New Delhi: Eleven research papers co-authored by Gobardhan Das, a scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who was a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in the West Bengal assembly elections, have been flagged for allegedly carrying manipulated images.
The papers were flagged on PubPeer, a website that allows scientists to discuss and review research papers after publication. While the website is primarily used by scientists to discuss published work, people can also post on it anonymously.
In comments posted on the website over the last two months, 11 papers — most of them covering research related to tuberculosis (TB) — have been flagged for alleged manipulation of images on experiments.
In some instances, the comments alleged that parts of images look identical despite belonging to different experiments. In other instances, it was alleged that different experiments were shown using the same image, differentiated only by contrast settings.
Das, a professor at JNU’s Special Centre for Molecular Medicine, is the corresponding or main author of eight of these papers and a co-author for the rest. Ved Prakash Dwivedi, a researcher at the Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, is a co-author of five of the 11 papers. Anand Ranganathan, a professor at the same JNU centre, is a co-author of three of the 11 papers, among others.
According to experts, comments on PubPeer are not in themselves proof of research fraud, but they can trigger probes. Editors of journals where the papers are published may take note and contact the researchers or the institution involved.
Speaking to ThePrint, Das said the issues are being addressed and there is no need for a controversy here. He claimed that he was being targeted due to his political affiliation.
Dwivedi told ThePrint that he is “happy” people are reading their research papers, adding that most of the concerns have been responded to on PubPeer itself.
Ranganathan declined to comment when reached by ThePrint.
Nothing substantial here, says Das
Gobardhan Das, who made headlines last year after proposing the theory that BCG vaccine (used to protect against TB) can offer protection against Covid, said he was being targeted for his political affiliation.
“I am an applicant for the directorship of a big institute and people are trying to pull me down,” Das told ThePrint. However, he didn’t wish to reveal the name of the institute he was referring to.
“All of this (comments on PubPeer) has appeared after I applied for a directorship position. Whatever has been flagged is very minor, there is nothing substantial there,” Das claimed.
The comments on PubPeer have appeared over the last two months, flagging papers dating as far back as 2006.
“If anybody has any problem, I welcome them to talk to me directly, purely on science,” he said.
He pointed out that many of the allegations on the website were made anonymously. Moreover, some readers, who are not linked with his group or his research papers, also did not agree with the allegations and wrote in support of Das and his group.
“We also responded to the queries appropriately,” Das said. “People can of course ask questions, and we are responding to the questions raised on PubPeer. If you search for research from serving directors and researchers from institutes like IISc and NCBS, there are always such comments.
“There is nothing wrong with the images. In any case, the images are collected by students,” he added.
Das said that there is always room for corrections in the scientific community. “If I refuse to make corrections when there are genuine mistakes, then there is a problem. But if I am willing to make corrections then what is the sense in maligning my name?” he said.
Das said whenever he has been contacted by a journal, he has responded and made corrections if required. “So far, nobody proved our papers are wrong,” he said.
“Targeting somebody without any proof is unethical and biased, especially when many others also have papers in the same site. Is it my political affiliation that is bothering some people?” he said.
Last year, Das published a research paper in Nature, looking at the correlation between BCG vaccination and Covid disease incidence and mortality across several age groups of different countries. He had also told ThePrint in a video interview in April 2020 that India’s mass BCG immunisation may be helping slow down the spread of Covid.
His team did not conduct any clinical trials, but the Indian Council of Medical Research launched a clinical trial to test whether the BCG vaccine could protect against severe Covid disease. The study failed to prove any link.
Das unsuccessfully fought the West Bengal elections this year as the BJP candidate from Purba Bardhaman’s Purbasthali Uttar constituency.
‘Most of the concerns responded to on PubPeer’
Ved Prakash Dwivedi said there were some “human errors” in one of the papers flagged, published in the journal PLoS Pathogens. “We have already contacted the journal, and these are being rectified,” Dwivedi said.
“The PubPeer platform is a very useful platform for discussions with scientists, and I am very happy that people are reading our papers with so much interest,” said Dwivedi. “Most of the concerns have been responded to on PubPeer itself,” he added.
