ICMR Scientist Facing Plagiarism Charge Promoted to Head of Epidemiology Dept

Nivedita Gupta's promotion comes against the backdrop of a slew of charges against her of having plagiarised and manipulated images in two papers and her PhD thesis.

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Bengaluru: The Wire Science has learnt that Nivedita Gupta, until recently a scientist at the department of Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases (ECD) at the Indian Council of Medical Research, was promoted as its head on May 27. The ECD department is in charge of guiding the country’s scientific and medical response to communicable diseases in the country, which at this time also includes COVID-19 and monkeypox.

The promotion comes against the backdrop of a slew of charges against Gupta of having plagiarised and manipulated images in two scientific papers and her PhD thesis. One of these papers was recently retracted.

A source at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) confirmed the veracity of a letter dated May 27, 2022, signed by assistant director-general (administration) Jagdish Rajesh and copied to other senior members in the organisation, which specified Nivedita Gupta’s promotion. However, it wasn’t advertised on the ICMR website itself nor was set out in a Press Information Bureau press release (as of 9:20 am on June 1, 2022). The ICMR website also still lists her designation as ‘Scientist F’.

She replaces Samiran Panda as the head of the ECD department. Before Panda, the position was occupied by Raman Gangakhedkar. As such, this position at the helm of the ECD department is crucial for public understanding of India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Gupta’s appointment to the position follows the retraction of a paper she coauthored and published in 2004, because the journal’s editor-in-chief “no longer [had] confidence in the presented data”.

As The Wire Science had reported in January this year, Gupta faces allegations of plagiarism and image manipulation – both serious in the context of published scientific papers – in two papers published in 2004 and 2015. Mycopathologia, the journal which published the former, retracted it on May 26 after 18 years.

Gupta hadn’t responded to The Wire Science‘s questions at the time but she told The Print that she denied all the allegations.

Independent experts also pointed out on the discussion platform PubPeer that there were strange images and likely copied text in her PhD thesis, submitted in 2004 at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

Rajendra Prasad, her doctoral supervisor at the time, had told The Wire Science that he had urged Gupta to respond to our questions; she didn’t – nor did R.P. Narayan, her supervisor at Safdarjung Hospital, where she worked and collected data and other information from to use in her thesis. Questions to ICMR director-general Balram Bhargava hadn’t elicited a response either.

A number of prominent academics in India have got away with plagiarism and have seldom faced inquiries. Many of those who have been blamed have passed the blame on to one of their students. Some notable scientists include B.S. Rajput, former vice-chancellor of Kumaon University; Bharat Ratna awardee C.N.R. Rao; Chandra Krishnamurthy, former vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University; C. Raghunathan, former joint-director of the Zoological Survey of India; and V. Ramakrishnan, former vice-chancellor of IISER Thiruvananthapuram.

In some cases, scientists have published papers with plagiarised content in journals that they also edit, inviting allegations of academic corruption.

Just around a year ago, there was a controversy at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. A paper coauthored by the members of a lab headed by Arati Ramesh was retracted after independent experts found compelling signs of manipulated images. Ramesh responded at first by blaming all the errors on one of the students in her lab.

But after reports by The Wire Science and some other publications criticised her and the institute’s response, the matter drew the attention of its parent body, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. It launched a new investigation into the issue, which came to a different conclusion: that others were also at fault in the lab, and called Ramesh’s failure to check the experimental data a case of “scientific carelessness and lack of diligence”.

By promoting Gupta at this time, ICMR has signalled that it has set aside the allegations against her work – allegations that, by international standards, warrant an independent investigation, determination of individual responsibility and suitable action. A source at ICMR also said that she was promoted simply because she was the senior-most scientist in the ECD department.

Her promotion came only a day after the editor-in-chief of a scientific journal expressed a lack of confidence in a paper on which she is listed as the first author – an honour reserved for those who made the most contributions to the paper. Gupta also told The Print that she had replied with “detailed responses to all the queries sent by the journal” – while the journal said none of the papers’ authors had responded to its decision to retract the paper.