Angiogenesis retracts two papers, cites image manipulation in eight, as PI blames unethical students

The journal Angiogenesis is retracting two articles by a group of researchers in India whom it accuses of using manipulated images in six other publications as well.

According to the retraction notice for one of the papers, “Gold nanoparticles inhibit vascular endothelial growth factor-induced angiogenesis and vascular permeability via Src
dependent pathway in retinal endothelial cells
” (we’ve annotated with links and citation data):

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editors as it contains manipulated figures.

In Figs. 3 and 4, [below] paper photomicrographs are supposed to represent images of endothelial cell cultures after scratching the monolayer in order to assess migration of the cells. However, the panels do not represent independent data, but instead contain repetitive cell patterns suggestive of digital manipulation of these figures.

As such, this article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system. The scientific community and the Editors take a very strong view on this matter, and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this problem was not detected during the submission and review process.

It has been found that other articles from the same laboratory also contain manipulated figures. We have listed those articles below.

Pigment epithelium-derived factor inhibits vascular endothelial growth factor-and interleukin-1beta-induced vascular permeability and angiogenesis in retinal endothelial cells. Sheikpranbabu S, Ravinarayanan H, Elayappan B, Jongsun P, Gurunathan S. Vascul Pharmacol. 2010 Jan-Feb;52(1–2):84–94. Epub 2009 Dec 16. [Retraction notice available here.]

Pigment epithelium-derived factor inhibits erythropoietin-induced retinal endothelial cell angiogenesis by suppression of PI3K/Akt pathway. Haribalaganesh R, Sheikpranbabu S, Banumathi E, Gurunathan S. Exp Eye Res. 2010 Jun;90(6):726–33. Epub 2010 Mar 16. [Cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge]

Isolation and characterization of goat retinal microvascular endothelial cells. Haribalaganesh R, Banumathi E, Sheikpranbabu S, Deepak V, Sirishkumar N, Gurunathan S. In Vitro Cell Dev Biol Anim. 2010 Jun;46(6):529–37. Epub 2010 Mar 7.

High-yielding enzymatic method for isolation and culture of microvascular endothelial cells from bovine retinal blood vessels. Banumathi E, Haribalaganesh R, Babu SS, Kumar NS, Sangiliyandi G. Microvasc Res. 2009 May;77(3):377–81. Epub 2009 Feb 21.

Pigment epithelium-derived factor inhibits advanced glycation end-product-induced angiogenesis and stimulates apoptosis in retinal endothelial cells. Sardarpasha Sheikpranbabu, Ravinarayanan Haribalaganesh, Elayappan Banumathi, Namagiri Sirishkumar, Kyung-Jin Lee, Sangiliyandi Gurunathan. Life Sciences. 2009 November;85(21–22):719–31. Epub 2009 October 8.

Gold nanoparticles inhibit vascular endothelial growth factor-induced angiogenesis and vascular permeability via Src-dependent pathway in retinal endothelial cells. Kalishwaralal K, Sheikpranbabu S, BarathManiKanth S, Haribalaganesh R, Ramkumarpandian S, Gurunathan S. Angiogenesis 2011 Mar;14(1):29–45. Epub 2010 November 9. [This is the same article mentioned in the notice.]

PEDF inhibits VEGF- and EPO-induced angiogenesis in retinal endothelial cells through interruption of PI3K/Akt phosphorylation. Banumathi Elayappan, Haribalaganesh Ravinarayannan, Sheik Pran Babu Sardar Pasha, Kyung-jin Lee and Sangiliyandi Gurunathan. Angiogenesis 2009, Dec 12(4):313–324. Epub 2009 August 6. [A retraction notice is available for this paper, which has been cited seven times.]

PEDF prevents reactive oxygen species generation and retinal endothelial cell damage at high glucose levels. Elayappan Banumathi, Sardarpasha Sheikpranbabu, Ravinarayanan Haribalaganesh, Sangiliyandi Gurunathan. Exp Eye Res. 2010 90(1):89–96. Epub 2009 October 16. [Cited four times.]

At least one of the papers from journals other than Angiogenesis, the 2010 article in Vascular Pharmacology, has already been retracted. But others have yet to be pulled. Frank Porreca, editor of Life Sciences, told us that his journal

is still trying to deal with the issues

and that the matter is

an ongoing thing at the moment.

