the journal announced July 9 that it was retracting all the three papers of the IMTECH group "as the published results were fabricated".

Swaranjit Singh, senior principal scientist at IMTECH and key author of all the discredited papers, did not reply to email request for his comments on the wholesale retraction of his group's all three papers - a record of some sort.

IMTECH is a flagship institute under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) globally known for the development of India's first patented biopharmaceutical drug to dissolve blood clots.

IMTECH director Girish Sahni said an internal investigation showed the data falsification was the handiwork of a junior author who has since resigned.

"What happened is symptomatic of the way our science will progress if number of papers published is used as the yardstick for rewards and promotions," Sahni told IANS.

"I sincerely hope the incident will not be used in any way to tarnish the image of IMTECH or the CSIR."

Willem van Schaik, associate professor of Medical Microbiology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who edited one of the retracted papers, said in his blog that the three papers from the IMTECH group were all submitted between January and May 2013 and "were handled by three different editors, which may have made it more difficult to catch any fraud".

He said all three papers followed the same outline: a bacterium was isolated from natural environments and was able to metabolize some unusual chemicals.

"When comparing the three papers you will see that the graphs are very similar but not identical. So even with hindsight, I find it difficult to find which data have been fabricated," he said.

He added that he hoped "the author's institute will provide more details on this case of data fabrication".

He further said the manuscript has been reviewed by two reviewers and needed considerable editorial effort.

"I am very sorry that the reviewers have had to spend their time and effort on a manuscript that ultimately turned out to be a fake."

According to the retraction notice issued by the PLOS ONE journal July 9, the CSIR on its own carried out an investigation about several publications by this IMTECH group in order to evaluate concerns raised about the authenticity of the data.

The journal said it was retracting the publication in line with its policy at the request of the CSIR whose own investigation concluded that "there are no data available underlying this study and thus that the published results are fabricated".

Some scientists see this episode as a blot in the image of Indian science.

"Science academies and government funding agencies will do well to discuss issues related to scholarly communication and academic values," Subbiah Arunachalam, the Chennai-based science policy analyst and a former CSIR scientist, told IANS.

(Posted on 14-07-2014)

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