Indicted there, acquitted here

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By G.S. MUDUR in Delhi
  • Published 5.03.07

New Delhi, March 5: Alleged data manipulation by biologists in an Indian government laboratory has triggered controversy with a leading US journal withdrawing their research paper.

The Journal of Biological Chemistry a week ago pulled out the paper, which it had accepted in 2005 from award-winning scientist Gopal Kundu and his colleagues at the National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune.

But a committee of Indian scientists had exonerated the research team after an investigation triggered by an anonymous email received by the laboratory last May.

The seven-member committee had said it was “convinced there is no evidence for manipulation... the email has been sent with malicious intent to spoil the reputation of the NCCS”.

The journal’s decision has baffled India’s academic community. “It suggests the JBC found something that the committee had not found or had overlooked,” said Nandula Raghuram, secretary of the Society for Scientific Values (SSV), an academic watchdog.

“I think the journal has taken a harsh decision,” said Govindrajan Padmanaban, committee chairman and former director of the Indian Institute of Science. “Our investigation was not inferior to any review (by the journal).”

The anonymous email alleged that NCCS scientists had used the same photographic strips to depict the results of different experiments in two papers dealing with the molecular mechanisms of cancer.

The journal’s review concluded there was data in a second paper that was reproduced from a previously published paper without citation and with different labelling.

Kundu, author of highly cited research papers, including 14 in the JBC, and winner of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award for outstanding science in 2004, denies this.

“Both experiments were done by the same student with similar biological material and similar objectives,” he said. He has asked the JBC why apparent similarities in two photographic strips out of nearly 80 in the paper have prompted a withdrawal.

A scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said the suggestion that photographic strips were fabricated was “outrageous”. Medicine professor Renate Pilz put the similarities in the photographic strips down to similarities in the experiments. “On close inspection of enlarged electronic figures, differences can be found.”

Padmanaban said research papers are usually withdrawn when experimental results cannot be reproduced. “This is not the case here.”

The SSV, which met in Delhi to discuss the issue, said it “takes a serious view of plagiarism, even self-plagiarism.”