Some (volatile) thoughts on the recent data-forgery fiasco
Updated: Jul 31, 2021
After a case of major scientific fraud was discovered in a high-impact paper from a lab in the National Centre for Biological Science (NCBS), the paper has been retracted, and both NCBS and the principal investigator (PI) have released public statements clarifying their stance. Even while the scientific community has been grappling with this incident, there have been new developments: another paper from the same lab has been flagged by microbiologist and scientific integrity consultant Elizabeth Bik. Moreover, in the comments section of a report written on the same issue by science journalist Leonid Schneider, an anonymous commenter has mentioned that the PI’s lab is known for a high-tension work environment and that the PI is known to push students to confirm bioinformatics predictions with experimental data rather than testing them.
As somebody in the science ecosystem, initially as a scientist and now as a science journalist, it is important for me to understand what this case means for the Indian science community. I am still trying to condense my views, and this piece is an attempt to do exactly the same.
Why now? Why NCBS? Why this study?
It is important to remember that Indian science (and academia in general) is not new to cases of unethical practice. Reputed scholars like S. Radhakrishnan and CNR Rao have been accused of plagiarism. Appa Rao Podile, ex-vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, admitted to plagiarising in at least three papers. However, this case has gathered a lot more traction and discussion around it as compared with previous cases of unethical science practice (to the best of my knowledge). One might ask, why?
Some reasons that come to my mind for the same are as follows. One, courtesy forums like PubPeer, the process of calling out image manipulation and data forgery has become both easier and more globalized. Combined with the general concern in the science community about the replication crisis, papers are, in general, being scrutinized better. Two, the paper was published in a very reputed journal, Nature Chemical Biology, and was published by researchers in one of India’s arguably best institutes. The PI went around various places talking about her work, so it did attract a lot of attention. Three, forums like PubPeer provide complete anonymity to the commenters, enabling them to critique scientific literature without the worry of repercussions later. Four, the work itself was supposedly path-breaking (I cannot comment on this because of my lack of subject-specific knowledge). Now, when data from a path-breaking work from a “tier-1” institute published in a very high-impact journal are found to be manipulated, it is no wonder that the outrage against it has been very clamorous as well.
A caste “angle”
When S. Saderla, a Dalit faculty in IIT-Kanpur was accused anonymously of plagiarism first in his PhD thesis and then in his MTech thesis, the IIT-K Senate had recommended that the Board of Governors cancel Saderla’s PhD dissertation. The News18 report linked above mentions, “The Academic Ethics Cell of IIT, however, found no reason to revoke Saderla's thesis since ‘there are no allegations with regards to scholar’s own research work, including detailed experiments table’s figures and the conclusions drawn from them.’” The same report goes on to say, “interestingly, according to Saderla, the plagiarism charges are trivial. ‘The Ethics Cell has said that there is no need to revoke my thesis – there were similarities in [the] Introduction and Appendix. The charges were made on equations of motion. But that is something Newton derived, and no one can take it away from him.’” Saderla has also recounted how a few faculty members had sent an email to other colleagues saying that Saderla’s hiring is a “curse”.
Science institutions in India have been called out multiple times for being primarily Savarna dominated. In institutions like TIFR and its various centres, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that they are exempt from the mandatory reservations for candidates from SC/ST/OBC backgrounds. Caste becomes a “don’t speak-don’t tell” issue, but casteism is perpetuated nonetheless.
A key difference that I see between Saderla’s case and the current case is the public response of people. When Saderla was being harassed and humiliated, and his “merit” as a scholar called into question, he was not defended by other people publicly. In contrast, the current PI (who is Savarna) has been defended publicly by many. Even those who have not directly defended her have called for more empathetic and careful engagement, citing the lack of enough information in the public forum for any judgement to be made.
The problem with this call is that (a) I am not calling for a judgement, but the truth to be out in the public forum, and (b) when the merit of Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi (DBA) scholars is scrutinized, judgement is very quickly delivered publicly. DBA scholars are always less respected because “they got through quota”, and their presence in science (and other academic) institutions is seen to be destructive to the idea of “merit”.
One must wonder how it feels to be called a “curse”, an experience that scholars from marginalized caste backgrounds go through too often.
Unanswered questions and (some) unverified answers
Despite the public statements released by NCBS and the PI, several questions remain unanswered. I am enumerating some of them below (I had also put up a Twitter thread with some of these questions).
The paper in question had four authors, including the PI and the student who has been accused of committing the forgery. Did either of the other two authors have any information about any part of the data being forged?
In the retraction note as well as in the statement on her website, the PI has mentioned that they no longer have access to the raw data. However, the PI had posted the raw data on PubPeer when the issue had first started. Also, the PI has initially said that the lab would be happy to provide any constructs to any researcher who would like to independently test the claims of the paper. But the PI’s recent statement says that the student left abruptly without sharing original constructs and raw data. How did the PI have access to the raw data for uploading on PubPeer if the student left abruptly without sharing it? How is it that there was no lab inventory where constructs used for experiments were stored, especially for such an influential study?
NCBS claims to have formed a committee with an external member to inquire about this issue. Who were members of this committee? Who was the external? What was the methodology used by this committee? Did they talk to the accused student? Did they talk to other students, former and present, from the PI’s lab?
Given that somebody has mentioned that the lab has a tense environment and that she is known to push students for results that corroborate bioinformatics predictions, was this factored into the NCBS investigation?
