Volume 86 Issue 7 | pp. 37-38
Issue Date: February 18, 2008

A Massive Case Of Fraud

Journal editors are left reeling as publishers move to rid their archives of scientist's falsified research
Department: Science & Technology
Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

A CHEMIST IN INDIA has been found guilty of plagiarizing and/or falsifying more than 70 research papers published in a wide variety of Western scientific journals between 2004 and 2007, according to documents from his university, copies of which were obtained by C&EN. Some journal editors left reeling by the incident say it is one of the most spectacular and outrageous cases of scientific fraud they have ever seen.

The culprit, sources say, is chemistry professor Pattium Chiranjeevi of Sri Venkateswara University in Tirupati, India. SVU conducted an investigation into Chiranjeevi's work after a journal editor presented evidence to university officials that the professor had plagiarized and possibly falsified several manuscript submissions. Chiranjeevi, who communicates through a wide variety of e-mail addresses, has not responded to multiple requests for comment by C&EN.

Chiranjeevi retains his teaching position at SVU, according to a university source who has requested anonymity. "He is a permanent employee of the university, and the administration cannot fire him easily," the source says. Instead, Chiranjeevi has been barred from research and research supervision and from holding any administrative post at the university.

"Chiranjeevi claimed to be using advanced instrumentation not available at the university," the source says. "The chemistry in most of his papers is illogical—the chemistry itself is wrong. How did this get past reviewers?"

"I hated seeing papers from this guy," says Gary D. Christian, who is editor-in-chief of the Elsevier analytical chemistry journal Talanta, one of the journals that published Chiranjeevi's research. Christian, who is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Washington, Seattle, says Chiranjeevi's tactic was to flood journals with manuscript submissions in the hopes of wearing down editors who would eventually publish some of his work. "He published 70-plus papers in 25 journals in three years," Christian says. "The case is unprecedented."

Chiranjeevi's papers have appeared in Talanta and four other Elsevier journals: Food Chemistry, Journal of Hazardous Materials, Analytica Chimica Acta, and Chemosphere.

In the wake of the SVU investigation, Elsevier has retracted all of Chiranjeevi's articles published in its journals. "In total, we have retracted 13 articles authored by Chiranjeevi from our online database, ScienceDirect," says a company spokeswoman. "As a publisher, being made aware of these cases of plagiarism has made us more determined to continue to introduce practices that will help deter such activities.

"We are currently experimenting with tools that can help spot incidences of plagiarism," the spokeswoman continues. "We use software that mines our articles and identifies similarities between papers. It gives guidance by giving a score in terms of how similar two pieces of text are to each other."

"This guy really scoured the world for journals to publish in," says Christian, who has carefully documented much of the Chiranjeevi case. He says, at worst, he thought Chiranjeevi might be self-plagiarizing his submissions to boost his publication record. He says only careful analysis and comparison with other papers will reveal plagiarism, a task journal editors simply don't have the time or resources to pursue.

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CHIRANJEEVI'S PLAGIARISM of other scientists' work was discovered by Purnendu K. (Sandy) Dasgupta, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, and U.S. editor of Analytica Chimica Acta. He says a reviewer, a former student of his, pointed out that a Chiranjeevi submission on measurement of arsenic(III) was similar to a published paper from a Japanese group on chromium(III). In fact, Dasgupta says, but for the change in the name of the chemical being measured, the papers were identical.

"At that point, I was really mad," Dasgupta says. He says it upset him that Chiranjeevi is also Indian and that his university is located in a holy city in India. "I wrote a scathing letter to Chiranjeevi, and said I was going to notify his university that they should look into his Ph.D."

Eventually, Dasgupta did make contact with Duvvuru Gunasekar, who was chair of the SVU chemistry department at the time. And he probed further into Chiranjeevi's publication record. He found several instances of duplicate submission—for example, a series of four papers on how to measure selenium submitted to as many journals—and he began to question data reported in these and other Chiranjeevi articles.

