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After recall of paper over data manipulation, NCBS storm over charges of ‘harassment’

TIFR reviews research practices amid allegations of students being under considerable ‘pressure’ from superiors

Underlying the recent retraction of a scientific paper by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, because it relied on manipulated data, are allegations of inordinate pressure on students from superiors, often at the threat of their careers being harmed, The Hindu has learnt.

While the controversy in one of India’s most prestigious labs erupted over a research paper, the issues it has thrown up have now prompted a relook at research practices as well an investigation by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) academic ethics committee. The TIFR is the parent body of the NCBS.

On late Friday, a press note from the Director, TIFR said: “Recently, allegations of academic malpractice have been levelled in the press and social media against TIFR-NCBS faculty member Dr Arati Ramesh. The retraction of the Nature Chemical Biology paper with Dr .Ramesh as the senior author took place after a full inquiry, as required by the NCBS Research Misconduct policies, into the data trail related to images in the Nature Chemical Biology paper that showed evidence of manipulation. The NCBS Management Board was informed about this investigation. The committee’s final report is currently under review by the TIFR Academic Ethics Committee, who will determine if further investigation and/or action are warranted.”

On October 5, 2020, the paper “Discovery of iron-sensing bacterial riboswitches” was published online in the well-regarded journal Nature Chemical Biology.

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 paper evoked significant media attention basis its findings, as it was the first instance of an RNA molecule being able to detect iron, opening the possibility of designing specialised iron sensors. Bandopadhyay was a Ph.D. student.

Within days of publication, anonymous reviewers on PubPeer — a site that enables research papers to be discussed after publication — pointed out anomalies in the images that were submitted along with the research paper by way of proof. Dr. Ramesh initially defended the sanctity of the images but informed the Institute, which set up an investigation committee, which after an investigation, recommended that the paper be retracted. The Hindu had reported this on July 7.

A post-script, warning that there were problems with the paper’s data, appeared with online versions of the paper as far back as December, 2020 but the paper was formally retracted only on June 30, 2021. The official reasons cited were: “…because of issues with data integrity and reproducibility… and that concerned authors didn’t have access to the raw data for these experiments.” In a statement, Dr. Ramesh added that the student responsible for the act “..left the lab abruptly within a few days after the investigation (without turning in the correct constructs/strains related to this project and without sharing some of the raw data).”

The committee concluded that the images were manipulated by a single individual, Mr Bandopadhyay. They did this after questioning members of Dr. Ramesh’s lab and accessing raw data from the Ramesh laboratory hard drives and from backup servers connected to the analytic instruments. In the first week of December, Mr Bandopadhyay had left NCBS after getting a No Objection Certificate from the institution.

Correspondence published

Independent journalist Leonid Schneider, on his website For Better Science, on July 14 first disclosed email correspondence between Mr. Bandopadhyay, the investigating committee as well with the institute director, Satyajit Mayor.

In the correspondence, Mr. Bandopadhyay said he and other members of the lab found that while the RNA molecules were sensitive to iron, the numbers to prove it weren’t near the expected theoretical value and Dr. Ramesh repeatedly insisted that the results correspond to what she thought it ought to be.

While not contesting manipulating data, he suggested that the overall culture of the lab was oppressive. “When I joined the lab in 2017, I didn’t even know how to cast an agarose gel or how to even do a simple PCR (polymerase chain reaction). I was told that I have to replicate the data that was generated by someone in the lab and if that does not happen, I will never get to stay in the lab,” these emails say. “…Since the first day I stepped into the lab in Dec 2017, I have seen someone manipulating data.”

The Hindu has independently verified that these emails were indeed written by Mr. Bandopadhyay to the investigators. A person privy to proceedings in the Ramesh lab around the RNA-sensing experiment said that while it wasn’t unusual for lab leaders or Principal Investigators (PI) to be tough on their associates or students, Dr. Ramesh threatened members with dire consequences, such as stalling their academic progress, if the results didn’t conform. “There have been other students, and members in her lab who’ve complained of harassment. Several students leave the lab because of the hostile work environment,” this person told The Hindu.

Dr Ramesh didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Institute Director, Satyajit Mayor told The Hindu that the committee’s mandate was specifically to determine the stage at which data was manipulated. However, beyond the issue of data fraud the Institute was “seriously taking up” these allegations of pressure, he said.

“Considering that there was fraud committed by an individual in the laboratory, and there are allegations raised of pressure, and a stressful atmosphere, we do take harassment allegations very seriously and do NOT condone abusive behaviour of any form on our campus. We are following due process in investigating these allegations, working closely with the Ramesh laboratory to assess change and progress, and re-evaluating our research integrity processes to ensure similar events do not recur at NCBS,” Dr Mayor said.

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