Did the committee have a student representative? If not, how can the committee trust the response of an already-shaken student who was then brought to testify in front of senior researchers?
Since I first asked these questions, I have received some answers from a few sources. While I cannot reveal the sources or independently validate their claims, I am listing the information I have received below. If anybody would like to validate or contest the following information with appropriate evidence, I would be happy to engage.
A source mentioned that the investigation committee did speak to the accused student as a part of the investigation.
A source mentioned that the accused student was handed a No-Objection Certificate while leaving the institute. This shakes the foundation of the claim that the student left abruptly since the student must have had to go through official proceedings that involved the PI before being able to leave.
Two sources have independently mentioned that the external member in the investigating committee was from the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (inSTEM). For those who do not know, inSTEM and NCBS are in the same campus space; in fact, the husband of the PI in question is an influential faculty at inSTEM (while sources have confirmed that the external member was not the husband, readers may be interested to note that two papers of which the husband was the first author and one paper from the husband’s lab have also been flagged on PubPeer). For all practical purposes, a faculty from inSTEM cannot be considered as an “external” member to an investigation happening in NCBS. This raises concerns about conflicts of interest as well as the integrity of the investigation process.
A source has mentioned that the committee was a three-member committee, and had the director of NCBS, a faculty from NCBS and a faculty from inSTEM (the “external”). The faculty from NCBS who was in this committee is, purportedly, a friend of the PI whose work is in question.
The PI-student binary
When CNR Rao was accused of plagiarism, the blame was quickly shifted to the graduate student who was the first author of the paper. Similarly, the response of the PI to the current incident mentions that the manipulations were done by “one author”, who is, as everybody has guessed, the first author of the paper and ex-graduate student in the PI’s lab. However, while we stick to this PI-student binary too often, anybody who knows about the current cultures of doing science knows that this binary is pretty shaky at its best—PIs and graduate students often work together, prepare figures of their data together, write a paper together, etc. Blame, therefore, has to be shared in such a case—there is no way to point fingers at one side of this pretty misleading binary.
Science is not just unforgiving; in fact, its forgiveness is proportional to the power one holds in the science “ecosystem”—the one with more power is going to have it at least a little easier than the one with less power. Vasudevan Mukunth, the editor of The Wire Science, has written aptly that “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.”
Therefore, it is crucial that we discuss what impact does the PI-student binary have on cultures of doing science, and in cases like this where there is an accusation of scientific malpractice, who in this binary is going to be the worst hit.
A comment on the cultures of doing science
Ethics is intricately linked to practice; no student comes to science knowing what constitutes scientific integrity and good ethical practices. It is the responsibility of senior scientists and science institutions to impart proper ethics training to students before they start working. While most institutions do have training programs in place, these programs are often perfunctory.
In this context, I suggest that these programs and courses be revised to include training in philosophy of science and ethics, and students be trained to critically evaluate their own work (and not just works of others) critically. Like Ayush Gupta, a faculty at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, points out, it is important to expand the scope of ethical training to also include larger concerns about the social responsibility of scientists and science.
Students are not to be infantilized; they are independent adults with independent decision-making processes. Their judgments are trustworthy. However, judgements are made in the context of prior knowledge, and when students do not have a good understanding of what constitutes poor ethical practices, errors in judgment are bound to happen. These errors in judgment do translate into errors in practice. It is no wonder that papers from India have a very high retraction rate; the issue is not of individual papers but of how science in India works.
If Indian science has to progress, it seriously needs to evaluate the way it is done. I hope this is a clarion call for us to take this evaluation seriously.
The need to make the investigation report public
In light of these incidents, I argue that the Indian science ecosystem would benefit significantly if NCBS makes its investigation report public. My arguments are simple.
Firstly, since science is often a publicly funded exercise, scientists are publicly accountable. When an influential study is called out for data forgery and manipulation, everybody has the right to know what transpired and how the whole incident was investigated. Making the investigation report public would give us insights into the methodology of the investigation, the rigour of the whole process, and further clarity into the findings of the committee. Moreover, it will also help dispel any concerns we have about the integrity of the investigation process.
Secondly, one must remember that neither do we have a good way of reaching out to the accused student or the PI nor is it advisable. The student and the PI both (along with other members of the lab) are quite possibly in a tenacious state of mental health, and any further prodding might cause more harm than good. In this context, if the investigation committee has indeed spoken to the student, then the report is possibly the only source of information about the student’s perspective on the whole incident. Moreover, it will also highlight further details from the PI’s side, and help us see things more clearly.
Thirdly, irrespective of whether the investigation report stands the test of scrutiny or not, it would be an important exercise in learning. If the investigation is indeed found to be rigorous and unbiased, then it can act as a precedent to any such incidents in the future. If the investigation is found to have flaws, then one can use that as an opportunity to learn and to make the situation better. Since science academia has a rather strict hierarchy and the PI is, indeed, in a more powerful position than the student, it is important to scrutinize the report to understand if the investigation was unfair in any way towards the student. Making the report public sheds light on these issues and helps us set a precedent towards not just better accountability but also better processes of asking for accountability in Indian science.
This is not to say that there has been no accountability. The PI has, indeed, taken responsibility as the corresponding author. The paper has been retracted fairly quickly (by science standards), and an apology has been issued.
However, this is just not good enough. We need better accountability, and we need it now!
Update on July 19, 2021: A follow-up of this post has been published here.
Update on July 31, 2021: Another follow-up of this post has been published here.