Saturday, July 26, 2014

A well-handled retraction

Recently, the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH) made headlines for a rather unfortunate reason: data fraud. Three papers published by a research group at IMTECH in the journal PLoS ONE were retracted earlier this month for "fabrication of data", and now another four are being retracted as well. The first author on these studies (Dr. Fazlurrahman Khan) has reportedly resigned from the institution.

PLoS ONE, an open access journal, is considered both prestigious and rigorous; in a Science paper that used a fake article to expose abysmal peer review standards in open-access journals, PLoS ONE was commended for its "rigorous peer review" and for being "the only journal that called attention to the paper's potential ethical problems", eventually rejecting the fake study for lack of scientific quality. Even so, the review process for the first three papers had failed to catch any of the manipulated data; Willem van Schaik, editor of one of the papers, later told the blog Retraction Watch that three separate reviewers had edited the papers, making it harder to notice any glaring errors, and that "even with hindsight, I find it difficult to find which data have been fabricated."

 It was Dr. Khan's former post-doc boss at Georgia Tech who, noticing some similarities between the published data and the work that Dr. Khan had done during his postdoc, contacted the Director of IMTECH, Dr. Girish Sahni. Commendably, an inquiry committee was immediately set up to investigate the matter, and found that "there are no data available underlying this study and thus that the published results are fabricated". The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), with which IMTECH is affiliated, immediately requested a retraction of the three papers in question.

IMTECH and its Director should be applauded for their proactive stance in response to the initial allegations of fraud. Rather than retreating behind a veil of silence, they chose to immediately investigate the matter; a newspaper report found Dr. Sahni to be "frank about the case", providing information readily, unlike the culture in other Indian research institutions, where journalists seeking information on such cases are usually stonewalled. The institute is also investigating how much responsibility for the data fraud lies with corresponding author on the retracted studies. In Dr. Sahni's words "We want to confront it and not hide it...Better to throw light and learn from the process...At the end of the day, we must remember that the end result of such shortcuts is not good."

Equally important, the entire fiasco also throws an unflattering light on the culture of scientific advancement in India, where progress through the establishment is partially based on the number of papers published by a research group, running the risk of prioritizing quantity over quality. The corresponding author is apparently listed as a co-author on 9 publications in 2014 alone (and the year isn't over yet!). Moreover, six out of the seven retracted publications followed more or less the same study design, where a bacterium would be isolated from a natural source and found to be capable of metabolizing complex chemicals. This may make for an impressive resume, but the scientific merit of this style of modestly incremental research is debatable.

India, unfortunately, doesn't have a good track record when it comes to handling allegations of scientific fraud. The impulse is to bury the matter as quickly as possible and erase it from collective memory, whether the allegations are true or not. Recent high profile retraction cases (I wrote about one here) have emphasized that scientific fraud is a worldwide problem. However, it's the kind of open and honest attitude demonstrated by the authorities at IMTECH, as well as the promptness of their investigation, that can help to detect problems early and hopefully act as a deterrent in the future. A similar commitment to upholding ethical standards in scientific research needs to be made evident by more institutes in India if we ever hope to become a world-class scientific powerhouse.

1 comment:

  1. The main currency in the world of science is authorship. Authorships enable scientists to accumulate citations, which seem to be established as the 'true' measure of successful and important science.
    THE FIRST AUTHOR: The first author is usually the Lead Author or a person who has performed the central experiments of the project. Often, this individual is also the person who has prepared the first draft of the manuscript. The lead author (first author) is ultimately responsible for ensuring that all other authors meet the requirements for authorship as well as ensuring the integrity of the work itself.
    I think that one who puts the most intellectual energy and is responsible for the research and paper production should be the first author.
    The first author is the one responsible for the whole manuscript without any doubt in life sciences. He is also responsible for preparing the manuscript and analyzing the data.
    The Corresponding Author roll handles all correspondence regarding the paper from submission to decision and/or publication.
    “The corresponding author does not have sole responsibility”..
    The role of the corresponding author includes acting as a conduit between the publisher and co-authors. This involves distributing any comments or peer-reviews from the publisher to the authors, collating their feedback for return to the publisher; distributing galley-proofs (now usually sent as PDFs) to the co-authors and collating their feedback for return to the publisher; circulating copyright release and permission forms to the co-authors and collating these for return to the publisher as a package; and, after publication, distributing e-prints in response to requests.

    My thought / view must say that the FIRST AUTHOR IS THE LEAD AUTHOR & He/She is the only & totally responisble for his/her research publication without any doubt/s in the Scientific Community.

    best regards,

    Dr.Maulin P Shah
    Chief Scientist & Head
    Industrial Waste Water Research Laboratory
    Division of Applied & Environmental Microbiology
    Enviro Technology Limited