As the global trends suggest there are more scientific frauds with more science. With the increasing number of scientific institutions, journals and soaring publications, it seems that the established norms of science like organised scepticism and disinterestedness are fading and that normal checks and balances like peer review are losing efficacy. Recent scandals like Hwang Woo-Suk's fake stem-cell lines or Jan Hendrik Schön's duplicated graphs are some of the evidences proving that it is easy to publish fabricated data in prestigious journals. An investigative team from Korea found that Hwang' evidence supporting the existence of a human embryo clone was fake. Moreover, Hwang also indulged in the unethical practice of collecting his research material from his junior researchers. Schön, a young physicist working at Bell Laboratory, USA, published eight papers in a single year. He claimed a spectacular discovery of organic electrical laser, a triumph of nanotechnology and managed to win many prestigious awards. This turned out to be fraudulent. Science retracted all his papers and he lost his PhD too. This kind of incidents not only leads to wastage of resources but may pose a serious threat to human health.
Scientific misconduct would broadly constitute not only violation of standard code of scholarly conduct but also ethical behaviour in scientific research by various acts of commission and omission on the part of actors in the scientific enterprise. This would include communication or publication of fabricated research data, falsification or manipulation of data to prevent a certain result, plagiarism or act of taking credit of work of another or willfully suppressing citation of prior discovery.
India is no exception to this increasing global menace. In recent times, with a sudden expansion of scientific output, there are increasing reports of scientific misconduct. The majority of cases reported are of plagiarism as it is easy to detect and relatively cheaper technologies in terms of software are available to detect the same. However, there are many cases of misconduct like fabrication or falsification of data that go unnoticed not only because it involves cost but also in the absence of any regulatory authority, comprehensive studies, scientific accountability and awareness. The task is compounded by the fact that this phenomenon is reportedly not confined to younger scientists or mid-career professionals but to organisational heads of national institutes, IIT faculties, and vice-chancellors. Some of the widely publicised controversies are B S Rajput and colleagues in the field of theoretical physics. Rajput was vice-chancellor and was alleged of plagiarising old papers and also successfully published in prestigious international journals along with other colleagues. He resigned after the enquiry upheld the charges and maintained that the papers were published without his consent by his student. Hence, it is no wonder that scientists at subordinate level also get protected.
Yet another case involving a vice-chancellor was of Kalyan Kumar and colleagues at North Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology. It was alleged that he plagiarised three papers that had similarity with some old work of IIT professors. P Chiranjeevi, a chemistry professor of Sri Venkateswara University was accused of plagiarising more than 70 research papers published between 2004 and 2007 and a disciplinary action was taken against him by the University Executive Council. More recently in August 2011, Sangiliyandi Gurunathan, head, Department of Biotechnology of Kalasalingam University was removed from his post as eight of his research papers were found to be manipulated and retracted and the university also revoked registration of his six PhD students. The list does not end here as some of the private practitioners were also observed to be involved in scientific misconduct. More recently some of the MNCs operating in the country, in order to influence policy, were reportedly involved in misconduct. A study conducted for the period 2001-2010 for the retracted papers by Indian scientists revealed an increasing rate of retraction of published papers in prestigious journals mainly due to plagiarism or self-plagiarism. The reported rate of retraction due to misconduct of 44 per 1,00,000 papers is also observed to be much higher than the world average for all retractions of about 17 per 100,000 papers.
Many prominent scientists have advocated a statutory body on the lines of the Office of Research Integrity in the USA. However it is debatable, especially in the context S&T structure in India, whether it is more suitable for India to have an independent research integrity office or locating it within the government department. Contrary to the US situation, public sector science is predominant with an overwhelming proportion of 84 per cent R&D investment as against only 26 per cent in the private sector. In the last decade or so, India has witnessed an unprecedented level of growth in scientific publication, patenting activity, an increased level of international collaboration, FDI investment in R&D and clinical trials for drug discovery. Along with this, there has been a heightened level of environmental and ethical consciousness with the emergence of bio- and nano-technologies.
The repercussions of scientific misconduct are more serious for human health and the misconduct reported is much higher in this sector as well. Though in India it is difficult to provide any such data with confidence, it seems that the misconduct reported is evenly spread in all fields of science rather than one or two areas or research institutes/universities. This is reflected in reported cases of misconduct posted on the Society for Scientific Values (SSV). A society like SSV devoid of any legal powers to take action against scientific misconduct does provide moral pressure to act against any omission or commission leading to comprises of scientific standards and ethics. The influence of such voluntary organisations is also reflected in the fact that three directors of national institutes were removed following indictment by SSV.
The cost involved in frauds, its investigation and remediation is not simply in terms of financial and human resources but also in terms of time energy and more importantly in terms of prestige of a scientific organisation or a nation as a whole. Hence, to promote scientific excellence and to bolster the image of Indian science a question arises whether India has the adequate mechanism to deal with the issues of scientific misconduct in a rapidly expanding scientific activities. Moreover, is it high time for evolving an independent regulatory agency with adequate infrastructure and legal power to strengthen standards and ethical practice of Indian science?
Pranav N Desai is professor, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.