A misconduct probe — which led to 20 retraction requests — took four years. Why?

Santosh Katiyar

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.”

One of the recommendations Gunsalus and our co-founders made in JAMA was to include checklists for reports; you can see Gunsalus’s filled-in checklist for the Katiyar report here.

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.

Gunsalus added:

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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3 thoughts on “A misconduct probe — which led to 20 retraction requests — took four years. Why?”

  1. Thank goodness this report is appropriately redacted. This episode should also demonstrate to institutions that they while they need to comply with public records laws, they do not need to disclose names of all individuals involved in proceedings, or information on allegations that were found to be not substantiated. It is apparently beyond the responsibilities of reporters to consider the ramifications of releasing unredacted reports, so institutions should take care not be bullied into releasing too much too hastily. Any attorney with their interest in mind would tell them to release only the minimum amount of information required by the law. And they’re allowed a reasonable time to determine what that is.

  2. In situations where residency is a (real or purported) condition of public records requests, why doesn’t Retraction Watch solicit reader assistance? If this is a regular impediment, why not create a process for volunteers to proactively add their name and address to a requester list for this purpose?

  3. Allegations of research misconduct was first received in October 2012 and in April 2013 the inquiry commitee confirmed the allegations. Katiyar published 40 articles in the period 2013-2017 (including three in PlosOne, which initiated the allegations!). How can that be possible?! Why wasn’t he stopped?! What is wrong with US research institutions? This is an invitation to scientific anarchy and infection of the scholarly record with junk science.

    I am wondering who was paying for publishing his grape seed and green tea wonders after they knew about the problems?

    In October 2016 the final investigation report was submitted. One year and 8 months later the invalid papers are still readed and cited.
    Where is the leadership and responsibility?

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