Disentangling the epidemic of scientific misconduct

A report on the live webinar we hosted to discuss the many facets of scientific misconduct in India
By | Published on Sep 11, 2021

“Scientific misconduct is India’s new habit,” begins a 2019 article on science data fraud in India. Just the previous year, Prakash Javadekar, the then Minister of Higher Education had promised the parliament: “We will end this menace of predatory journals”. This was prompted by the rate of ‘pay-and-publish’ publications skyrocketing, likely due to the UGC mandate of calculating API (academic performance indicator) solely from the number of papers published. 

In the last few years, various high profile cases of probable misconduct have come to light, like this one – a claim from IISc that the holy grail of physics, superconductivity at room temperature had been achieved there. Another case tipped off by red flags on PubPeer that ushered an investigation at CSIR—India’s flagship scientific enterprise. One hundred and thirty papers published from CSIR institutes allegedly made scientific claims based on image duplication and/or manipulation. More than half of these papers came from one particular CSIR institute and involved work done in labs of the chief scientist there, its former Vice-Chancellor as well as the then-VC (who eventually went on to lead yet another CSIR institute). 

Shekhar Mande, the Director General of CSIR reassured us all that a probe had been launched and was quoted as saying: “The committee has been told personally by me to be objective, fair and fiercely impartial in their investigations.” Details of the composition of the probing committee and its findings remain egregiously opaque despite calls from the global scientific community to “make reports of research misconduct public”.

Scientific misconduct is indeed a global phenomenon. The flood of publications we now see has rendered much of science done today incoherent. The majority of the studies published today no longer cater to pressing questions of science within society but are simply out there as supporting evidence of a scientist’s prowess. Studies with minor tinkering manufacturing ‘novelty’ have served only to worsen the replication crisis.

“The replication crisis (also called the replicability crisis and the reproducibility crisis) is an ongoing methodological crisis in which it has been found that many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate or reproduce.” Source: Wikipedia

More recently, there has been a flurry of news reports following specific cases of image manipulation that took place at NCBS and JNU. The institutional and the community’s responses to these incidents have been quite distinct, and analysis on these reactions rooting in rampant casteist and sexist culture of Indian science has been published on this site and elsewhere.

To begin untangling different aspects of the epidemic of scientific misconduct in India, TheLifeofScience.com put together a panel discussion held on September 11, 2021. With four panellists and around 200 attendees, we set out to identify motivations and incentives of Indian scientists indulging in misconduct, as well as find the right vocabulary to discuss scientific misconduct. 

The panel was composed of Mohana Basu, special correspondent (science) at theprint.in, Shaswati Sarbagna, an aspiring science journalist who, until recently, worked in a bioscience lab, Ayush Gupta, Associate Professor at Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education, and Sarbari Bhattacharya, Associate Professor and Principal Investigator (PI) at Bangalore University. 

Each panellist brought forward their perspectives on scientific misconduct from their own experiences and disciplines. The two-hour dialogue unfurled various clues on what consists of scientific misconduct, the systemic frameworks that allow this to occur rampantly, issues of scapegoating of different groups and how power manipulates and controls the narrative on scientific misconduct in India.

What happens when the trust in science is broken?

Mohana shared: “There has always been bad science. But now I realise it is not worth ignoring it.”

“There is a belief that science is self-correcting—there will be bad papers, but others will refute it. Eventually, there is scientific consensus and bad science does not end up affecting public policy. But only recently have we seen this system breakdown amidst the Covid19 pandemic,” she added. An example is the case of malaria drug hydroxychloroquine—it created quite a buzz as treatment for Covid19 based on very preliminary research that has since been discredited. Mohana honed in by pointing out that the drug continued to be part of many countries’ public health response to the pandemic including those most affected like Brazil and India.

“The [perceived] risk in reporting scientific misconduct is [that] we might increase distrust in science among our audiences, but I realise that our audiences are intelligent enough to follow the story”, said Mohana.

What triggers scientific misconduct

Sarbari’s opening comments dwelled into the widespread practice of augmenting publication numbers that are irresponsibly part of what one learns while working in labs up and down the country. As a PI, Sarbari is in a good position to divulge the “trigger points” that lead to scientific misconduct.

According to her, the conditions on which career progression is made possible in science enforce fundamentally “innocent” forms of misconduct, like self-plagiarism and publishing piecemeal results that could have been one sound study. The same conditions sometimes snowball to more serious forms of misconduct like data fraud. The main trigger of misconduct, she said, is the overdependence on “metrics that are used to determine the scientist’s academic worth.”