Porreca said he he been in touch with Angiogenesis about the wholesale retraction notice. So, we’re curious why it’s taking some journals longer to retract these papers than others.

Meanwhile, we emailed the senior author, Sangiliyandi Gurunathan, for comment and he replied (comments edited for spelling). Gurunathan, head of the biotechnology department at Kalasalingam University, pinned the blame on errant, unethical, students:

When I was in sabbatical leave my three students did mistakes without my knowledge, they committed their mistakes themselves. They committed only after detailed investigation. If they could inform in advance at least it shouldn’t be taken this much of damage to  my lab as well as institute.

As a guide I can teach them how to design the experiment, ideas and to finish their work, the students should have ethical values. Just because of this issue my 20 years hard work gone to waste. Because people don’t know what happened really. They are writing whatever they want.

Of course, the implication of that response is that Gurunathan did not bother to read the manuscripts that his students were writing under his name. But he denied that.

I know my name [is on] the manuscript when we are submitting, when I was checking the manuscript, I used to check the concept, logical and other writing part, the real experiments were done by students only, when they are submitting figures to me or journals,the reviewer or myself  we are not able to see the manipulation of figures by our naked eye, because nowadays so many softwares are available to make figures into good quality, when they are doing work with software , they did mistakes. When I was asking them they said not intentional only human error.

We’re not sure how the corrupt student narrative squares with the honest mistake excuse, or whether Gurunathan simply is relating what he was told.

Gurunathan, who urged us not to list the tainted papers — despite the fact that Angiogenesis had done so, claiming it would cause “ten students [to] get demotivated” — took a shot at publishers and editors for not catching the problems sooner.

[J]ournals are checking after leaking of information from somewhere, why they are not checking in the submission time, after all these they are accusing us. Even some journals they are checking data manipulation and plagiarism everything during submission time, why not Angiogenesis and Elsevier journals are not checking in the first place.

We asked Gurunathan if anyone involved in the image case had been disciplined, but he did not respond.

Note: We also found a blog post from loyal Retraction Watch reader Krishna Pillai which mentions another paper from Gurunathan’s group that was retracted earlier this year because of plagiarism.

Update, 3:15 p.m. Eastern, 7/27/11: Back to those images. In response to a comment, here they are. Can you spot the manipulation?

Fig. 3 Dose dependent effect of AuNPs on BRECs migration. BRECs were wounded with micropipette tip and were treated with AuNPs at various concentrations from 100 to 600 nM and the dose dependent effect of AuNPs over the cell migration was studied. Experiments were performed thrice with similar results and significant differences from control group were observed (P.05). The effect of CASrc on the AuNPs induced migration was also studied
Fig. 4 Effect of AuNPs on VEGF induced BRECs migration. BRECs were wounded with pipette and treated with VEGF (50 ng/ml) in the presence or absence of either 500 nM of AuNPs or PP2 (10 lM). After incubation, the migrated cells were quantified by manual counting. These experiments were performed thrice with similar results and significant differences from control group were observed (P.05).

Update, 9 a.m. Eastern, 7/28/11: Gurunathan got back to us about the status of his students. There were consequences, he said:

Yes, three students are are punished, right now almost all of them ready to submit their Ph.D thesis, but they have to repeat all the experiments and they have to submit after one year.

0 thoughts on “Angiogenesis retracts two papers, cites image manipulation in eight, as PI blames unethical students”

  1. The one I found…
    In the first image posted, the panels for Au-NP and VEGF-PP2 have the same cell pattern, except that one is rotated 180 degrees from the other (i.e. the lower right of the Au-NP is the same as the upper left of the VEGF-PP2). Cunningly, they added or changed the noise within the panels making it less obvious. I find it hard to believe that it’s a result of an honest mistake.

  2. Second figure, first column: images corresponding to 200 and 300 mM are the same with minor stretching on the vertical axis and modification of the brightness. As A. Cantwell pointed out, it is hard to imagine this to be an honest error.

    The quality of these images is debatable even if there was no manipulation. They could not even adjust the condenser on the bright field microscope properly.

  3. There is something not quite right at Kalasalingam University. Back in February the Vice Chancellor had initiated an investigation into Gurunathan but the results were never published. He seemed to be more concerned with avoiding any future complaints.
    This time I have brought this to the notice of the Society of Scientific Values (http://www.scientificvalues.org/) and have also copied in the Vice Chancellor again.

