Failure of oversight and peer review

Demonstrating that scientific misconduct can happen anywhere, and not simply in one study, the case of Dr Ranjit Kumar Chandra is a case in point.

St. John’s, Nfld. [Newfoundland], may seem like an unlikely place for scientific scandal to brew, but in hindsight it appears, perhaps, the perfect place.

For almost three decades, Memorial University provided an out-of-the-way corner of the scientific world for the career of Dr. Ranjit Kumar Chandra to flourish.

Over the years, he became a world-renowned expert in the field of nutrition and immunology, was the recipient of the Order of Canada, and said to be a two-time Nobel Prize nominee, a man they called "the Jewel of Memorial."

But in the summer of 2002, Chandra packed up his office and quietly slipped into retirement. He had been accused of committing scientific fraud by one of the world’s most prestigious journals. For those who had followed his work over the years, it was a sad end to an otherwise remarkable career.

What follows is clear demonstration of the need for data and methodological transparency of the kind that Steve and Ross have been advocating for quite some time.

Part 1 on the investigation by CBC

Part 2

Part 3

As with Hwang woo Suk, Dr Chandra was a superstar researcher at his own hospital and had been showered with honors up to national level. Like Hwang, the critics were characterized as jealous or even mad. Certainly even the whistleblowers asked themselves searching questions about why they were challenging such a prominent person.

How can you question this guy: He’s world famous, he’s published dozens of studies and there were claims that he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize and he had been selected by the United Nations to set up a nutrition immunology centre in Newfoundland," Masor says. "He was the pride and joy of Canada. I mean this guy had a real reputation. So for anyone to challenge him and go against that reputation, I think, was pretty daunting."

But behind it all, was instutional reluctance of Memorial Hospital (Chandra’s employer) to deal with clear evidence of scientific misconduct, mostly out of fear of being sued, but also because of the fear of scandal:

"Universities have a conflict of interest here. In general, universities don’t want to discover fraud amongst their faculty because otherwise they look bad."

Roberts says: "At this very moment, Memorial University, I think, would have a well-deserved reputation as a place where you can get away with this kind of thing because Chandra got away with it, in spite of, you know, clear evidence that he was guilty."

A couple of interesting facts from this case.

1. The British Medical Journal insists that all data and methodology be made available regardless of its authorship:

"It is a condition of submitting a study to the BMJ that if we ask to see the original data, you have to produce it. And if you can’t, then I’m afraid the assumption is that probably this was invented."

2. By Canadian federal law, all data and methodologies must be available for 25 years after publication

In September 2001, the federal government made it a requirement that all researchers keep their data for at least 25 years and that it has to be available for examination.

Of course, for climate scientists to do that would be tantamount to "intimidation" and would have a "chilling effect" on science.

Hat tip to Gerald Machnee for bringing this to my attention

20 Comments

  1. Pat Frank
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 1:30 PM | Permalink

    John, check out the interview of John Talent and the first-person story of his exposure of V. J. Gupta, about 2/3 of the way down the page here. For a summary of the story, see the first part of Questions of Fraud. I remembered reading about this story. Gupta apparently built an entire career on fraud and had become something of a scientific superstar in India. A more egregious example would be hard to find. Talent says he received death threats as a consequence and a technician of Gupta’s may have been murdered.

    Here also is a whole page devoted to a rogue’s gallery of scientific fraudsters. Finding Bruno Bettelheim among them was a surprise.

  2. Sara Chan
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    Does anyone have any more information on fact 2 (keeping data for 25 years and making it available)? Does this apply to all sciences, or just medical science? Is there a link to a page with the legislation?

  3. Brooks Hurd
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 4:21 PM | Permalink

    Dr. Jones: Could you please show us your data and methodologies?

    Dr. Mann: Could you please hang around the meeting long enough to answer a couple of questions?

  4. john lichtenstein
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 8:57 PM | Permalink

    What makes Canadians think that Lichtenstein is a country?

  5. ET SidViscous
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 9:03 PM | Permalink

    More of a car park really.

  6. john lichtenstein
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 9:09 PM | Permalink

    You from Canada ET?

  7. ET SidViscous
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 9:16 PM | Permalink

    No, Doesn’t change the car park status of Lichtenstein.

  8. Follow the Money
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 9:20 PM | Permalink

    Fascinating.

    I like this part. Kumar was first hired by “Ross Pharmaceuticals in the U.S., the company that makes the baby formulas Isomil and Similac.” Then Kumar concocts a study for Nestle comparing its products favorably to Ross products. I would venture to guess Nestle offered more money? And nobody likes a backstabber.

    Actually I don’t “like” it. Fooling around with baby formula is about as low as one can go. A laughable fraud would be more like Margaret Mead’s work “Growing Up in Samoa.”

  9. john lichtenstein
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 9:20 PM | Permalink

    It means the problem isn’t limited to Canada.

