And The Weak Suffer What They Must: A Critical View of the NCBS Retraction Scandal

This was the NotA Collective’s written submission to the webinar “The Epidemic of Scientific Misconduct in India” hosted by The Life of Science. We have updated the text slightly to comment on a report that was released after the webinar as well.

Introduction

The recent case of academic fraud at the National Center of Biological Sciences (NCBS) has made waves in Indian academia.1 By no means does this imply that fraud is unheard of or uncommon in Indian higher education — quite the contrary! And even though each member of the NotA Collective has spent less than a decade working at research institutions, it seems to us as though every few years fresh news of a more spectacular and brazen case of fraud barrels out of the campus gates and into the pages of newspapers.

The forms of fraud vary, of course, from the more common genera like plagiarism and undeclared conflicts-of-interest, to the uncommon and sinister, like data forgery, fabrication and manipulation. This problem is deemed significant enough that it has prompted the organisation of specialised conferences dedicated to the question of academic ethics.2 The Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India (currently headed by Prof. K. VijayRaghavan) has even drafted a National Policy on Academic Ethics.3 It would appear, on the face of it, that this is a problem that deeply concerns senior academics.

As soon as the news broke, we (like many of our colleagues) knew exactly how it would play out: first, senior academics would close ranks around Dr. Ramesh; second, that NCBS would constitute a committee to “investigate” the matter, which would subsequently find that a student was responsible for everything that went wrong;4 third, the student would be forced out of NCBS. In fact, the official press release of the TIFR Academic Ethics Committee states that the image manipulation and result falsification was entirely carried out by the first two authors and the PI was “unaware” of this malpractice.5

Check.

Check.

Check.

How did we know? Surely, the specific details of this case were important enough that events may have unfolded in a different way? This is true, of course, if the goal of institutional response was to see that justice is served. Perhaps, the institution should’ve fined her Rs. 1/- to boot! This is, however, rarely the case; more often, the goal of institutional response is to manufacture legitimacy and maintain social standing. At its roots, this is responsible for the endless discourse on “academic ethics”.

Why Do We Talk About Ethics?

Dr. Ramesh’s case is a case of academic fraud. We should all practice saying it. Our senior colleagues may wince when we talk this way. They want us to talk about ethics and misconduct. They want us to call it a “lapse of judgement,” a case of “bad form.” This alone should be reason enough for you to go shout it out from the rooftops. Shout the simple, obvious, trivial fact that Dr. Ramesh committed fraud.

Why does this matter? Isn’t insisting on saying a specific word instead of a similar word just being an annoying thesaurusulu? It matters, because these sentences do not have the same meaning. “Dr. Ramesh committed fraud” is an observation. “Dr. Ramesh practiced unethical behaviour,” however, is an analysis.

The latter phrasing subtly induces us to imagine that the scandal was caused by Dr. Ramesh’s personal qualities. “Dr. Ramesh was unethical” tells us that in order to fix the problem, we ought to put her (the individual) through a course on academic ethics.6 This would be a good idea if Dr. Ramesh genuinely committed fraud because of her ignorance of academic ethics. This is absolutely useless if there are other reasons for her committing fraud.

“Dr. Ramesh committed fraud,” on the other hand, impels us to ask some useful questions. Why did she commit fraud? How was she able to commit it?

Did Arati Ramesh Commit Fraud?

Before answering these questions, we should clear up the facts of the case. Some, including official investigations, say that it was the student who committed fraud, and not Dr. Ramesh herself.

On reading the student’s testimony, however, it is clear that Dr. Ramesh was the principal architect of the toxic environment in which the fraud took place, even if she didn’t personally use the image editing software. Her lab famously didn’t use the correct techniques to control for false positives, she berated and threatened her subordinates till they produced the “good” data. When she was caught, she covered up the raw data. This is fraud, with an extra helping of plausible deniability. When the student submitted a written testimony to the review committee pointing out instances of malpractice, the committee fired the student. And Dr. Ramesh rushed out a ridiculous statement placing all the blame on the student and saying that the student had “left in a hurry.” This is just fraud. On the part of Dr. Ramesh and also, more importantly, on the part of NCBS. However, the understanding that forms the basis of all further deliberations is still that the PI would “have never supported unethical practice.” It is, despite all evidence to the contrary, apparently very hard to imagine a PI committing fraud.

