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The Dark Side

Big Steaming Heaps of Fraud

Since I had a blog entry here recently talking about plagiarism, I thought I should point out a whopping case of it that’s come to light. One Pattium Chiranjeevi, a professor of chemistry at Sri Venkateswara University in Triupati, India, has been accused of cranking out dozens of forged publications over the last few years.
I don’t see how there can be any doubt about the guy. He published 60 or 70 papers in under four years, which is enough to make you wonder right there. Unless you’ve got a monster research group, and you’re constantly breaking everything down into the tiniest bites and repeating lots of stuff to boot, that’s just not possible. But these papers, mostly on analytical methods development, are just too similar to things that were already in the literature. Elsevier has already retracted thirteen papers from the list, and no doubt other publishers are working on doing the same. A panel at his university has concluded that he plagiarized data and included “unjustified co-authors”. My favorite part of the whole affair is that some of his publications include data from instruments that don’t even exist at SVU.
We owe P. K. Dasgupta at UT-Arlington for catching on to all this. As detailed here in C&E News, he realized that one of Chiranjeevi’s papers sent in for review was identical to something he’d seen last year. Well, mostly identical – Chiranjeevi had gone so far as to substitute the word “arsenic” for the word “chromium”, but other than that demanding find-and-replace job, the manuscripts were identical. That should give you some idea of the level this guy was working on. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to show up in that Deja Vu database I linked to earlier, even though some of the journals he published in are in PubMed – is this because of these sorts of word games?
Science managed to get ahold of Chiranjeevi for comment, and his response does not inspire visions of a man unjustly accused. He blames colleagues and journal editors for the whole thing, says the charges are “baseless”, and (you won’t see this one coming) says that he plans to take action in an “international court of justice” to clear his name. Science left that last phrase in quotes, too, even though it’s a perfectly recognizable English term, which is the equivalent of putting “sic” after it: “That’s really what he said, folks; we’re not making that one up”. What sort of person starts blowharding (no offense!) about international courts of justice in a situation like this? Quite possibly the sort of maniac who’s capable of, well, plagiarizing up a new publication every three weeks or so without even bothering if the experimental section includes equipment that he’s ever seen or used. What goes through the heads of these people is a mystery that the rest of the population may never solve.
That Science news article tries to tie this to the recent scandals in stem cell research and low-temperature physics, but I don’t think the comparison holds up. For one thing, those two weren’t plagiarism, but featured results that had been completely made up. And they were spectacularly focused on hugely popular fields of research while Chiranjeevi’s papers are small and relatively obscure. It’s doubtful that anyone was led down the wrong path by reading them – in fact, it’s doubtful if anyone read them to any great extent at all, which is how something like this can go on so long. These sorts of papers are specialized reference material, not breaking news. Actually, it makes more sense to plagiarize that kind of work than to claim to have performed groundbreaking work in stem cells or superconductivity. If Chiranjeevi had cut back to a few papers per year, he probably could have made a career out of it. For some values of the word “career”.
Note: if I’m lucky, maybe one of the professor’s defenders (!) will show up in the comments section, as one seems to have here and here!

28 comments on “Big Steaming Heaps of Fraud”

  1. Wavefunction says:

    There’s definitely some defenders of the professor in my comments section here:

  2. Derek Lowe says:

    And what nice people they seem to be, too! I’ve added a link to the main post.

  3. FlyingDutchmanOfBiotech says:

    Hi, all:
    This case reminds me of one of the many biotech start-ups I worked as a molecular biologist at back in the early ’90s. The MolBiol director/VP/company founder obviously knew nothing about MolBiol or science in general. We researched his CV (2-3 pages of publications listed) and his grad school/post-doc careers. Turned out he just inserted his name in the middle of the author list for his CV, and his grad school records indicated he left after one year under “mysterious circumstances”. No sign of his post-doc tenure at Harvard, as he claimed. The Venture Capitalists that funded the venture did no checking, of course. It was the heady years of the biotech boom and money flowed very freely to any half baked idea.
    The information was brought up to the CEO. As the company was about to do its IPO, he did the only thing that would save his own butt and maintain value of his shares. He canned all of us underlings in the MolBiol department under the guise of a “reorganization”, sending us into the street without a severance. The fraud VP was allowed to walk away with all of his founder shares, which he used to buy a vineyard and winery along the Hood River in Oregon. He still claims to be a Harvard-educated former Professor of Molecular Biology who also studied the moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions.

