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Two papers based on work at a prominent Indian research institute were retracted earlier this year after its authors were found to have manipulated their images.
Since then, independent experts have identified additional concerns with a larger number of papers from laboratories in various other Indian institutes.
Many of these papers have some of the same authors – and they are affiliated with institutes overseen by the Defence Research and Development Organisation.
Hyderabad: After two papers (this and this) from two laboratories at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, were retracted earlier this year because its authors were found to have manipulated their images, independent experts have identified additional concerns with a larger number of papers from laboratories in various other Indian institutes.
These include various centres of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) – and the concerns are once again centred on possible image manipulation.
50+ papers from DRDO labs
The concerns have been expressed on PubPeer, a platform on which independent, and pseudonymous, scientists can share, discuss and review papers. It is a popular centre on the web for exposing potential signs of fraud in research papers published by scientific journals.
One such user, Actinopolyspora Biskrensis, who also goes by ‘Cheshire’ on Twitter, has thus far flagged 68 bioscience papers from various DRDO laboratories for image problems.
Many of these papers share some authors; some of them are:
Shashi Bala Singh, director of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research and ex-director of the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) and Defense Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) – both DRDO institutes,
Usha Panjwani, scientist at DIPAS,
Gurudutta Gangenahalli, additional director of the division of stem cell research at the DRDO Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS),
Kalpana Bhargava, scientist in the peptide and proteomics division of DIPAS,
Deepika Saraswat, scientist in the experimental biology division of DIPAS,
Sunil Kumar Hota, scientist at DIHAR,
Kalpana Barhwal, assistant professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Bhubaneshwar, and previously affiliated with DIPAS,
Govindasamy Ilavazhagan, director of international affairs at Hindustan Institute of Technology and Science and formerly associated with DIPAS,
Sanjay Dwivedi, director of personnel at DRDO and formerly at various DRDO institutions, including DIHAR, and
Nabo Kumar Chaudhury, scientist at the division of biodosimetry, INMAS.
Cheshire flagged the papers that they did for different various issues, including image manipulation.
For example, a figure in a 2018 paper that includes Shashi Bala Singh has been flagged for possibly reusing a protein image across two images of what the paper reports to be two different western blots. Western blotting is a technique to detect and visualise proteins in a sample. Duplicate bands on two blots are usually impossible. One of the figures appears to contain a flipped version of the band in another figure.
Both Cheshire and image forensics and scientific integrity expert Elisabeth Bik have flagged a 2010 paper that includes Sunil Kumar Hota, Kalpana Barhwal, Govindasamy Ilavazhagan and Shashi Bala Singh as co-authors – for repeating elements in multiple western blots.
A 2016 paper that includes Shashi Bala Singh, and published in the journal PLOS ONE, seems to have overlapping parts in immunohistochemistry images with different labels. Immunohistochemistry is a way to visualise the biomolecules present in a tissue sample.
Biological science broadly is the study of living things and their internal machinations. The bodies of living things almost always contain lots of liquids, typically water, and are also host to a mind-boggling number of biochemical reactions happening at the same time. As a result, two images of the same ‘event’ – say, the site of a dozen reactions that a scientist is specifically interested in – are almost never identical in appearance. If they are, the chance that there’s been a mistake is very high.
Another issue seems to be the reuse of figures across papers. For example, two 2016 papers (this and this) and one 2017 paper – all of which list Hota and Barhwal as co-authors – appear to have reused multiple immunohistochemistry images. Each of these three papers claims to use a different version of the immunohistochemistry procedure.
Similarly, two papers (this and this) – both of which include Sunil Kumar Hota, Kalpana Barhwal, Shashi Bala Singh and Govindasamy Ilavazhagan as co-authors – seem to have reused western blot images. Two other papers (this and this), with authors from INMAS and Jamia Millia Islamia, as well as Nabo Kumar Chaudhury, have been flagged for purportedly reusing spleen images with vertical distortions and different descriptions.
Not all papers flagged are about the biological sciences, although the underlying guideline of non-repeatability of images holds for them as well.
A 2010 metallurgy paper from the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) has been flagged for possibly wrongful reuse of an image with different labels and changes in brightness. Another 2008 materials science paper with multiple authors from DMRL, and two from the Advanced Systems Laboratory, Hyderabad, and the Solid State Physics Laboratory, Delhi – both DRDO institutions – appears to have an improbable repeating pattern in the background of an image.
Two papers that include Paramjit Grover of the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Secunderabad, have been flagged. (Note: IICT’s “people” page, however, did not list Grover’s name at the time of publishing this report; Grover’s Google Scholar page was found unavailable as well.)
A 2014 paper that includes one author from DMRL and one from Osmania University, Hyderabad, has overlaps between two differently labelled images. Another paper from 2019 – in which all three authors are from IICT – has repeating elements in one image.
Most concerns that Cheshire flagged haven’t elicited a response from the corresponding authors. But some have responded and some others have also issued corrections acknowledging lack of clarity in descriptions or inadvertent errors.