Where Does Fraud Come From?

Perhaps Arati Ramesh has an inherent drive to commit fraudulent actions. Perhaps the NCBS review committee was filled with people who just get off on firing victims of abuse instead of the actual perpetrators. Perhaps C. N. R. Rao just can’t help but plagiarise. How should we know? People are strange, aren’t they? Perhaps Indian science just attracts people who are corrupt and greedy and trying to game the system. Enough, in fact, to support a thriving community at PubPeer.

We hope all of this sounds as implausible to you as it does to us. So, let us ask, why — really — are so many scientists committing fraud?

There are, of course, different precipitating circumstances in each case of fraud, but if we unfocus our eyes a little we can just about discern some common threads that link them. To us, the reason seems obvious: hierarchy. The hierarchy of journals, the hierarchy of institutions, and, ultimately, the hierarchy of society.

The choices people make are weighed by incentives. For an early-career researcher to publish a paper in Nature, like the fraudulent paper that kicked off this discussion, is ‘worth’ far more than to publish a paper in e-Life, say. There is a major incentive to publish results in a ‘better’ journal. It is important here to emphasise the size of this incentive; the incentive is not that five, or even fifty, people will come give you a pat on the back. These sorts of ‘cultural’ incentives do not systematically create misconduct. The incentive is often material. For example, on one hand you’d have enough money to travel to conferences around the world by virtue of having secured tenure at an institute of national importance; on the other, you’d be fighting a rotting bureaucracy at a central or state university.

So what if researchers are more tempted to publish in better journals? Isn’t that a good thing? Well, this is only true if we look at publishing in top-tier journals as an objective measure of value in science. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Elite journals are known to selectively publish research that sounds “path-breaking”, even if there is insufficient evidence to support the phenomenon under consideration. Elite journals also have higher retraction rates. All this feeds the burgeoning crisis of reproducibility, and leads to a logic of scientific inquiry that finds itself directed by some nebulous incarnation of “impact” as opposed to reliability and reproducibility. And here we have our motive: when this impact-driven science meets a make-or-break tenure system, an unholy mixture of rewards and incentives bubbles up to the surface. There is a fundamental contradiction at play here: between the writing of impactful papers (production) and the development of science (scholarship). The balance of incentives strongly favours the former.

The purpose of this explanation is not to absolve Dr. Ramesh of responsibility. Rather, it is to point out that the way we find science organised in India is ripe for a swindle. Let us not belabour this point too much, and move onto the hierarchy of institutions.

The Indian university system is run on the principle that the patrician researchers at the institutes don’t have to mix with the plebeian researchers at the universities or the lower class and caste students who have to go to public colleges and state universities rather than national institutes. Remember the eminences that closed ranks around Dr. Ramesh when the scandal broke? Isn’t it odd that this camaraderie isn’t ever extended to their colleagues at public universities and state colleges? Chew on that.

All the funding required to do Nature-quality work — and the funding to actually pay the thousands of US dollars to publish in Nature — goes to the patricians at the institutes; and then the institutes are held up as models of quality research. More funding means your research improves, and less funding means it languishes. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Being in NCBS and publishing Nature paper after Nature paper brings you much prestige. What happens when, as in this case, the mirror cracks? The prestige of elite institutions must be protected in order to continue justifying the unequal distribution of funding, and for this reason the institution and its faculty cannot be “seen” as engaging in or condoning fraud. The simplest way out of this soup is to shift blame onto a student, maybe even suggest he has “gone rogue”. That always works. And that’s precisely what happened this time too.

