NCBS lab retracts scientific paper after evidence of data fraud

We have put in place processes to further improve scrutiny, says Director

A research paper by scientists at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), among India’s top research institutes and part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, announcing a breakthrough in the field of chemical biology, and published in the prestigious Nature Chemical Biology (NCB), has been retracted as its key findings were manipulated.

On October 5, 2020, the paper “Discovery of iron-sensing bacterial riboswitches” was published online in the NCB. The publication was announced in an NCBS press release on October 6, 2020. Its listed authors were Siladitya Bandyopadhyay, Susmitnarayan Chaudhury, Dolly Mehta and Arati Ramesh, the last of whom was the group leader and is faculty at the NCBS.

The finding was significant as it announced the discovery of a new class of RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules that could detect iron. Thus far, it was thought, iron could be detected only by specialised protein. RNA molecules, it has emerged, could detect nickel, cobalt, manganese but being able to detect iron, a key element that’s vital for governing many biochemical processes, opened the possibility of designing RNA-based sensors. The discovery was widely covered in several media publications.

Though it had ostensibly passed the process of peer-review at the journal, within weeks of the discovery being made public independent commentators pointed to images included with the scientific article, that provided critical proof of the discovery, that appeared manipulated.

In response, Ms. Ramesh uploaded original images and denied image manipulation. Other commentators pointed several more discrepancies in these original files and advised that the NCB be apprised of these anomalies. Ms. Ramesh again defended the images offering a detailed protocol and information on the materials used so that the discovery could be independently replicated.

Ms. Ramesh meanwhile informed Director of the institute Satyajit Mayor of these comments. He set up a departmental inquiry that on November 23 submitted him a report concluding that the images had most certainly been manipulated and that “they were carried out by a single individual”. An independent set of researchers at the NCBS couldn’t replicate the findings, Ms. Ramesh said in a note.

The NCBS hasn’t named the individual responsible, but Mr. Mayor told The Hindu that the person was no longer with the institute. Siladitya Bandyopadhyay and Dolly Mehta also list affiliations to the SASTRA University, a private university in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Mr. Mayor said the authorities there too were informed of the retraction.

The journal formally retracted the paper on June 30 but it was only on Wednesday, the NCBS had issued a press statement on the retraction.

“As the corresponding author, I must bear responsibility and am deeply shocked, disturbed and very saddened that such scientific misconduct could happen under my watch,” Ms. Ramesh said in a statement. The Hindu sent a questionnaire for clarity on how data manipulation that was discerned by independent scientists, by apparently no more than merely observing images, could have passed undetected through her.

Mr. Mayor said Ms. Ramesh proactively informed the institute about the online criticism and the NCBS had also informed funding agencies (DBT-Welcome Trust and Science Engineering and Research Board) about the retraction.

“There is always a degree of trust that you repose in co-workers, without which it becomes very difficult to do science. Science is a human activity and when surprising findings come out, there’s also a sense of excitement. However, it’s important to have a healthy suspicion too,” he told The Hindu. “While concerns with data have emerged earlier too, it’s almost always detected before publication or at the level of the principal investigators. This is the first time, probably, for us, that this wasn’t caught sooner. We have put in place processes to further improve scrutiny.”

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