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Student in discredited NCBS study alleges harassment

The paper was retracted on June 30 this year
Last Updated : 20 July 2021, 14:38 IST

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Weeks after a scientific paper by the Bengaluru-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) was retracted because its key data had been fudged, allegations have surfaced that junior members of the research team were harassed into manipulating data.

Soon after the NCBS study, titled Discovery of Iron-Sensing Bacterial Riboswitches, was published on October 5, 2020, it was lauded for detailing the discovery of a new form of RNA molecule that can detect iron.

The research, by the NCBS team, headed by Dr Arathi Ramesh, appeared to show that a new type of bacterial “riboswitch” (which is an RNA molecule segment) could bind to iron, harking a new and yet unproven form of cellular mechanism. All cells on earth contain iron but scientists do not yet know how that iron is moved around by cellular mechanisms.

However, readers on the science website PubPeer began to point to suspicious features in certain images in the paper. An inquiry conducted by a committee was completed on November 23 and relayed to NCBS Director, Professor Satyajit Mayor.

The paper was retracted on June 30 this year.

The committee concluded that the “image manipulation had indeed occurred, and was carried out by a single individual”. In a statement issued on July 6, the NCBS stated that the “individual is no longer affiliated with NCBS.”

However, in leaked emails written to the committee, the individual, PhD student Siladitya Bandyopadhyay, alleges a climate of harassment and data manipulation in Dr Arathi’s lab.

The allegation

In his November 23, 2020, email, Bandyopadhyay (an exchange student from Sastra University) admitted that his knowledge of basic scientific methods was often lacking, including “doing a simple PCR”. He, however, added: “Since the first day I stepped into the lab in December 2017, I have seen someone manipulating data.”

He also alleges the lab had a less than open scientific policy. “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,” he wrote to investigators. “I honestly want to tell you that I have really never learned how to actually do science, let alone manipulate data.”

However, Professor Mayor pointed out that these allegations are post-facto.

“Why didn’t he report these issues earlier? There are avenues for reporting primary investigators [of a study]. It is possible, however, that the individual may have been so oppressed that he could not report his senior researchers,” Dr Mayor said, adding that the incident will prompt an internal review of the culture of all labs at the NCBS.

TIFR statement

Meanwhile, a press note from the director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which is the NCBS’ parent organisation, said that it is now looking into these allegations.

“After the committee’s final report had been submitted, other e-mails were received by the NCBS director from one of the paper’s authors, containing allegations of pressure, unprofessional conduct, and a stressful work environment at Dr Arathi Ramesh’s laboratory.

"NCBS takes harassment allegations very seriously...We are following due process in investigating these allegations. We are working closely with the laboratory, and re-evaluating our campus-wide research integrity processes to ensure similar events do not recur at NCBS,” it said.

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Published 19 July 2021, 19:31 IST

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