A university thought its misconduct investigation was complete. Then a PubPeer comment appeared.

When Venkata Sudheer Kumar Ramadugu, then a postdoc at the University of Michigan, admitted to the university on June 28 of last year that he had committed research misconduct in a paper that appeared in Chemical Communications in 2017, he also “attested that he did not manipulate any data in his other four co-authored publications published while at the University of Michigan.”

And so, a few days later, Michael J. Imperiale, the university’s research integrity officer, wrote a letter to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) informing them of the findings. On August 2, Ramadagu was terminated from Michigan. And on August 3, Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy, the head of the lab where Ramadagu had worked, wrote a letter to Chemical Communications requesting retraction of the paper.

While the retraction would not appear until the end of November, and ORI sanctions not announced until the end of December, Michigan’s responsibilities seemed to have been discharged as of early August. But documents obtained by Retraction Watch through a public records request detail how that was not the end of the story.

On August 10, a commenter posted about another of Ramadagu’s papers on PubPeer, this one in Angewandte Chemie: “Peaks and close background signals of spectra in figure 4E and 4F are identical.” According to a November 5 report sent to the ORI, it was that comment that prompted Michigan to revisit the case:

However, in August 2018, possible additional issues with the Respondent’s publications were brought to our attention. Specifically,the Complainant [Ramamoorthy] sent us a link to a comment about another publication (Ravula et al. 2017, see below) on PubPeer, in which the individual who posted the comment noted that two of the spectra in Figure 4 “were identical.”

Michigan’s investigation revealed problems in the two already-flagged papers as well as another in Angewandte Chemie, and a poster presentation. Armed with that dossier, Michigan interviewed Ramadagu again on August 23. He admitted that he had “knowingly and intentionally falsified these figures/data as well,” and sent another signed admission statement four days later.

According to the November 5th letter from Imperiale to the ORI:

The Complainant and co-authors on Ravula et al. (2017) and Ravula et al. (2018) have indicated that the falsified NMR data do not affect the findings or main conclusions of the studies. They proposed to redo the affected experiments and work with the journal to publish corrections/errata for both papers. I agreed with that approach, and the Complainant initiated the process on August 23. 2018.

I recommended no further actions for the poster presentation.

Ramamoorthy, the lab head, responded to the PubPeer commenter on August 24: “We have notified the Editor of the journal.” At the time of this writing, neither of the Angewandte Chemie papers has been corrected.

As of Dec. 4, 2018, Ramadagu — who is living in India, according to the second letter to the ORI — is barred from receiving federal U.S. funding for five years

[b]ecause he also made a false statement in his first admission that no other data were affected in his papers…

The case is not the first time we know of that online comments led a university to reopen an investigation after calling for what they thought were all of the necessary retractions. That happened in the case of Cory Toth between 2012 and 2014. After we wrote about a few of Toth’s retractions, Retraction Watch commenters cited issues in more papers. Toth ended up with nine retractions. And something similar happened in the case of Santosh Katiyar.

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5 thoughts on “A university thought its misconduct investigation was complete. Then a PubPeer comment appeared.”

  1. If one author on a paper fakes some of the data, but the other authors argue that the faked part is small and insignificant to the main findings of the research, and promise to redo the “affected experiments” and report changes in a correction to be published later, doesn’t that leave the dishonest researcher as an author in original publication?

  2. Thanks for the information. I agree fully with the previous comment.
    When I read “that the falsified NMR data do not affect the findings or main conclusions of the studies” I am really surprised because redo experiments are not necessary in this case and falsified NMR data can be simply deleted of the corrected manuscript.
    Another example concerning misconduct and conclusion from the notice of a published corrected paper (GreenChem., 2018,20,935; DOI: 10.1039/c8gc90011f) : “There was some misconduct during the data processing of baseline data for Fig. 4(b) (in the region of 600–1300 °C) and Fig. 5(a) (1), Fig. 5(b) (1), which means that this data is not accurate. The Ethics Committee has concluded that, despite these instances, the overall results reported in the paper are correct…”. Later in the notice the word “misconduct” is transformed into “error”.
    This is a fundamental question of scientific ethic.
    Another point: why some retracted papers are not freely available to everybody? I was not able to load the cited Chem. Comm. article.

    1. ” I am really surprised because redo experiments are not necessary in this case and falsified NMR data can be simply deleted of the corrected manuscript.”

      Are you joking? The NMR data were falsified for a reason, and the statement “that the falsified … data do not affect the findings or main conclusions of the studies” is is as reliable as if a cycling pro tells you “I did not cheat”.

      In any case the title “Polymer nanodiscs and macro-nanodiscs of a varying lipid composition” already sounds like not very exact but trendy science. The NMR are about the only hard data in that work.

      Unfortunately the current drivers in organized science are very much market forces from one side, and generating more and more “ethical guidelines” and rules/laws (to counteract the resulting problems) from the other side. Also, the outsourcing of science to immigrants who work harder and cheaper in the US leads to problems besides the undisputed (economic) advantages.

      Besides, the original article is still available with a “retracted” stamp. Feel free to profit from those results… https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlepdf/2017/cc/c7cc06409h

  3. The Angewandte Chemie 2018 paper is available for download for $59 US. I see no disclosure from the publisher that it is known to contain an undetermined amount of falsified data.

  4. It is surprising, and somewhat dismaying, that in neither of the letters to ORI does the institution mention having conducted an independent review of the sequestered data by a proper investigative committee.

    Rather, the RIO seems to have accepted at face value statements from coauthors who have a conflict of interest in this matter, and wrongly considered that as an adequate investigstion. Did the institution then compound the naiveté demonstrated in the first letter? I hope I am mistaken in reading both letters, but if not the second reveals the same investigative deficit as the first.

    The issue here is not the PHS sanctions (on the respondent who is now in India). Rather, it is the confidence in any other UM papers having the respondent as a coauthor.

    From the

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