Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Harvard researcher’s PhD revoked, former group earns three more retractions

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Journal of Biological ChemistryA research fellow at Harvard has lost his PhD from a university in Singapore after being found guilty of falsifying data, and his former group leader’s contract has been terminated by his institution.

But that’s not the whole story. This tangled mess involves not only the Harvard researcher, Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy, and his former boss, Ravi Kambadur at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, but an as-yet unnamed colleague of theirs who, we’re told, has admitted making up data in three papers, on which Lokireddy and Kambadur are co-authors. Bear with us as we walk you through this tale.

Two of those papers have been retracted by The Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC); one in Molecular Endocrinology has yet to be pulled. Kambadur, who held joint appointments at the NTU and the Agency for Science, Research and Technology (A*STAR) in Singapore, has now had his contract terminated at both institutions. 

The previous investigation, which concluded in 2015, focused on papers co-authored by Lokireddy and his colleague Sandhya Sriram, a research fellow at A*STAR. The investigation found Lokireddy guilty of falsifying data, but concluded Sriram had conducted “cosmetic alterations” — removal of Western blot channels with null results rather than falsification — noted Tony Mayer, a research integrity officer at the NTU. The findings led to a series of retractions and corrections for the pair.

After that investigation, another member of Kambadur’s research group admitted to falsifying data; Mayer couldn’t name the researcher due to ongoing disciplinary procedures. The latest retractions — which stem from that admission — do not list Sriram as a co-author on the paper; all include Kambadur’s wife, Mridula Sharma, who was based at the National University of Singapore (NUS) until recently. She is no longer an employee there, an NUS spokesperson told us. 

By our count, Lokireddy now has five retractions (one more pending), and six corrections. Kambadur has six retractions to his name (one more pending), and six corrections (one more pending); Sharma’s numbers are exactly the same.

A statement released by the NTU today reads:

In December 2015, NTU reported the outcome of investigations into allegations of malpractice in myostatin research which resulted in three retractions of papers, one withdrawal and two corrections. This has led to the revocation of the doctorate awarded to Sudarsanreddy Lokireddy.

It goes on to add:

Following a further thorough investigation into the research group led by Professor Ravi Kambadur, he has been found wilfully negligent in the direction of the group and his joint employment at NTU and A*STAR has been terminated.

According to Mayer, the falsification also occurred in Lokireddy’s PhD thesis. A spokesperson for Harvard Medical School sent us this statement:

We are fully committed to upholding the highest standards of ethics and to rigorously maintaining the integrity of our research. Any concerns brought to our attention are thoroughly reviewed in accordance with institutional policies and applicable regulations.

Mayer went on to note that Sriram was not found to have falsified any data. Instead, he said, she had cut out channels with null results from Western blots without declaring them to the relevant journals. Mayer went further to say that Sriram was “misled,” calling her an “innocent party:”

She had been told by her supervisors that you can do this and you don’t have to say you’ve done it.

Sriram’s PhD thesis, which contained these Western blot images, has also been corrected, Mayer noted.

Regarding Sharma, an NUS spokesperson said:

Dr Mridula Sharma is no longer a staff of the university.

The NTU statement ends:

Further disciplinary proceedings are underway with respect to other researchers.

Let’s take a look at the newly retracted papers.

Here’s the retraction notice for “Myostatin induces insulin resistance via Casitas B-lineage lymphoma b (Cblb)-mediated degradation of insulin receptor substrate 1 (IRS1) in response to high calorie diet intake:”

This article has been withdrawn by the authors. In this article, we reported a mechanism through which myostatin induces insulin resistance. After a thorough investigation by the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, data falsifications were found in some of the in vitro laboratory studies, which invalidate the results reported. Thus, the co-authors wish to withdraw this publication and offer our sincere apologies to all those investigators who may have been affected and misled by this.

The 2014 paper has been cited 10 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

And here’s the retraction notice for “Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor β/δ induces myogenesis by modulating myostatin activity,” which has been cited 18 times since its publication in 2012:

This article has been withdrawn by the authors. In this article, we reported that PPARβ/δ positively regulates myogenesis. After a thorough investigation by the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, data falsifications have been found in some of the in vitro laboratory studies, which invalidate the results reported. Hence, the co-authors wish to withdraw this publication and offer our sincere apologies to all those investigators who may have been affected and misled by this.

Finally, here’s the paper that Mayer told us will be retracted in Molecular Endocrinology: “Pid1 Induces Insulin Resistance in Both Human and Mouse Skeletal Muscle during Obesity.” The 2013 paper has been cited eight times.

A spokesperson for the Endocrine Society, which publishes Molecular Endocrinology, confirmed that the retraction notice for the paper is due to be published in the journal’s August print issue.  

The three newly retracted papers have five authors in common: Sabeera Bonala, Craig McFarlane, Mridula Sharma, Ravi Kambadur and Lokireddy.

NTU’s investigation looked into all the group’s output and concluded that all other papers authored by the group are fine, Mayer added.

We’ve reached out to Lokireddy and Kambadur for comments, but haven’t been able to find contact details for Sharma. We’ll update the post with anything else we learn.

Update: 8/2/16 2.43 p.m. ET: Please see an update on this post here.

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Comments
  • MannyHM July 13, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Before publication the authors should state under oath that what they submitted is truthful and complete. Lying under order is perjury, a serious crime. This idea would drastically reduce bogus research except from those truly brazen and insane.

    • Gabe D July 14, 2016 at 7:20 am

      I agree however several journals do have statements where authors must acknowledge that the work submitted is accurate to the best of their abilities. Small step though

  • Exntu July 13, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    May be the all of university rankings should correct for ‘bogus-ity’, editorial EoC, retractions etc. Who looks at or checks integrity in grant apps….also in these ridiculous rankings

  • KK July 14, 2016 at 12:28 am

    I am not sure whether publications in high “impact” journals are taken in to account for University Rankings! If yes, “Exntu” may be right and minus points for every high impact retractions can be considered!

  • Darrel Francis July 14, 2016 at 5:15 am

    We shouldn’t do anything to discourage universities from correcting the scientific record. On the contrary, it would be better to mark them according to the speed of their investigation of allegations, and the decisiveness and clarity of their conclusions. These may be harder to judge objectively but at least would incentivize them in the right direction.

    As for who checks integrity in grant applications (or papers), it is the applicants (or authors) themselves. The university has lots of checks on grants but these are administrative.

  • Anuj Sharma November 6, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Both Mridula Sharma & Ravi Kambadur have a new publication in Nature Nanotachnology in August 2017 “Irisin is a pro-myogenic factor that induces skeletal muscle hypertrophy and rescues denervation-induced atrophy”
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-01131-0#article-comments
    How come he gets a publication in such a high impact factor journal after such a big research fraud and the article is on muscles.

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