This blog post expresses my personal opinion. It is not an accusation of misconduct.
Annamalai (often spelled “Annaamalai”) is the name of an Indian hit-movie from 1992. It is also the name of a state university in Tamil Nadu, a state in the South of India.
Its Directorate of Distance Education offers hundreds of accredited online courses, and has the largest online enrollment in India. It is also one of India’s largest public residential universities, with 10 faculties including Science, Marine Sciences, Indian Languages, Medicine, and Dentistry. It also has obtained 15 patents.
Grade A NAAC Accreditation
Annamalai University is very proud of their 2014 “A” Grade accreditation for higher education by the Indian National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC).
One of the most important criteria to get that grade is to publish a high number of research papers, as per the “distribution of weightages” list provided on the NAAC website. Item 3.4 “Research Publications and Awards” has a maximum score of 100, while other times only score 10-50 points. So it makes sense that the University put a lot of effort in publishing many research papers.
However, putting a lot of pressure on research departments to publish as many papers as possible might have led researchers to cut some corners, as we will see below.
In my search for inappropriately duplicated images, I found a couple of papers from authors at Annamalai University with image concerns. As I was following different leads, I found more and more problematic papers. These papers had one or more of the following problems.
Possible duplications or overlaps
Many papers contained photos that appear to show areas of overlap. For example, in this 2019 Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics paper, I found four sets of possible overlaps (Pubpeer discussion here).
There were also figures in which the same animal appeared to have been used to represent different experimental groups, such as in this 2019 Materials Science & Engineering. C, Materials for Biological Applications paper (PubPeer). I am always extra sad to see duplications in animal experiments.
Repetitive features within the same photo
In this 2014 Brain Research paper, the same tissue areas appear to be visible multiple times within the same photo, or across different photos. Of note, the “Control” panel and the “Escin” panel appear to share many similar features (PubPeer).
Problems in Annamalai University papers were not just limited to photographic images. I found quite some examples where graphs or parts of graphs appeared to be repetitive.
In this 2013 Spectrochimica Acta. Part A, Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy paper, Figure 4 appears to be showing unexpectedly similar patterns in graphs (PubPeer), marked here in pink, orange, and blue.
Some of the papers published by Annamalai researchers appeared to have reused text published by others. This 2009 Academic Journal of Cancer Research paper had little original text. The sentences marked in yellow, pink, and green are verbatim identical to text found in three older papers by different authors.
Standard deviation problems
A particular puzzling phenomenon was observed in a set of papers with animal measurements. Usually, 4 to 6 groups of 6 rats each were treated with different chemicals, and measurements were reported as mean plus/minus a standard deviation (SDs). One would expect that the spread of these many averages would be somewhat variable, but unexpectedly, almost all SDs were around 7.5% of their mean, such as in this 2016 Chemico-Biological Interactions paper (PubPeer). Such a narrow range of SDs is highly unusual in biological measurements.
A set of more than 200 papers
After spending about 2.5 months working on this project (day and night!), the set of problematic papers authored by Annamalai reseachers had grown to a whopping 202. What was also unusual about this set is that these papers did not just come from one particular research group. Instead, they came from at least 25 different group leaders in different departments, including Biochemistry & Biotechnology (n=127), Zoology (33), Marine Biology (29), Physics (8), and Chemistry (5).
Without accusing anyone particular of science misconduct, this large-scale set of concerns across different research groups and departments begs the question if Annamalai University cares much about research integrity.
I have reported these 202 papers yesterday, in an email to all Editors in Chiefs and publishers of the ~150 journals in which these papers had been published. Let’s hope this will be taken seriously.