  10. Follow the Money
    Posted Apr 14, 2006 at 9:37 PM | Permalink

    From page 2:

    That wasn’t the last pitch he got from the doctor. Dr. Chandra’s own journal, Nutrition Research, was looking for a new member for its advisory board. He offered Masor the position.

    “In order to do that, I simply had to pay several thousand dollars and he gave a Swiss bank account number to deposit it in,” Masor says. “And when I saw that, I was incredulous. It was funny, I mean it was so outlandish that it was funny. A couple of the other scientists at Ross got similar letters, so it became apparent then that this was someone who was interested in making money, not really interested in the science. And he was out to feed his bank account any way he could.”

    Masor sounds like an honest guy. Did Kumar make the same requests at Nestle and Mead?

  11. John M
    Posted Apr 15, 2006 at 2:34 PM | Permalink

    I recently posted on one of the other threads (Thacker’s "Sources") about the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) guidelines. While I’m at it, came across an interesting article in their member’s magazine, Chemical and Engineering News (April 10 issue, p 62) entitled "Journals Grapple with Ethics Issues". Although it’s about fraud, it seems to me it also applies to peer review and oversight in general (so no, I’m not accusing anyone of fraud). Interesting quotes:

    "Science Editor-in Chief Donald Kennedy says he has been nervous about the impact of the stem cell scandal on his journal. He says he expected a negative impact, but there’s been no drop in submission of papers. "We’re not getting letters saying ‘you screwed up,’" he says."

    "JACS (J. Am. Chem. Soc.) Editor-in-chief Peter J. Stang…"It is tough to discover falsification of data."…"We rely on the integrity of individuals.""

    "But the nature of science itself ensures self-correction, Stang says. It usually happens after publication, when other scientists attempt to reproduce the work."

    "The more that research results submitted to a journal are spectacular or unexpected "the more careful an editor has to be," Bard (Allen Bard, former editor of JACS) says. "There are papers we turned down because we couldn’t get corroborating data. I think it’s the editor’s burden to get this material and get it to the reviewers.""

  12. Pat Frank
    Posted Apr 16, 2006 at 9:58 PM | Permalink

    #11 “”Science Editor-in Chief Donald Kennedy says he has been nervous about the impact of the stem cell scandal on his journal. He says he expected a negative impact, but there’s been no drop in submission of papers. “We’re not getting letters saying “you screwed up,'” he says.””

    Kennedy shouldn’t need anyone to tell him he screwed up. He ought to be able to figure that one out all by himself. And then resign.

  13. MarkR
    Posted Apr 17, 2006 at 3:47 AM | Permalink

    I posted a while ago that a way to get transparency and compliance from the climate scientists may be to go down the route of holding them accountable to their academic institutions rules and codes of conduct governing research practices.

    For all those climate scientists who have refused to publicly archive all data, fully publish all methods, withdraw papers which are derivative.

    The things that motivate academics are the same as everyone else, and they include fear and greed.

    The fear of public repudiation, and the loss of their academic tenure are powerful motivators.

    I urge everyone who has the time to complain to the various academic institutions these “scientists” work for.

    Hold their feet to the fire.

  14. John A
    Posted Apr 17, 2006 at 4:26 AM | Permalink

    Re: #13

    Mann has changed institutions twice since the Hockey Stick (is this what they mean by climate science “moving on”?), but as you can see from the case of Dr Chandra, institutions are very reluctact to grasp the nettle of scientific misconduct, especially when the scientist is a “superstar” and federal funding might be imperilled.

  15. Louis Hissink
    Posted Apr 17, 2006 at 6:19 AM | Permalink

    # 14

    Aaaahhh,

    got it.

    As Steve and I would recognise, that is the same as moving from one company “structure” to “another”.

    Legally out of reach for the moment, out of sight, never.

  16. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Apr 17, 2006 at 6:29 AM | Permalink

    institutions are very reluctact to grasp the nettle of scientific misconduct, especially when the scientist is a “superstar” and federal funding might be imperilled

    …and also when the study doesn’t have perceived “life or death” implications.

  17. Louis Hissink
    Posted Apr 17, 2006 at 6:40 AM | Permalink

    #16

    Problem? Taxpayer funded research
    Solution? Getting rid of government isn’t.
    Problem? Who are making all the noise?
    Answer: Tax payer funded non workers?

    Solution? I need to ask? Already?

  18. MarkR
    Posted Apr 17, 2006 at 7:46 AM | Permalink

    Re#13

    I understand Mann has moved on, but some of the others haven’t.

    All those who have published and are still at the same institutions should be accountable, and the minute Mann publishes again on this subject, he should be held to the standards of his current employers.

    I wonder if that includes any broadcasts, writings, or indeed speeches to Congress?

  19. MarkR
    Posted Apr 17, 2006 at 7:52 AM | Permalink

    PS I also understand how reluctant institutions can be to confront their star performers, however if you don’t ask you most certainly won’t get.

  20. mikep
    Posted May 23, 2006 at 4:06 AM | Permalink

    Another comment on peer review here –
    http://www.johnkay.com/trends/443
    from John Kay, a British economist and commentator.

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