Belated action on scientific misconduct

Today’s Telegraph has a front-page article by T V Jayan on the Indian Academy of Sciences barring one of its fellows, Gopal Kundu, for three years for scientific misconduct.

Some of the past details are in the article. The controversy was about images of Western blots in two different publications from Kundu’s lab, that purportedly described different experiments, but appeared to be identical. The Society of Scientific Values published a list of the offending figures. An internal investigation at Kundu’s institution found him guilty of misrepresenting data, but a subsequent investigation by an external committee of six eminent scientists exonerated him completely, declaring themselves entirely satisfied that the images, though visually similar, were “indeed different.” I subsequently made my own analysis and published it in Current Science, who followed it with a response from G Padmanaban, the head of the committee that exonerated Kundu.

Jayan’s article contains reactions from several figures, including Kundu, Padmanaban, and me. I think it is a positive sign that the Academy has officially recognised the misconduct. But as I wrote here, misconduct happens everywhere: the disturbing thing was not its occurrence, but its whitewashing by a group of the country’s most eminent scientists, who declared that the images were “indeed different” and went on to claim that accusations of wrongdoing had “malicious intent to spoil the reputation of NCCS”. Now, Jayan’s report says:

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

I find this unacceptable. Either the images were the same, or they were not. If they were the same, Padmanaban and his committee had no business claiming that they were “indeed different”, much less alleging malicious motives. Or if that was his genuine opinion at that time, why has he changed his mind now? Moreover, mere “sloppiness in record-keeping” cannot account for this example, where two western blots were reproduced as a single unit, but with the intervening axis relabelled.

To me, this case is not really about Kundu. It is about our complete lack of appreciation of scientific ethics, and our tendency to “close ranks” when trouble arrives. To succumb to this tendency even after an international journal has conducted its own investigation and made its own decision, and to justify it with a paltry two-page report, merely makes us a laughing-stock.

So it is a good thing that the Academy has, belatedly, tried to correct this.

Now I wait for corrective action on the Academy’s own superficial, authorless, reference-free, and partially plagiarised report that was recently produced on GM crops. So far, the Indian Academy of Sciences has responded only with silence to media criticism, public opinion pieces, private letters from several scientists (including myself), and even a petition calling on the Prime Minister to dismiss all six academy presidents. There has been no significant reaction from the other Academies, either. Gautam Menon and I concluded our recent opinion piece by suggesting that the ethics committee may want to look at this case, and we were not being facetious. Perhaps corrective action can be expected at the Academy’s annual meeting in 2013.

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2 Comments

  1. Gautam Desiraju

     /  November 16, 2010

    In the same way that the images are the same or they are not, Kundu is either guilty or innocent. In the same way, the Academy should either have expelled him or exonerated him. This half way house measure they have taken, sends mixed signals. This whole episode is full of half measures, half statements, and half heartedness.

    Reply
  1. Belated action on scientific misconduct in India « The k2p blog

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