“It’s a lazy option because it takes a lot of effort to actually look at their academic work. It is easier to just count the number of publications this person has and citations they are getting. That starts leading to a race,” Sarbari said.

The panel urged PIs to reflect on the toxic conditions inside labs that have led to this epidemic. 

Shaswati brought up the all-too-common practice of copying lab journals in science practicals in college, suggesting that research ethics are introduced too late in the course of scientific education. She also pressed against scapegoating and blaming of young students when incidents of misconduct come to light. 

In their opening comments, Ayush widened the scope of what we have been calling scientific misconduct: “An expansion I want to offer is including the impact of science on society. Today is September 11, the anniversary of the attacks in New York that launched wars that still continue today. In these years, it became clear, at least to me, how science and technology are deeply immersed in wars and other social harm.”

“It is not only about the military and weapons. Technology has a deep relationship with society. Society shapes the technology we design, but technology feeds back into society. This bidirectional impact is almost always mixed. Who is designing all this technology? It is scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technology experts. If scientists forge data, we will hold them accountable but when someone designs a weapon or a racist algorithm, we don’t consider that scientific misconduct.” 

They continued: “The harmful impacts of science and technology on society are not simply a function of inaccurate or fraudulent science but rather the standing feature of science. And that’s why I think the definition of scientific misconduct should expand to include the broader purpose and impact of science on society. The practices of science, representation in science and the impacts of science are deeply connected.”

Under pressure

“The PI must shoulder the responsibility of misconduct.” – Shaswati Sarbagna

Shaswati believes it is unfair to blame a single party in a case of scientific misconduct since the pressure is high and co-constructed: When the PI has the pressure to publish, the hierarchical dynamics in labs ensures that the pressure percolates to the students in the lab. 

Shaswati reminded us that when we allow all the pressure to fall on the junior researchers, we have to realise there are no safety nets for young professionals starting out in their careers—something that high profile scientists and those from dominant gender, caste and sexuality can fall back on. Making matters worse, the mental healthcare needed to survive the pressure to publish individually is abysmal in Indian research institutions.

The panel acknowledged unanimously that these structural and institutional issues feed directly into outcomes that lead to mishaps of many kinds. 

“What are these structural and institutional issues telling us? They are simply telling us the idea of thinking about scientific misconduct as an issue of few bad apples is no longer tenable. It’s just not okay anymore,” Ayush said.

“The pressure created by these cultural aspects of science does not affect everyone in science uniformly, it is distributed unevenly,” they added.

Seniority, caste, gender 

The panel suggested that the efficacy demanded by the current institutional practises divide up scientific tasks that are delegated based on social backgrounds and seniority of the people involved. Especially in big labs, Masters and PhD students are the ones carrying out experiments to generate data. When an incident of scientific misconduct comes to light, the blame is easily transferred to those who conducted the experiments and the first authors of the publication, who are often early-career scientists. 

“PIs cannot shake away the blame and rest it all on younger colleagues. Who is going to give us a job if we are solely blamed for misconduct that happens in labs? Aren’t there regular lab meetings to ensure misconduct doesn’t happen?” Shaswati asked. If the institutes come out of the investigation with some harsh decisions, students are at the risk of getting a raw deal. “You are now with this taboo on your head that you could not make it in this elite institute. Who is going to give you a job?

Ayush plugged in important commentary by Arati Kade on how the demand for efficiency forces one to break up the work in ways that reinforce caste. For example, Dalit-Bahujan women often end up doing the data collection and Brahmin’s take up roles that have higher gains and opportunities, they noted.

“Dalit Bahujan women are made to work in the field to gather data, and upper caste academia uses that data to build their theories.” Source: Arati Kade’s article Casteism In Places Of Equality: Dalit Bahujan Women’s Experiences In The Development Sector

Ayush also brought up another work, this one authored by Bittu Kondaiah, Shalini Mahadev and Maranatha Grace Tham Wahlang, which shows that such a network of opportunities in science is mediated through reference letters and social capital. According to Ayush, this “really puts folks from lower castes and tribes, and transgender scientists at a massive disadvantage, because they cannot breakthrough in that network always, and trying to breakthrough puts them in various compromising situations, marginalising them in the process”.

Sarbari weighed in on the uneven impacts of scientific misconduct scandals with the example of women scientists facing several hurdles in their scientific careers: “You might have solved the two-body problem in the institute and settled into a new city…and then everything is uprooted.” 

Mohana spoke from experience when she said, “power pervades everything—how we report the story and how science is done in the lab.” While investigating a story on image manipulation by top Indian scientists with political power that was flagged by commentators PubPeer, Mohana was asked to stay out of it, as if scientific misconduct was up for discussion only among scientists aka an “internal” matter.