  4. Ok, I see now that in the second figure, third column, the images labelled 400 and 600 nM are the same, however they removed a cell and stretched the image along the horizontal axis.

  5. I think this goes beyond digital image manipulation. It’s more like outright fraud. At least to my naked eye this isn’t a question of using digital processing techniques to artificially tease out a borderline result. If the data were indeed falsified then off to the gallows with the offenders.

    I can’t comment on Gurunathan’s complicity vs. ignorance of the apparent fraud but I can definitely see how he could have been fooled by unethical students. As the PI he bears ultimate responsibility for the work conducted in his lab. I would be more sympathetic were he less defensive. If he was unaware of the data manipulation he ought to accept responsibility and be forthright with what proactive measures he intends to take to prevent a recurrence.

    1. Do not generalize individual’s act. Plagiarism has been reported from all countries
      including USA. I am pleased to learn that the faculty member has been asked to
      resign. In general, they try to cover up.

  6. I can’t believe these were unintentional. Deleting, rotating, stretching, and altering the brightness, can only have been deliberate. If the images were exactly the same, then you could write it off as a copy/paste error or a file naming error but in this case they’ve been manipulated to make them harder to spot.

    On the other hand, they are not trivial to spot, I only noticed the errors after reading the comments.

  7. The only author who is on ALL those questionable papers is the PI. No other name appears on every paper. So, either multiple students are dishonest, or …

  8. But again, which was the need for these image duplications? Did they not have any other photographs to show? The effect they are describing is almost all or nothing. If there is no effect and they wanted to delude the scientific community, why not to use experiments that would show whatever they wanted them to show?…and how many of the data from this group were done this way?

    1. I had exactly this thought – why not just scratch a bunch of plates and immediately take pictures, and not scratch a bunch of plates and take pictures?? Even if it wasn’t an all-or-nothing effect, you could take pictures when the cells are still migrating in. You could do so many things to cheat, but they cheated in the stupidest possible way. This is truly a case that boggles my mind.

  9. Another one: second figure, last column. The first half of the pictures labelled 400 nM and 600 nM are the same. If you copy and paste two different pictures together to make a new one, you must be aware of it.

  10. In the VEGF+PP2 image that A. Cantwell pointed out (second commenter), you can actually see square edges in the “scratch” region where bright spots were replaced with background. There’s no way these are errors.

    Assuming Prof. Gurunathan didn’t know about the image manipulation, his response is almost a textbook example of how not to make a mistake. I think most folks would feel very differently about trusting future work from his lab if his response had been something to the effect of, “I should have looked at the raw data more carefully, and the students who deceived me are no longer a part of my lab.”

    1. In addition, if indeed the students are to blame as PI suggests, there should be a way to ensure that they never go anywhere near another laboratory or be a part of a publication, let alone finish their degree. It’s a travesty that they will obtain their degree and continue their merry ways to post doctoral fellowships or other career paths where they can inflict more damage. This is why I would never trust a degree from a rubber stamping institution that churns out PhD’s.

  11. Further to my previous comment, Kalasalingam University has “sacked” Sangiliyandi Gurunathan and cancelled the registration of 6 PhD students implicated in the image manipulation.
    My mail exchange with the University and the Society for Scientific Values along with the statement from the University are here: http://ktwop.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/kalasalingam-university-takes-action-against-misconduct-head-of-department-and-6-phd-students-sacked/
    What role the SSV played in the University taking such rapid and decisive actions is not clear.

  12. The journals insist author responsibility. So, PI is also ultimately responsible. Considering the planned manipulation of photos, there is no reason to believe that students have done this without the knowledge or consent of PI. His reply looks horrible. He is more concerned about the journals not detecting the manipulation at the admission stage, rather than admitting the mistake. It’s not just one paper, but a bunch of papers. If he has no time to review the papers of his own students, then why he acts as PI or guide? This implies that all his earlier publications are to be scrutinized. Whatever may be the reason, manipulation of a scientific publication is not at all acceptable. This kind of issues will undermine the genuineness of Indian scientific community. The university has done the right thing.

  13. Kalasalingam deemed to be private university is a blacklist university. The administration knows the knack of manipulating data to fool the statuatory bodies during their visit or compliance. One can get easily information on this count from the expelled students and research supervisor. Ethical practices are very rare in Indian higher education. The academia do not take transparency seriously. The issue is whether the funding agencies retract the funds “robbed” by this dubious university.

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