A probe into the work of a researcher who studied natural products for cancer had many stops and starts along the way — including five extensions granted by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity — according to documents obtained by Retraction Watch.
Following a public records request, we recently obtained a copy of the report on the investigation of allegations of misconduct by Santosh Katiyar, issued jointly by the University of Alabama Birmingham and the Birmingham VA Medical Center. As a result of the report, the institutions have requested 20 retractions of work by Santosh Katiyar, who received millions in funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
How does the report stack up?
As we and others have noted, some investigation reports are more helpful than others. In a recent Viewpoint in JAMA, our co-founders and C.K. Gunsalus of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, made suggestions about what to include in investigation reports. Although the report about Katiyar misses the mark in some places, it’s “exceedingly well organized,” said Gunsalus, and “the findings and conclusions are clearly stated and well supported.”
The report includes some helpful features, Gunsalus told Retraction Watch, such as a timeline of events.
The timeline is a great feature I wish every report had.
What’s helpful about a timeline, she said, is it can identify ways the process could have been streamlined:
The huge gaps of time—plot the lags between information and action over and over. Look especially at how long the sequestration took once they had an allegation assessment, and how long it took to get the inquiry started, and how long (etc etc). These time lags are very big. It is always difficult to find meeting dates for busy committees, and the larger the committee, the more difficult. Still, lots of these gaps are administrative, not committee scheduling, so I find that puzzling.
Indeed, the committee had to ask for five extensions from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. The report was finalized in October 2016.
The entire recommended course is retracting papers? …The lab practices here, while not shocking in this day and age, are clearly unacceptable. Where’s the institutional response and responsibility and actions in light of this information?
In response to questions about why the investigation took four years, UAB Research Integrity Officer Pam Bounelis told Retraction Watch:
This investigation involved a complicated set of facts, and the scope of the investigation expanded of its course. In all instances, we followed our policies and procedures that are consistent with federal requirements.
The document includes a multi-page response from Katiyar, in which he states his lab lost most of nearly 10 years of data from a “computer crash,” and defends his role in the problems:
I still believe that research is not a one person’s work but it is the work of a team….I believe that this trust and confidence on the staff members turned into the inadvertent errors and mistakes that were found in some of our publications. I believe it may have been a mistake on my part to rely on my staff members as I did.
Overall, Gunsalus concluded:
I’d say that this is an example of a rigorous, focused (maybe too focused?) investigation. That the overall report is so clear highlights both its strengths and some potential holes. I’m impressed, overall, while a bit frustrated with some of the holes.
How Retraction Watch commenters played a part
According to the report, the initial allegations were raised by a consulting editor at PLOS ONE, but were expanded. It turns out that our commenters — whose eagle eyes have prompted at least one university to reopen an investigation in the past — played an important role. As the report notes:
In May 2012, Carcinogenesis published a retraction notice for an unrelated paper by Dr. Katiyar (referred to as Paper 7 in this report). The publication of this retraction was noticed by the blog site Retraction Watch. Comments posted in response to the Retraction Watch article identified other potential images of concern in additional papers.
A note about investigation reports
Whenever we learn about misconduct cases at public universities, we file such public records requests to obtain more information because we believe, as did Justice Louis Brandeis, that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
The process by which we obtained the report of the Satiyar case demonstrates some of the hoops that public institutions force reporters and the public to jump through when requesting documents, and also how to get around those hoops. In this case, the University of Alabama told us that the state’s public records laws did not give us standing to request documents because we were not residents of Alabama. The VA, however, is a federal agency, not a state one, so our location did not make a difference when we requested the report from it.
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