For example, in 2019, Cheshire had raised concerns in 2019 over a figure in a 2014 paper that includes authors from DIPAS (Kalpana Bhargava) and the Solid State Physics Lab, among others, and Mainak Das from IIT Kanpur. Das had defended an apparent overlap between two differently labelled images saying, “The image was taken purposefully at the same spot (Figure 11 a and 11 b).”
When both Cheshire and another PubPeer commenter, Leucanella Acutissima, asked how cells incubated for 12 hours with a solution could show no changes at all – as the paper seemed to imply, Das mentioned some details of the underlying the imaging process and added, “I appreciate your query and answered to the best of my abilities. Rests I will leave for your judgments.”
However, the paper’s authors published an erratum on October 29, 2021, revising the figure’s caption to reflect their claim that the images were taken from the same spot and that the correction has “no bearing on the results”. The specific query posed by Cheshire and Leucanella Acutissima remains unanswered.
Another 2019 paper with Sanjay Dwivedi as the corresponding author discussed the purported benefits of a novel sunscreen formulation against “UV-radiation induced photoageing”. It was flagged for two reasons: images of what its authors claimed were two separate animals showing an uncanny resemblance, and the image in question appearing to have been “touched up” using a “clone tool”.
Two authors of the paper – Pronobesh Chattopadhyay and Nilutpal Sharma Bora – denied the allegations. According to Chattopadhyay’s PubPeer comment: “The best image selected through the similarity background and difference of conclusive or treatment area.” He also said, “Placebo and treatment (observed lower portion of hairs) and treatment zone are different which [is the] main attraction of the study.”
Bora said that the images were indeed of different animals – that had been placed atop the same newspaper page1 while photographing, and that this could have contributed to the similar backgrounds. But Bora declined to share the raw data, citing copyright issues with the journal (European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences).
In a later comment, he also claimed to have used an image forensics tool to ‘independently’ verify the image manipulation allegations, and said that the tool didn’t support Cheshire’s claims. But when two other PubPeer commenters, Tulipa Fosteriana and Hoya Camphorifolia, provided more evidence of the image having been modified, Bora stopped responding.
Another paper with Pronobesh Chattopadhyay and Nilutpal Sharma Bora as co-authors (among others) was flagged for similarities between two images. Both Chattopadhyay and Bora have denied the possibility.
“In order to represent the results of the study, efforts have been made to select those parts of the tissue sections which are architecturally similar and comparable to each other,” Bora said. “However, this does not imply that the same image has been used to represent the two different groups.”
Similar problems have been identified in a separate 2017 paper by Pronobesh Chattopadhyay and Deepika Saraswat, among others. In response to Cheshire’s concerns, Chattopadhyay denied his involvement in the image in question and directed Cheshire to another author.
Similarly, to concerns about a 2021 paper that shows commonalities between two differently labelled images, co-author Saroj Kumar Das replied, “This mix-up has occurred inadvertently during the selection of images for preparing the final draft for publication. We have communicated to the journal about the inadvertent mistake to notify a corrigendum to this effect”.
When independent experts found a duplication in a 2019 paper that includes Saroj Kumar Das, Kalpana Barhwal, Sunil Kumar Hota and Shashi Bala Singh as co-authors, Das acknowledged the duplication. “This mix-up has occurred inadvertently during the selection of representative track plot images for preparing the final draft for publication. We will communicate to the journal about the inadvertent mistake to notify a corrigendum to this effect through [the] corresponding author.”
(“The corresponding author is the person who handles the manuscript and correspondence during the publication process, including approving the article proofs” – source.)
A 2020 paper, which lists Kalpana Barhwal, Sunil Kumar Hota and O.P. Chaurasia, the director of DIHAR, as co-authors, among others, was flagged for possible manipulation and duplication of western blot bands. In response to Cheshire’s request for raw data, Barhwal responded thus: “Blots have been shown as obtained from scan. Additional information that an uncropped blot could provide is not clear.” She asked any further questions to be directed to Hota. When Cheshire pointed out that the journal specified her to be the corresponding author, she stopped responding.
Finally, Cheshire also flagged a 2020 paper with three authors from DIPAS, for overlaps between differently labelled images. Suvro Chatterjee, the corresponding author of the study and working at Anna University when the manuscript was published, said that the authors were looking into the concerns.
According to Cheshire, they are only “reporting “concerns” and “issues with images” in these papers. They categorically told The Wire Science that they are not making accusations of misconduct, and that “it will be up to the authors and institutions to investigate, and if they choose, to respond. On occasion, journals may take independent action.”
However, Cheshire may have identified one paper, published in 2020, that they suspect could indeed contain misconduct. The authors are affiliated with various colleges in Nagpur and the Nagpur University; one, notably, is from the Defence Terrain Research Laboratory, a DRDO institution.
“I find it difficult to believe that [the] repeated features are natural, and even harder to believe this could occur by accident,” Cheshire told The Wire Science.
Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans science writer, communicator and journalist. They currently work with the feminist multimedia science collective TheLifeofScience.com, and tweet at @queersprings.
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