  4. milkshake says:

    Dutchman: you missed your opportunity for getting a nice pile of stock options out of this. There two key phrases here: “Wrongful dismissal” and “Do I look like I am negotiating?”

  5. eugene says:

    Dutchman, since based on your story I suspect the wine is probably watered down or worse, I’ll make sure to never buy wine from Oregon ever again. Not that I found it particularly good to start with. Pacific Northwest wines (at least the ones in liquor sotres) are too bitter and uninspired for me. I can’t imagine why people continue to pay good money for that overpriced product.
    Honestly, even the mass-produced Ernst and Julio Gallo tastes better than a lot of that stuff. And at least the two brothers weren’t frauds.

  6. FlyingDutchmanOfBiotech says:

    Better stay away from the Gallo wine. They are a scab outfit.
    !Viva Cesar Chavez!

  7. sroy says:

    Such frauds are an unfortunate and increasing problem in all fields of sciences. Previously only medical research had a significant problem with irreproducible, fraudulent and otherwise problematic research.
    However as the medical research funding model of funding has reached other fields, it has brought its disease with it. The saving grace is that it is harder to conceal fraud in chemistry and physics (more simpler systems).
    The medical research funding model is based on publishing as much stuff in as many journals as one can. Questionable findings, irreproducible results, significance etc are irrelevant.
    If you don’t play the game, you will you not get the next grant and very likely loose favor from the members on the review panels. Therefore the best way to survive seems to involve publishing marginally doctored and over interpreted stuff. However some people get caught up in the process and go overboard.
    On an other note, this is precisely, why we discover so many highly trumpeted but useless drug targets. The emphasis is on quantity rather than deliberative research that leads to some useful insight.

  8. Morten says:

    What happened in low-temperature physics? Guess I need to read my Nature and Science more throughly…

  9. sjb says:

    I seem to recall a similar example (switching metals, but nothing elsem not even substrates and yields) for reduction of nitroaromatics. The orginal (as far as I know) was a Moody and Pitts Synlett paper describing the use of Indium, and a later ChemComm by some Indian chemists using Tellerium..

  10. MTK says:

    I disagree with your mini-essay and it’s logic on more points than I have the time or inclination to numerate.
    I will give you credit, however, for being able to take a case of plagiarism and turn it into your lousy targets theme.

  11. milkshake says:

    Dutchman: In my first company we had two biology departments – one was called Pharmacology but in fact they were trying to develop a high-throughput fluorescence based assays. The problem was that the “Pharmacology department was a notorious bullshiter who cooked data so that it would “agree better” with the unrealistic promises he made to the VP. The problem was that VP was a notorious bullshitter also who liked to talk to investors about the cutting edge high throuhput methods we had and he was inclined to get only the agreeable kind of news from people. The prez was a young business guy who knew nothing about science.
    We knew for more than half a year that the amazing fluorescence-based high-throughput assays do not work because the background problem was never fixed and the bead-counting machine originally designed for flow cytometry was behaving erratically. But it was always presented on meetings as a great success and “core technology”. Also there was a bit of rivalry between these two bilogy groups and the “Pharmacology” boss was fighting for more people and recognition and pushing ever harder, disproportionally to the real achievement of their group. The whole thing got into completely wishfull realm where more and more pressure was put on chemists to produce compounds to validate the assays and to be tested in the assays – and they all of the passed great. We then put in few knowingly incorrect dummy ones and they passed also. Eventually I broke the news to our HR who happened to be my landlady and was on close personal friendship terms with the prezident of the company. As a result the boss of Pharmacology was re-assigned to a new job, building a screening robot (that also never worked ever after) and the bullshitting VP who pushed him so hard distanced himself from the scandal and everybody prettended as if nothing has happened because it was pre-IPO.

  12. sroy says:

    Hi MTK,
    Just a brief reply.
    Q1] What percentage of the research in medical research papers (basic and clinical) is reproducible (even if it is irrelevant)? especially in new areas.
    Q2] How did we reach this point? And why was medical research the first to reach there? Ironically the most outrageous frauds are not as damaging as the more insidious frauds.
    Q3] Do you honestly believe that grants that do not involve fashionable research paradigms or novel sounding stuff has the same rate of successes as more careful and methodical research.
    Q4] Have you noticed that this trend to publish spectacular if over-massaged data always accompanies misguided agency efforts to make a field more “competitive”? Medical research has sadly been the trend-setter for such questionable behavior.
    PS- Drugs based on poorly selected targets may have a pharmacological effect but lack a therapeutic effect. If this issue is not fixed, Phase II and III trials on novel drugs are going to keep on failing at record levels, and all of us will have to look at new livelihoods in a few years (especially for someone my age).