Which brings us to society, and the impulse that academics have to seek out and confer prestige. Our society is an inherently hierarchical one. Not only have we had an intensely hierarchical caste system for millenia, we now have capitalist class relations informed by and re-forming these caste relations. In this society, your caste and class position can mean the difference between having time off when a pandemic begins and having to walk 2000 kilometers to your hometown. Is it any wonder, then, that the very same elites who end up in academia are brought up to ruthlessly seek out prestige? That these elites uncritically buy into an absurdly hierarchical academic system and even justify it? No. This hierarchical academic system means a number of things for the present scandal: it explains why there were no students/postdoctoral fellows on the committee constituted to inquire into the allegations of fraud. Our entire line of argument essentially stems from a simple question: what does ethical behaviour look like in an intensely hierarchical system? And if the existence of the hierarchy makes the question of what is and what isn’t ethical murky, why talk about academic ethics at all? Why not try and unmake these hierarchies?

The hierarchical nature of these institutions has a surprising, but easily verified, corollary: on average, junior researchers will not openly condemn or speak about fraud, even if they know it happens. They will do so in private circles, amongst fellow lab members and trusted friends. The hierarchical system we live and work in selects for complicity and silence, and these colleagues have a vested interest in keeping silent. Once again, we would like to clarify that this is not passing judgement on our colleagues; we are merely pointing out that the system is structured to resist efforts to make it more egalitarian, more honest, and more open. Soon after the scandal broke, Notes on the Academy attempted to contact biologists working at NCBS and its sister institution, TIFR. Save for a single respondent, none of the overtures were responded to. And yet, stories of fraud, at these institutions and others, abound.

How Does Fraud Happen?

We have pointed the finger at the hierarchical manner in which academia is organised as the cause of this, so now we must ask: how does this happen? What are the mechanisms? That we present-day academics have a hierarchical impulse is a part of who we are; we must work on this in our own time, but more importantly we must understand how to combat this impulse in a systemic fashion. For this, we must understand the mechanisms.

The first thing to notice is that Dr. Ramesh, in her perpetration of the fraud, acted less like a dishonest scientist and more like a dishonest manager. This is one of the primary ways in which hierarchies manifest in our society: by turning prestige into power through that alchemic process of managerialisation. Our institutes are organised as discrete labs with “Principal Investigators’’ who are just managers. These managers have the power to drive their employees to inhuman working hours. They control promotions, placements, and access to scientific equipment. But rarely do they participate in the actual production of science. Every paper from their underlings is, however, known as a paper from the lab of the manager. So the credit goes to the manager, but the blame for any misconduct goes to the scientist doing the actual work. This is good for the manager’s prestige, but terrible for science, and scientists.

This arrangement allows for abuse to happen without any serious counter-measures. It creates a class division within the institute in which the managerial class has a class interest in collectively oppressing the employee class. All the review committees are staffed by the managerial class. Is it any wonder, then, that review committees basically never work?

Another way in which a lab is made into its manager’s fiefdom is by data secrecy. The managers have complete control over the data, and the employees have no right to show it to others, etc. This is justified by the fear of “being scooped,” a horrendous occurrence in which someone publishes your results before you. Imagine, instead, a world in which all the data was in an institute data repository and graduate students were offered chocolates for looking through other labs’ data. Dr. Ramesh’s students would have been immediately alerted to the fact that they were not correctly checking for false positives, and the photoshopping could have been caught before publication.

Another important locus of control that the case reveals to us is that the investigation was carried out entirely by the managerial class, and the report was kept secret. The student’s testimony in this case clearly pointed to their manager as the culprit; a fact that could be simply “forgotten” by the committee making the decision. This secrecy is not uncommon, and often justified by the appeal to the idea that the employee’s friends would create a problem for the committee. This appeal relies on you finding it instinctively a painful thought. In other words, this appeal relies on your identification with the higher strata of the hierarchy. Not only that, it relies on this identification with the higher strata being stronger than your sense of justice. As always, the anti-political stance is a stance against the articulation of the powerless. Indeed, keen observers will recall that a number of NCBS alumni (still postdoctoral fellows!) took to Twitter denouncing the student and bemoaning the unethical behaviour of junior batches.

While we cannot, in this short piece, give a complete prescription for the way forward, we hope that this analysis at least points to the direction in which change is needed. We hope that this discussion has improved on the standard analysis of “malpractice” in academia and hope the reader is now convinced that another academic ethics training course isn’t the solution.

