On August 4, 2021, Mohana Basu of prominent media agency The Print reported that almost a dozen papers co-authored by a scientist at JNU, New Delhi, who was also an assembly poll candidate for the BJP in the West Bengal elections earlier this year, had been flagged for potential manipulation.
Eleven papers co-authored by Gobardhan Das, a professor of molecular medicine, have been flagged on the independent peer-review site ‘PubPeer’ over the past two months. Basu had written in her report: “Das … is the corresponding or main author of eight of these papers and a co-author for the rest. Ved Prakash Dwivedi, a researcher at the Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, is a co-author of five of the 11 papers. Anand Ranganathan, a professor at the same JNU centre – the Special Centre for Molecular Medicine – is a co-author of three of the 11 papers, among others.”
Just like Prof. Das, Anand Ranganathan is also an outspoken supporter of the saffron party and has been vocal on microblogging platform Twitter about issues related to it. In the West Bengal elections, Das lost to Tapan Chatterjee of the TMC in Purbasthali Uttar by 6,872 votes.
Basu reported that Prof. Das believed that he was being targeted on ‘PubPeer’ for his political inclination, and quoted Dwivedi stating that the issues that were raised on the site were being dealt with there itself. But since the publication ofBasu’s article, she has been named in a lawsuit by the JNU professor alleging (civil) defamation, along with the founder and editor of The Print Shekhar Gupta, science journalists Priyanka Pulla and Saba Naqvi, and the Twitter company.
Both Pulla and Naqvi were named for their publication of tweets about Basu’s report and the comments of the reviewers which were published in ‘PubPeer’.
The civil suit has been filed at the Patiala house court, New Delhi, and is dated August 31, 2021. It says that Das believes that he “is at the receiving end of a conspiracy to discredit him and his work at the behest of certain envious co-professionals”.
As per the affidavit, Pulla has been named as one of the defendants due to the tweets in which she commented on Anand Ranganathan refusing to be quoted by Basu in her report. Pulla contrasted this with Ranganathan’s adverse comments against one of her previous reports, with a different news publication, about Covaxin and its troubles in the country of Brazil.
The Government of India, through the ICMR and Bharat Biotech developed Covaxin together – only for the Covid-19 shot to run into a slew of controversies that repeatedly brought its quality, and the Indian drug regulator’s integrity, into question.
The sole tweet by Naqvi cited in the affidavit is also innocuous, which says: “Waiting for TV channels to pick up this JNU story,” followed by the article’s headline and link.
Another point of argument appears to be that Basu’s report claims that “Ranganathan declined to comment”, while Ranganathan tweeted on August 6 saying that he was getting a “2D Echo” at a hospital – not that he had declined to comment. Ranganathan further stated that “because of that lie, hateful ignoramuses are claiming I declined to comment because I have something to hide”.
The Print subsequently attached the detailed response of Ranganathan to the article at length, followed by the response of Basu, and both The Print as well as Basu tweeted it. However, the affidavit claims that despite the clarification given by Das and Ranganathan, the report still remains online “with the dubious intention of defaming the plaintiff”. It also calls the headline of the report “misleading, false, frivolous and defamatory,” and of “such a nature that they would lower the reputation of the plaintiff in the eyes of right-thinking people”.
Through the lawsuit, Prof. Das is seeking a compensation of ₹50 lakh for “damages for the loss of reputation” and a permanent injunction against Shekhar Gupta, Mohana Basu, Priyanka Pulla and Saba Naqvi “to cease the publication of articles, tweets, etc. that are palpably defamatory”.
With the lawsuit, the JNU professor is now in the company of numerous other scientists, and in fact authors of research reports all across the world who have clashed with media channels and journalists over questions about the former’s work and integrity.
In India, a paper published in October 2020 by researchers at Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) was retracted nine months later after commenters on ‘PubPeer’ managed to find evidence of image manipulation. Similarly, journalists for The Wire Science and The Life of Science highlighted that NCBS’s investigation into the issue appeared to be flawed and biased. The parent body of the centre namely, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, subsequently conducted its own and independent investigation, and found NCBS’s effort short.
Retraction Watch, a website that tracks retractions of scientific papers and issues related to them, has reported on numerous instances of scientists filing defamation suits against journalists as well as other scientists who question them, but often with poor results.
For example, in February 2021, it reported that Carlo Croce, a cancer researcher at the Ohio State University, had lost a court appeal in a case he had brought against David Sanders, a professor at Purdue University in the year 2017. In 2019, the website added that Croce had lost an appeal in a related case against the prominent media agency New York Times, which had carried Sanders’s comments.
In one more-notorious instance, from the year 2017, a journalist in Croatia reported that the Defence Minister of Croatia, namely Damir Krstičević, had plagiarised many parts of a research paper Krstičevićthat was written in the year 1997. The minister subsequently held a press meet denying the allegations made against him – while the journalist who reported went on receiving death threats on social media.
In defence of his beleaguered papers, the affidavit of Prof. Das states that “none of the journals wherein the research papers was published has chosen to deplatform or retract publication on the basis of the anonymous comments (on ‘PubPeer’) that the defendants seem to be setting so much store by in the impugned article”.
However, as the work of renowned science-integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik has demonstrated, journals that publish scientific research papers – both ‘high-profile’ and otherwise – are notorious for delaying, if not completely ignoring, independent experts’ concerns about papers they have published.
Vasudevan Mukunth, editor of The Wire Science has written, “It is not unheard of for retractions to take years – in one instance, more than a decade. A study published in March this year found that the average time-to-retraction for papers retracted from the biomedical literature, and coauthored by Indian scientists, was 2.86 years.”