  13. PhdInBounce says:

    I was in a similar situation. Biotech, 6 people, 3 scientists doing the work. The CEO had a “my way or the highway” attitude. When we ran control experiments we got contradictory results (necessary to sell the technology). We were told NOT to run these by the CEO. This made it extraordinarily difficult to troubleshoot or optimize the assay protocol. After many verbal “arguments” between the CEO and the scientists, ultimately, the 3 scientists were fired. Now a publication is in the works, except the CEO is bypassing ethical standards by 1.) NOT informing co-authors (the 3 fired employees) that a paper has been submitted (and re-submitted after reviewers comments), and 2.) NOT including the control experimental data (and a mountain of other data) that contradict the conclusions.
    Emails I sent to the CEO, Board of Directors, and Editors of the scientific Journal pointed out the obvious flaws and violations, but each has responded “the reviewers think the paper is OK, so we are going to print the paper”. My objections are that the reviewers don’t know what is NOT in print. They can only judge a paper by what is presented in the paper. I, on the other hand, know the experiments exists, but are tucked away in a lab notebook in possession by the CEO.
    My question is…do I continue to make a big stink by 1.) request removal of my name from the paper AFTER publication, or 2.) contact the Office of Research Integrity as a whistleblower since NIH SBIR grants and Homeland Security grants were involved.???
    Or, do I simply let the publication print, knowing that no other labs will be able to reproduce the results. Time, energy, and perhaps other scientist’s careers…wasted. My name will still be attached to the Big Steaming Heap, but the paper will be the only peer-reviewed contribution for my post-doc experience (2.5 years, 1500 lab notebook pages) that I can add to my resume.???

  14. processchemist says:

    Many times on my desk dropped a project for the first scale up of something based on papers that, at a first reading, were a bit too optimistic in reporting yelds.
    But in a couple of cases, after checking the synthesis, my strongest desire has been track down the authors to explain face to face, loud and clear, my opinion about them and their published works….

  15. eugene says:

    This case, seems somehow different to me from other big cases. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but despite the ‘big steaming heaps of fraud’ name in CEN, it’s definitely not as big as the Sames/Sezen and La Clair fake synthesis fiascoes. There are more papers here, as opposed to 7 or just 1, but they are in journals that not many read and the PI has been immediately barred from doing further research.
    Some concrete action is being taken and there is no radio silence here. Contrast that, to the behavior of the San Diego and Columbia chairs of chemistry. As far as I know, La Clair still walks around at UCSD doing research or whatnot, and the investigation in Columbia that was supposed to take 6 months by internal rules is now at almost three years. I can’t believe they are going to succeed sweeping this one under the rug. But I guess they are… Bigger name journals don’t even retract papers on their own apparently.
    If you’re still in your 30s or early 40s, contact ORI. You have nothing to lose here. Nothing to gain either, but this CEO should be barred from running a biotech and if you’re lucky, they’ll get to cool off in a minimum security prison for a couple of months. It would also be a great service for scientists working in similar companies.

  16. MTK says:

    I concur. There was a whole article in C&E News a couple of years ago on why results in the chemical literature are often irreproducible. Obviously there are a lot of reasons why that may happen besides fraud, but we all know that a lot of times people are overly optimistic, as you put it.
    I had written a point by point objection to your comments, but it became too long. I’ll summarize my objections as 1) you seem to paint a broad brush on the medical research field while absolving the other sciences, and 2) you blame the funding system, which absolves individual responsibility.
    In the end dishonesty is a universal human characteristic endemic to all fields and the responsibility to act ethically is on the individual. To lay blame on any of these acts to a field of study, it’s practitioners, or the system is, in my opinion, incorrect.

  17. sroy says:

    Hi MTK,
    I am not absolving other sciences, just saying that medical research is particularly prone to scams as it profitable and uses complex systems.
    Individual responsibility is very important. However scientists have to make money to keep themselves going and a system that encourages bad behavior while punishing good behavior will have that effect.

  18. Wavefunction says:

    Another problem is that in many medical research-related papers, results are the only things that matter. You got a potent compound?? Good! Methodology be damned, it does not matter if it’s inconsistent. I have seen couple of papers where they used computational methods to get some compounds that showed some activity. Since they published in Cancer Research, the referees never knew that the computational methods were flawed, which was a result of the pathetic thinking skills of the computational chemists. So the paper got published anyway, since all the referees cared about was the fact that they had potent compounds. Bad science, but acceptable results ostensibly validating the science post-hoc. Nobody cared.