As for the way forward, we believe that once the various contradictions within academia are identified, a consultative process that takes into account the perspectives and concerns of all stakeholders — faculty, students, early-career researchers, mess workers, housekeeping staff, administrators, and science journalists — ought to be put into motion, while firmly committed to the principles of democracy and popular governance, that seeks to resolve these contradictions, and not just paper over them.

We should also not be too quick to congratulate ourselves. To be sure, we are making progress. It is good and proper that this case of fraud has been discussed extensively, both within academia and in the popular presses. More people are talking about issues such as this. It is important for us to remember, however, that our goal is not simply to change the discourse. Our goal is to change the world.

Epilogue

The Peloponnesian War was fought between 431 BC – 404 BC, between the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League and the Athens-led Delian League.7 About half-way through this war, at which time a truce with Sparta was in effect, Athens sent troops to Melos, a small island kingdom in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece.

Emissaries from Athens demanded that the Melians surrender, join the Delian League, and pay tribute to Athens. This ultimatum was followed by the famed Melian Dialogue, memorably imagined by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War.8 The dialogue between the Melians and the Athenians is significant because of the the way the Athenians choose to articulate their position: they dispense with the charade of arguing that their actions are morally defensible, and instead argue that

“…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”9

We bring this up because the institutional response to the NCBS retraction scandal has much the same flavour: formal academic bodies constituted by and comprised of tenured professors will do what they can to preserve the prestige and reputation of their colleagues, departments, and institutions — and to do this, they would “come to be judges in [their] own cause”. Meanwhile, us junior researchers have little to expect by way of justice in this whole process, and that “all we can reasonably expect… is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.”10

Except, this false choice — between conflict and servitude — needn’t be true. We ought not to see any of this as if it were a foregone conclusion. That our “elite” research institutions function undemocratically is plain to see. What is required is that we organise and resist these arbitrary exercises in power, to build spaces of higher education that are less feudal, vain, and corrupt, so that academics both junior and senior may realise their full potential. As the Melians valiantly responded to the Athenian emissaries:

“… to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.”11


Footnotes
  1. Here is a sampling of the widely-circulated articles/blog posts on this issue: Schneider, L. (2021, July 14). Faking Raw Data with an Iron Fist. For Better Science; Mukunth, V. (2021, July 8). NCBS: When a Paper Is Published but One Author Is Found Guilty of Misconduct…. The Wire Science; Datta, S. (2021, July 11). Some (volatile) thoughts on the recent data-forgery fiasco. Sayantan Spins; Schneider, L. (2021b, July 14). Student, Meet Bus. For Better Science; The Wire Staff. (2021, July 14). NCBS Retraction: New Allegations Intensify Spotlight on Institute. The Wire Science; Datta, S. (2021, July 30). NCBS Retraction: Ex-Student Alleges Others Involved in Research Fraud. The Wire Science. We do not necessarily subscribe to or endorse the analysis in these pieces. They are provided as entry-points for the reader who wishes to learn more about the fracas. ↩︎

  2. Workshop on Academic Ethics, July 15–16, 2011. Institute of Mathematical Sciences. ↩︎

  3. See here. ↩︎

  4. We are reminded here of a rather perceptive line from Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister: “A basic rule of government is never look into anything you don’t have to, and never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be.” ↩︎

  5. https://www.tifr.res.in/TSN/article/Findings_of_the_TAEC.pdf ↩︎

  6. This sentence was written before the release of the TAEC report. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what the report said. ↩︎

  7. For a modern introduction to the Peloponnesian War, see Kagan, D. (2003). The Peloponnesian War. New York: Viking. ↩︎

  8. Thucydides & Crawley, R. (1974). The History of the Peloponnesian War. London: J.M. Dent. Available at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_the_Peloponnesian_War. ↩︎

  9. Ibid., Book 5, Chapter 89. Emphasis ours. ↩︎

  10. The quotations in this paragraph are drawn from ibid., Book 5, Chapter 86. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., Book 5, Chapter 102. ↩︎

One thought on “And The Weak Suffer What They Must: A Critical View of the NCBS Retraction Scandal

  1. […] 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. […]

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