Dasgupta queried Gunasekar on instrumentation in his department only to find that Chiranjeevi apparently made false claims. The instruments cited in his papers did not exist in the department, according to Gunasekar. He asked Dasgupta to make an official complaint in writing, which, along with a letter from Elsevier's legal department, triggered the SVU investigation.

According to Dasgupta, Chiranjeevi has proclaimed his innocence through all of this and threatened to sue him in international court. He says Chiranjeevi blamed persons unknown for submitting falsified papers under his name through e-mail addresses that Chiranjeevi did not recognize or use.

But the university's investigation, according to the SVU source, found that Chiranjeevi had used those same e-mail addresses in papers that he stood behind as authentic. "He was trying to throw blame on his students," the source says.

Worse, "he was charging students a fee to award them degrees," the source says. "He listed as many as 56 coauthors on his papers. There were complaints prior to the investigation, but nobody looked into it very seriously." He says the university does not seem to have taken disciplinary action against any students who worked under Chiranjeevi's supervision, even though some of them were aware of and participated in the fraud he perpetrated.

"I cannot find fault with the peer reviewers," says the SVU source, because not all of the journals he published in dealt exclusively with chemistry. "The chemistry described for the preparation of the reagents involves organic reactions, and maybe some of the reviewers were not aware of the chemistry involved. Plagiarism is very difficult to prove for many reasons,

"We rely on peer reviewers, and for some reason no one ever picked up on the fact that he was submitting the same stuff over and over again," Christian says. He says he did reject a number of Chiranjeevi's papers without review because of similarities with earlier papers, but it takes a lot of an editor's time to track down and compare the papers and justify scientifically to the author why a paper is not accepted for review.

"Reviewers are overwhelmed," he continues, pointing out that they do not have the time necessary to prescreen manuscript submissions for such problems. "The Elsevier in-house experiment with software to identify similarities between papers should help," Christian says.

"The scale of it was unprecedented and outrageous," says Dasgupta of Chiranjeevi's scientific misconduct. Like any case of scientific fraud, he says, it raises the question "what is inciting people to do this even though it is deeply wrong?"

"Partly we have to blame our own selves," says Dasgupta, citing the enormous pressure on scientists everywhere to publish and win grants. But he wonders, too, whether something more essential has been lost. "I really like what I am doing—creating something at the bench. Where is that pleasure and wonder?"

Dasgupta also says editors and reviewers are overwhelmed and reliant on the honor system at the heart of scientific publishing. "Plagiarism can be guarded against," he says, "but out-and-out fraud is hard to guard against."

ONE TOOL that Dasgupta has used to find reviewers—and that might be useful in discovering plagiarism—is a Web-based tool called eTBlast. Developed by computational biologists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, the free service does a similarity search of text that someone inputs with papers in Medline or other online databases. Dasgupta and others say it could be a powerful tool for weeding out plagiarism in journal manuscript submissions.

The developers of eTBlast have now developed a duplicate submission database called Deja vu. Both are available for free, eTBlast at invention.swmed.edu/ and Deja vu at spore.swmed.edu/dejavu.

Of Chiranjeevi, "this is by far the most egregious case of scientific fraud in 30 years," says G. Bruce Wiersma, a professor in the department of forest ecosystem science at the University of Maine and the editor of Environmental Monitoring & Assessment, a Springer Netherlands journal. He says the journal published three Chiranjeevi papers, all of which have been retracted.

"The problem with peer review is that it is an honor system," Wiersma says. "There is no fail-safe. If people want to break the honor system, there is nothing you can do."

Like other journal editors affected by Chiranjeevi's fraud, Wiersma says he was at some point concerned about the number of submissions from the Indian scientist and the similarity of his article submissions. "But there was no indication that he copied from someone else."

At worst Wiersma thought Chirnajeevi might be veering toward self-plagiarism—essentially submitting the same or nearly the same paper over and over again to Wiersma and other journal editors. "I sent him a letter and said, 'Don't do this.' I was trying to be fair and point out that this isn't professional."

All authors who submit articles to any journal fill out a statement saying that they have not submitted to another journal. "That's the only protection we have—and it's not much protection," Wiersma says.

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