Rehashing catches up - Once-acquitted biologist barred for 3 years

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  • Published 14.11.10

New Delhi, Nov. 13: An apex association of Indian scientists today debarred for three years a senior biologist who had been accused of plagiarism by international scientific journals three years ago but was exonerated by a government panel of top scientists.

The unprecedented action by the Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences, after an internal investigation by its ethics committee, appears to vindicate claims by some scientists that the government-appointed panel had tried to shield the accused.

At its annual meeting in Goa today, the academy endorsed the decision by its ethics committee (which was accepted by the academy’s council in July) and barred Gopal Kundu from participating in the academy’s activities for three years, beginning August 2010.

Nor can Kundu, a research scientist at Pune’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), propose any candidates for fellowship of the academy during this period.

The prestigious US-based Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) had in February 2007 withdrawn a research paper by Kundu, accusing him of reusing images he had published in an earlier paper.

Another journal, Glycoconjugates Journal, too, had withdrawn a paper by Kundu because it had substantial similarities with a paper he had himself published previously in the JBC.

But a seven-member panel set up by the department of biotechnology, which funds the NCCS, had exonerated Kundu. The panel was chaired by Govindarajan Padmanaban, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, who is also a fellow of the academy.

Kundu has denied the charges. “I know that I am being targeted by a couple of fellows of the academy who have retired and have no other work,” he told The Telegraph from Pune.

“This is a six-year-old story and I do not know why people are still raking it up. Even after the journal (JBC) withdrew the paper, it has been cited in top international scientific journals at least 15 times, taking the total citations on the disputed paper to 30,” he said.

Kundu said the controversy related to a few images used in the control data and that these images would not have had any impact on the final findings of the paper.

Senior members of the academy’s council said they could not recall a similar instance when a fellow had been punished for scientific misconduct.

Scientists who had earlier criticised the Padmanaban panel for exonerating Kundu say the academy’s finding vindicates their suspicions that the panel members had tried to shield the accused or downplay the alleged scientific misconduct.

“No country is free of individual scientific misconduct. But it is important for a country to have government institutions to effectively deal with such cases,” said Nandula Raghuram, a biotechnology faculty member at Indraprastha University, New Delhi.

Raghuram is also a member of the Society of Scientific Values, an academic ethics watchdog that had independently investigated the allegations and charged Kundu with copying the images. “This episode shows that the government mechanisms to deal with this case had been compromised,” Raghuram said.

A senior academy council member said the ethics committee had not been tasked with examining the earlier panel’s conclusions, and conceded that government mechanisms to handle scientific misconduct appeared to be deficient.

“Unfortunately, it’s true. The academy conducted its independent investigation. It was not looking at how other panels had investigated this,” said academy treasurer Srinivasan Chandrasekharan.

Contacted at his home in Bangalore, Padmanaban said he respected the academy’s decision. “But, at the same time, I want to stand by the decision of my committee,” he said.

Padmanaban said he had always felt that an error had been committed. “This may have happened because of sloppiness in record-keeping.”

But he said that internationally, no scientist had contested the genuineness of the papers. “Kundu has gone through a lot for a minor mistake,” Padmanaban said.

After the controversy erupted three years ago, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, had analysed the images from Kundu’s papers and claimed they were identical — thus supporting the JBC decision.

“I’m glad the academy has recognised that a scientific misconduct has taken place,” said Rahul Siddharthan from the Chennai institute.