“PubPeer should be used to discuss the data, and not to drag people into controversies.”
Do comments on PubPeer amount to much?
Soumyadeep Bhaumik, co-head of the meta-research and evidence synthesis unit at the Delhi-based George Institute for Global Health, said: “There is not much the editor can do by themselves, especially since the journals do not have the data, or the jurisdiction to launch a probe.
“Instead, the editors usually contact the research group or the institution with the concern raised. It is then on the institution to investigate and respond. Journals may either issue a note of concern, make corrections or retract the article, as required,” said Bhaumik, who serves on the editorial boards of multiple global health journals.
“In some cases the authors themselves may decide to retract the paper… If the allegations are of serious nature, and the manipulation seems obvious, the journal may take a call to retract the paper,” he added.
Rahul Siddharthan, a researcher at the Chennai-based Institute of Mathematical Sciences said, “When you find an image that is claimed to be from one experiment, but is identical to one that is from a different experiment, then there is a problem.
“It could, in some cases, be an honest error that does not affect the results of the paper. But in all cases the author should look into the paper and clarify,” he said.
In many cases, an explanation from the author on the PubPeer platform is satisfactory, but that explanation should be forthcoming.
“Eleven papers being flagged for the same author is a lot,” said Siddharthan, speaking about Das’ case.
There is complete transparency, Ranganathan says
Two days after ThePrint published the report, JNU’s Anand Ranganathan took to Twitter to post his response, claiming he had not declined to give a comment to the reporter.
In the tweet, he posted the following response:
- There is complete transparency as there should be. The students who conducted the experiments have clarified with their detailed responses on PubPeer site itself. Therefore, to simply mention that Prof Das’ papers have been ‘flagged’ gives an incorrect picture because what was flagged has been adequately responded to. In other words, there were queries by anonymous/scientists/non-scientists on PubPeer and they were addressed. Prof Das has published 100 papers. If tomorrow 90 of them are commented upon, would one say 90 of his papers have been ‘flagged’? It should be noted that thousands of papers where Indian scientists are authors have been commented upon or ‘flagged’ by the public and their queries addressed. The final arbiter in all cases is the journal, and none of Prof Das’ 11 papers mentioned in Pubpeer have either been retracted or asked by the journal to be retracted. Propriety required the reporter to have waited till the journals, if needed, arbitrated.
- Just to illustrate this very briefly: Although none of the figures that were commented upon related to experiments done in my lab, of the couple of cases where I am a co-author in the papers where Prof Das is corresponding or a co-author, for one paper, the PubPeer comment was that in a figure, the merged micrograph did not correspond with the DIC and FITC micrographs. The student from my collaborator’s lab who did the experiment immediately supplied image proof and clarified that the micrographs were from the same erythrocyte but taken at different z-positions. The matter rested there. In another case, the comment was that the Western blots for various antibodies were run separately. Again, the student from my collaborator’s lab who conducted the experiment immediately clarified that as per the journal guidelines, complete uncut gel pictures have to be produced for each protein, and therefore for each antibody, a separate gel was run. The matter rested there. In other words, there was neither image manipulation nor duplication in these cases. The science reporter should have been able to immediately realise this reading the responses.
- PubPeer is a valuable resource site for scientists and queries, comments by the public regarding published work should not only be welcomed they should be appreciated as well.
ThePrint’s Mohana Basu responds
The reporter had reached Anand Ranganathan by email at 11 am on 4 August, asking for his comments. The email stated the purpose of contacting Ranganathan and mentioned that the news report would be published the same day.
A follow-up email was sent at 1.48 pm the same day, asking if Ranganathan was willing to offer any comment. When no response was received, the reporter reached Ranganathan’s office landline, which went unanswered. The reporter then reached Gobardhan Das via WhatsApp, asking for Ranganathan’s personal phone number.
When the reporter called Ranganathan on his personal phone number, he answered and said he was in a hospital. When asked when she should call him back, Ranganathan replied saying he did not want to say anything.
ThePrint report quotes Prof. Gobardhan Das and Ved Prakash Dwivedi extensively, where they clarified and defended their work. It would have similarly published Ranganathan’s version as well if he had responded.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.