Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Hefty price of outing scientific fraud

Janet Stemwedel has an excellent post about the huge price paid by graduate students have had to pay for outing their advisor's scientific fraud. The report underlying her post, unfortunately, is behind the paywalls of Science, but Janet's excerpts from the report, together with her commentary, make a gripping story -- though the ending is depressingly tragic.

[Sometime ago, the NYTimes did an extended story about a US researcher who was eventually convicted in a court of law and sent to jail; he was turned in by an undergraduate student researcher in his lab.]

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Janet's post sent me in search of info on the biggest scandal to rock Indian science: the fraud perpetrated by the Punjab University paleontologist Vishwajit Gupta. The details of his case are recounted here and here. Though his fraud was proved beyond anyone's doubt, he managed to retain his professorship until he retired in 2004. The person who exposed Gupta's fraud is John Talent, an Australian. You can read his version of the events in the transcript of an ABC program (you will have to scroll down a bit). Here are some excerpts:

Robyn Williams: The accused is Dr V J Gupta, Professor of Geology at Punjab University. He is India’s most celebrated fossil scientist, for 25 years stunning the geological world with intriguing fossil finds that turned the accepted picture of the Himalayas on its head.

In 1989, writing in the British journal Nature, Talent accused Gupta of fraud. Talent’s claim is that Gupta’s fossils are spurious: either bought, stolen or received as gifts.

Sharon Carleton: Vishwa Jit Gupta was a shiny round-faced man with a penchant for big cigars and flamboyant coats with ermine collars. He travelled the world sharing the knowledge of his unique discoveries. It wasn’t until 1987, when Professor John Talent went to Paris, that he concluded that Gupta’s fraud was not just one or two papers – it was vast. With a few hours to kill before his flight back to Sydney, Professor Talent stopped by a local rock shop. There he found some interesting fossils from Morocco. He bought a handful and caught his flight.

Professor Talent remembered having seen photographs of these exact same fossils in a Gupta paper - except Gupta’s identical specimens were supposedly from the Himalayas, not Morocco. It was proof positive of fraud. Should the Australian out this Indian impostor? Professor John Talent.

John Talent: I wanted my Indian colleagues to do it. I’d started on a major project with colleagues at the Siberian branch of the Academy of Science in Novosibirsk, Siberia, looking at biogeography for a 100 million year time slice back in the deep past but we had this spurious data from Gupta. So I finally decided in the beginning of 1987 that something had to be put into print, preferably obscurely. I targeted a conference that was being held in Calgary and prepared a presentation there, which included material from Morocco and material that was in one of the plates in a paper by Gupta. And I was able to show these simultaneously on the screen, so the fossils in the two presentations looked exactly the same, and Gupta was in the front row. One of my colleagues jumped up and said: Well, how do you explain having exactly the same fossils in two localities 600 kilometres apart? Now if that isn’t a miracle I don’t know what is.

Gupta stormed out of the room and he came back waving his fists and obviously wanted to punch me up but the crowd, there were about 250 there, just closed in and he couldn’t get near me. He did this three times and then he demanded from the organisers a list of everyone that was at the meeting and he wanted a copy of my manuscript, but fortunately the director of the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt said, Do you want me to publish it? And I said, Yes. And somehow Nature got onto it and they commissioned a three-page paper from me commenting on the significance of this massive exercise in academic fraud. When I say massive, it was seven books and a total of 458 publications.

Some commentaries on Gupta's fraud may be found here and here.

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A more recent case involved B.S. Rajput who was accused of plagiarism in 2002; at that time, he was the Vice-Chancellor of Kumaun University, Nainital. This time, Indian scientists were much better prepared; take a look at this archive! Their intense pressure forced Rajput to step down. The entire affair took about six months. During this time, Rajput even tried to punish Dr. Kavita Pandey, the then Head of the Physics Department at Kumaun, who played a key role in exposing this fraud. [It's not clear if her suspension was revoked by the later leadership at Kumaun; I couldn't find any news reports].


  1. Anonymous said...

    I wonder if u are still interested, but Kavita Pandey was reinstated. She is currently head of physics at kumaon