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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Imperial clears Jatinder Ahluwalia of misconduct, blames “protracted negotiation” with Novartis for delay

with 5 comments

logo_imperial_college_londonImperial College London has found that a former graduate student there — who had been found guilty of misconduct in two other institutions — did not commit fraud while at Imperial.

As first reported in the Times Higher Education today:

Following a review of allegations of misconduct in the PhD research of Dr Jatinder Ahluwalia the presiding investigation panel has found no evidence to suggest fraud.

We’ve uploaded the entire report here.

Ahluwalia, as Retraction Watch readers may recall, has had a paper in Nature retracted, as well as one in the Journal of Neurochemistry. The Nature retraction followed an investigation at University College London, where he was a postdoc, and he then left the University of East London after we reported that he had been dismissed from Cambridge the first time he had tried to get a PhD.

Imperial, where he earned his doctorate, began investigating more than two years ago. They began looking in whether he should lose his PhD after the Journal of Neurochemistry retraction, because that paper formed the basis of his thesis. They found:

The panel determined that there was no evidence of research misconduct in Dr Ahluwalia’s thesis. It noted that fraudulent activity by Dr Ahluwalia had been reported elsewhere but that this did not suggest that misconduct had occurred at Imperial. As no evidence of fraud or misconduct at Imperial had been identified, the award of the PhD should stand.

Part of the reason the investigation took so long was because of problems accessing Ahluwalia’s data, given that his supervisor was a Novartis employee:

An initial confidential review of the thesis and publications was carried out by a private firm contracted for the purpose and identified the need for further investigation. In parallel to this a protracted negotiation ensued between the College and Novartis for the panel to have access to Dr Ahluwalia’s notebooks which were in Novartis’ possession. Eventually supervised access to the notebooks on Novartis’ premises was agreed by Novartis.

The university made a number of recommendations, starting with trying to prevent that last issue in the future:

When making agreements with industrial partners either for joint supervision or for sponsored research the College must ensure it retains access to all data and laboratory books. The panel will share this recommendation with the College’s working group on collaborative provision.

It would appear that in this case the work carried out in the commercial company was not fully integrated into the work overseen by the College.

Read the entire report here.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

July 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm

5 Responses

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  1. So what is the relationship between Novartis and Imperial College? Is this one of those relationships where a university in essence sells PhDs to companies? I have long been critical of these schemes.

    If so, I think they made the wrong decision to allow the PhD to stand. They were only allowed “supervised access”. In other words they are allowed to look at the notebooks over some unspecified time frame and under unspecified conditions. Surely this is unacceptable for an institution that is supposed to be able to stand behind the degree awarded.

    Sure, they found “no evidence of fraud”. But didn’t they also find “no evidence of doctoral-level work of sufficient quality and integrity to justify the degree”?

    Surely “no full access” should mean “no degree”?

    Dan Zabetakis

    July 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm

  2. Good to see what appears to be an excellent process from Imperial – using arms length investigators (expensive I expect).
    The Neurochemistry retraction puzzled me, because the results that Dr Nagy reported would appear not to have been detectable according to Figure 3 of the original paper (which did involve Novartis).

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1471-4159.2003.01550.x/full

    But Dr Nagy didn’t indicate that there was no physiological response or that the response to KCl and capsaicin were substantially different, just the scale was a lot less (and a scale that would not have been measurable or detectable to significance in the original paper). I would suggest that probably what the problem was, was not fraud but a complete screw up in units.
    Dr Nagy’s retraction letter states:
    “Based on our current data, we can estimate that the superfusate of 500 cultured primary sensory neurons, after incubating the cells in 100nM capsaicin for 5 minutes, could contain ~ 7 fmol/ml anandamide, in average. However, in the paper we reportedthat 250µl superfusate of 500 cultured primary sensory neurons, following 3 minutes incubation in 100nM capsaicin contained 2.07pmol/ml anandamide, in average.”
    The molecular weight of anandamide is around 345. 345 x 7 fmol = 2.4 pg/ml – close enough to a value of 2.07 pg/ml – which I will charitably assume was what Dr Ahluwalia had measured. Of course, this would be the 2nd screw up with the units. But assuming Dr Nagy didn’t report a flat-line zero response of anandamide release to both KCl and capsaicin, a units screw-up seems a reasonable explanation to me. It all depends what is a physiologically significant level for anandamide release, something I haven’t found in a very quick literature search.

    I am guessing Novartis was very suspicious about this retraction given they still had the original data of Dr Ahluwalia and probably still had personal knowledge of him. This is may have been why they refused to release the lab-books and insisted having someone present when Imperial sent investigators to look at the data. This may not have been necessary, but a nasty, suspicious voice deep inside of me says it was probably just as well.

    Anyway, well done Imperial for getting it right. 1 out of 3 institutions did the right thing – thats not so bad.

    littlegreyrabbit

    July 31, 2013 at 12:22 am

    • However, I note in this letter

      http://retractionwatch.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/19980218-bgs.pdf

      It states “the Board [of Graduate Studies] agreed they were not in a position to approve you for the Certificate of Postgraduate Study”
      RetractionWatch correctly states
      “Ahluwalia’s certificate of postgraduate studies — CPGS, a prerequisite for a PhD — was approved in October 1997.”

      I am a little confused. Did Dr Ahluwalia retain his Certificate of Postgraduate Study or not? If not, did he obtain one from Imperial? If the answers to both these questions is “no” – was he qualified to matriculate for the Imperial doctoral program or not?

      littlegreyrabbit

      July 31, 2013 at 9:03 am

  3. This is all very well and good. But why was he accepted onto Imperial’s PhD program after being kicked out of his Cambridge PhD course for data fabrication?


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