A few succinct recommendations emerged from the discussion.

  1. Assessing the quality of research by the number of publications and other such metrics, which happens too frequently in our elite research institutes, cannot go on. This leads to people participating in various forms of misconduct, including augmenting publication numbers by salami-slicing of manuscripts.
  2. Public universities and public funded science cannot be neglected; scientists here are accountable to the public.
  3. Grounding in scientific ethics and conduct has to start from school.
  4. Quality mental health for those who are vulnerable is urgently needed.
  5. The blame game has to stop.
  6. It is essential to have investigative committees with external people who are unbiased.
  7. We need better labs in public schools.

Note: A transcript of the webinar can be found here. We would like to thank Saloni Mehta for their help in transcribing the webinar.

As we could not take up all the questions asked by the audience during the webinar itself, we sent those questions to our panellists. Here are their responses:

1) Would equitable access to lab equipment, journal subscriptions, and funding remove the publish or perish mentality?

Mohana:  While access to lab equipment and journal subscriptions are definitely desirable, and go a long way towards ensuring that academia does not remain a domain of the privileged, I think the publish or perish mentality stems from the way that the education system works as a whole. Unrealistic expectations to perform, intense competition among researchers, the sheer size of our population and the disproportionate availability of jobs—these are problems that need a holistic solution. We need to think about what gets rewarded in academia, and whether those metrics remain relevant. Scientists should be compelled to publish because their data/findings are interesting, not because they need to meet some job criteria. 

Ayush: Oh! I don’t know! Issues of access, of representation, and of competition-culture are associated, for sure. Ideological aspects of the current culture of science—such as the valuing of competition, the attribution of individual geniuses, the valuing of technical as superior to the social, the assumption of science as separate from its impact, etc.—all contribute to and are also derived from systems of domination (including patriarchy, colonialism, casteism, heteronormativity, ableism, class hierarchies, and so on). So, personally, I think in terms of how these are complex adaptive systems with multiple intersecting dimensions of power and I am sceptical of 1-step thinking such as “doing X will solve Y”. This is because it fails to see the very large number of practices and cultural assumptions and values that interlock to form a self-perpetuating system.  

2) In India, caste is something one must factor in when thinking of building an inclusive scientific ecosystem. Could the panellists comment on this?

Ayush: I think the question is how to enact this? I am still learning about Indian academia and about caste (having returned to India last in Oct 2020, after two decades in the US). I am sceptical, however, that often the responses to this end up being focused on students or entry positions. I think one way to build an inclusive (with respect to caste) scientific ecosystem would be to allow folks from marginalized castes to jump over the obstacle course we have constructed for entering and thriving in academia. Hire people from marginalized castes across all ranks, give them resources to be successful; but also, let them define what success means. This would imply challenging our taken-for-granted assumptions about disciplines, success, science, etc. But, I should stop here since I still have a long way to go in understanding issues of caste, and I worry that I am writing things about which I know very very little.

3) Shaswati mentioned having mental health systems, which is crucial. But in the institutes that have such systems, who checks if such a mental health community is working efficiently that it is actually helping people? I feel in most places it is just a formality of establishing it.

Aashima: We are not aware of any checks and balances in place to maintain mental healthcare standards. A recent TLoS report, however, does talk about the worrying state of affairs.

4) Ayush’s comments bring up, in effect, the relationship between science and the state — is “ethics” the appropriate framing for this terrain?

Ayush: I think, yes, that this is the heart of ethics. OK, yes, ethics as conventionally understood is often defined from within a system. But I think that is a problem, because doing that restricts us to only think about things like plagiarism, authorship issues, fidelity to data, etc. and leaves HUGE issues unaddressed such as the relation between science and the state: Whose purpose is science serving? Who gets to define the purpose? etc.

To address this, philosophers in engineering education have been building ethical theories. One development has been to define “macro-ethics” and “micro-ethics”—microethics covers individual responsibility from within the discipline and macroethics looks at the relation of engineering, society, state and so on. When I call for expanding our sense of what counts as misconduct, and to include ideas such as “who is being impacted by some bit of science?”, “who gets to say what science should be done?”, “whose interests is science serving, directly or indirectly?”, “who is science harming, directly or indirectly, over short as well as long timescales?” etc.,I am actually drawing on the notions of macro-ethics of disciplinary cultures, and of disciplinary ideologies as developed within engineering ethics and extending them to include science.

For ethics to actually be a meaningful term, I think it HAS to include macro-ethics. And there are tools to help us think through this.


About the author(s)

Aashima is a freelance science communicator, author and editor. She co-founded thelifeofscience.com in 2016.