  19. milkshake says:

    Apart from Indian literature, the worst procedures to reproduce are the patent experimentals. You can tell “prophetic” = completely fabricated experimentals by their opaque wording and the lack of NMR. But even the real examples often suffer from a sloppy writeup: usually people are in hurry to put patent examples together, from some incomplete notes going a year back – long after they forgot the key reaction condition detail that made them succeeded on the fifth attempt, when the all their previous reactions gave only 8% yield.
    The yield refers to a crude stuff with lots of inorganic in it – but for the next step example they use the re-purified material (without telling how they purified it). “Its just for a patent” kind of attitude.

  20. Indian says:

    It is very sad to read that you have generalized the whole “Indian” procedures. Probably you should think before you make such comments, and remember the contributions that Indians made to the science and world in general.

  21. CMC guy says:

    Taking the thread in #19 milkshake my experience is that Patents, composition of matter or process, are often very poor citations to attempt to repeat reactions/syntheses. Even though supposed to “enable one skilled in the art” and “demonstrate best practices” usually there are holes or even errors that makes one wonder if this was done deliberately to mislead- whether that is actual fraud or a strategic positioning another source of contemplation. Although the experimentals can offer hints at the real conditions used they can be obscured by wide ranges or inexact data and it can take real effort to sort out the right/best way to run things which leads to questions of what is really done in pilot or production scales.
    On the other hand any tech transfer can be frustrated by those minor details that do not get put in write ups (just too trivial or unique standard practices that may not translate). Having the originator/expert looking over shoulder for guidance can go a long way to ease in implementation. This instructive mode seems more common in analytical and biology than in synthetic labs.

  22. milkshake says:

    Chemistry papers written by all-indian groups in India are deservedly disregarded and you can quote me on that. It is quite deserved generalisation. Indian contribution to synthetic chemistry would get much better recognition outside India if something is being done about the endemic fraud and bullshit in your academia.

  23. eugene says:

    I’m guessing milkshake had a bad experience with a few preps over the years from Indian journals. Honestly, I never remember the names anymore from a failed Tet. Lett. prep, or one where the yield was abysmal (i.e. not as advertised). I did do a few reactions from some obscure journals where the authors were Polish, which worked surprisingly well. It was such a change, that I still remember it. Can’t recall the names other than they were Polish.
    These days though, I tend to trawl SciFinder less for that sort of obscure crap since I’m not strictly a synthetic organic person anymore. There is a pretty famous group from India in my field. I don’t think they publish crap as their work appeared in JACS and I liked one paper a lot, but I haven’t personally gone through the trouble of checking the minutae… 🙂

  24. Nick K says:

    Does anyone recall an earlier example of fraud, in natural product synthesis this time, by another Indian “chemist” Samir Chatterjee? I believe it was John Cornforth who detected it, and tore Chatterjee’s reputation to pieces.

  25. Acid hydrolysis says:

    Milkshake, instead of throwing around accusations, why don’t you list 10 papers from all-Indian groups that contain glaring errors/results that cannot be duplicated? And it’s shameful and uncalled for that you are generalizing to all fields of chemistry in India. There are a good many physical chemists and biochemists from India for example who publish commendable work.

  26. Nick K says:

    Acid hydrolysis: Start with these two papers by Cornforth regarding Chatterjee’s work: Tetrahedron Lett. 1982, 23, 2213-2216 and Tetrahedron Lett. 1980, 21, 709-710.

  27. milkshake says:

    It is too bad I did not run across all those commendable indian papers – just the heaps of the brown-stained ones ones and most of them came from Hyderabad…
    It seems that this last highly-publicised scandal is doing some good because your government is finally taking notice, setting up the commitees to address the fraud and plagiarism. By the way Turkish theoretical physics got rotten reputation for the very similar reasons, there was a number of people involved, at two universities.
    Look man, if the rate of fradulent and irreproducibly sloppy Indian articles is just 5%, it is still way too high and the researchers that belong to the remaining 95% may cry about unfair stereotyping – the reality though is that an environment that tolerates and rewards such behaviour stains all, not just the cheats. Don’t take it on me, ask anybody outside India what their opinion is about the usefulness and reproducibility of synthetic papers coming from India.

  28. IndianChemist says:

    One very highly regarded chemist from Hyderabad is Gautam Desiraju. A pioneer in organic crystallography.

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