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Ethics dispute over skull study

New Delhi, Jun 08: An American scholar has accused a Calcutta-based anthropologist of scientific misconduct after he published a research paper identifying her as a coauthor without her knowledge and without due credit to an American student.

The paper by Anek Ram Sankhyan, a senior scientist with the Anthropological Survey of India, Calcutta, and Gwen Robbins Schug, a bioarchaeologist from the Appalachian State University in the US, describes signs of brain surgery in a 4300-year old Harappan skull.

Robbins Schug, the principal investigator on a research project approved by the Indian and US governments to study skeletal remains from Indus valley sites, has said she is in broad agreement with the paper’s findings published in the journal Current Science this week.

But she has complained to the Indian Academy of Sciences, the journal’s publishers, that the paper reports the results of her research, and Sankhyan had published it without her knowledge or approval.

“This is an outrageous violation of scientific ethics,” Robbins Schug said, claiming that the paper describes a skull that she and her student Kelsey Gray had examined in January this year. “A research paper that I had never seen has been secretly published with my name on it. It also gives no credit to Kelsey who had studied the specimen with me,”Robbins Schug told The Telegraph.

Sankhyan has denied wrongdoing, but admits he did not show Schug the manuscript before submitting it for publication. “We had discussed this, but I was in the field and could not send her a manuscript as I did not have access to a server (computer),” Sankhyan said.

He told The Telegraph that the skull has been a part of the ASI repository in Calcutta for many years, and that he had independently studied it “earlier”. Sankhyan also claimed that Gray had been involved in “other research projects”.

“She came as a student to learn things students cannot be authors,” Sankhyan said.

But that claim is challenged by many scientists who say even undergraduate students in India have participated in research. “Students can make meaningful contributions,” said Milind Watwe, a biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, who has himself published more than a dozen papers over the past decade with undergraduates, some with students as first authors.

Independent scientists say research papers should have consent from all authors.

“Submission of a paper without the consent of a coauthor is a serious breach of ethics,” said Niranjan Joshi, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who is also associateeditor of the journal Current Science.

Email records suggest that Sankhyan had in February this year specifically instructed Robbins Schug not to make public any observations that she had made from her analysis of the skeletal remains at the ASI and, instead, report them to him.

Robbins Schug had, in an email sent to Sankhyan in February this year, outlined some of her new findings, including the evidence of surgery on the 4300-year-old skull. She had also sought permission to photograph the specimens.

In his response to her email, Sankhyan had told Robbins Schug that they needed to describe the skull in greater detail, but also asked her to avoid the temptation of disseminating any new observations she had made through email and to “discuss with me straight away”.

Robbins Schug is now concerned that more of her research project findings that she had communicated to Sankhyan in person and via email may be appropriated. “This is not how research collaborations work this should not happen,” she said.

Some scientists believe the publication of the paper without consent of a coauthor reflects a practice that editors of Indian scientific journals have encountered in the past. “We have seen authors giving credit to coauthors without permission,” Joshi said. “We try and check, but can’t do this all the time.” He said the academy will examine Robbins Schug’s complaint and address it, perhaps through a correction.

Two years ago, Robbins Schug was part of an Indian-American team that had reported the world’s oldest evidence of leprosy in a 4000-year-old skeleton from an Indus site called Balathal in Rajasthan.

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