Concerns about papers from Annamalai University

This blog post expresses my personal opinion. It is not an accusation of misconduct.

Annamalai University

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.

Annamalai University Logo with its motto “With Courage And Faith”

Annamalai University was founded in 1929 (celebrating its 90th Anniversary this year) by Rajah Sir S. R. M. Annamalai Chettiar, and is ranked in 801-1000 in the world by The Times Higher Education.

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.

Annamalai University Campus. Source: AnnamalaiUniversity.ac.in.

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 items only score 10-50 points. So it makes sense that the University put a lot of effort in publishing many research papers.

Research publications appear to be the most important item on the list to get a good NAAC accreditation.

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

This 2014 Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry paper appears to show repetitive cell structures within the same photo, highlighted with colored circles. Pubpeer link.

This 2014 Acta Histochemica paper has a similar problem; the same structures appear to be visible multiple times within the same photo (PubPeer).

This 2010 Colloids and Surfaces B Biointerfaces paper contains two photos with possible repetitions of the same nanoparticles (PubPeer).

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).

Graph problems

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.

Plagiarism

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.

20 thoughts on “Concerns about papers from Annamalai University”

  1. Needless to say, you have embarked on a herculean effort and uncovered a seemingly systemic issue at this specific U.
    On a more general note , I wonder the following
    1. This specific institute (after you have done all the hard work :)) seems like a definite candidate for data falsification and questionable integrity. I think if you pick any paper published from here chances are very high that there will be some questionable practice. Many of the studies are in seemingly obscure journals and..I am not entirely sure of their impact on the scientific community at large. Why did you choose this elaborate scale of detailed investigation in this case?

    2. What do you think is the solution to this problem? Do we really expect peer review to check for integrity in addition to scientific validity? Or, as many others have repeatedly brought up , could there be a software one day that screens articles automatically for possible issues before it goes to peer review?

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    1. 1. I was given a lead to check out papers from a certain group at Annamalai University. After I found some suspect papers, I looked at other publications from other authors at that university and started finding papers from other departments. The circle of my search kept on growing bigger and bigger. This is very different than I usually see with these types of “clusters”, which are usually limited to one particular author or lab.
      2. There needs to be stronger education (at beginning grad school level) to teach students that this is absolutely not ok. And a change of culture around misconduct. On the other end, yes, we need better software to catch these, and people are working on that. But a change of culture, such as in sports with regards to doping, is key.

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      1. You have done a remarkable work. This incident would curtail such misconducts from other universities.
        Dr. Elisabeth can you please provide me your contact email ID.

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  2. Solution to this problem is there should be no push on everyone towards research. Research is mandatory for a university but not necessary for every teacher. Instead the current systems in technical institutes giving promotions are based on the points the teachers score. So there is no other option for them to score points apart from these kinda piration. It is only the set of rules which framed for promotions by the AICTE and UGC are inappropriate. CAS literally means career advancement and the career here means a lot. Not just make students learn and practice engineering. It is now changed and less concentration on the students affairs and teaching . A teacher should be promoted based on his teaching which is his main career. Now the promotions are given only for the people who are good in research, good here means a good number of journals. The only possible solution is to let the teachers free and do research who really want to involve in doing research, which will have the original outputs of a work. So in my opinion it is only the government system which makes the people to pirate and plagiarize. Research will be true and original only when it is not compulsory if not this process of producing fake data and repetitive publications will never be stopped.

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  3. Teaching-learning is the prime feature of educational institutions.Updating the process and content is necessary .
    Balanced and careful proportioning of teaching, research , extension amd consultancy is vital.Forcing research rewuirements is the cause for the trouble. Interest initiative and motivation are the drivers for research.
    Encouraging researchers of the research/ educational institutions with funding, infrastructure, and incentives will yield results.
    Plagiarism has been there even in theses of universities.
    Same thesis with little physical makeshifts is submitted after a few years taking advantages of loss of memory of the research .
    community.
    It is high time the researches are delinked from teaching.
    Teaching efficiency, updating , and routine performance level , hinesty, integrity and faithfulness can be the indicators for career advancements.

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  4. Back volume (upload the research paper in 2019 by editor of journal but published in previous years from 2005 to 2018 by paying extra money) play an important role in annamalai university CAS promotion last year. Nearly 1000 research articles published. I having some proof on back volume published contents by stffs on AU.

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  5. M, there is no national or state borders for Science . Science is universal . That is the beauty of science.

    The problem is wasting tax payers money and committing this fraud. Most of the research in India as well as many other countries is done by using tax payers money. These corrupt practices happen globally . Here is example of ( please read the full facts listed in wiki)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sch%C3%B6n_scandal.

    The Schön scandal concerns German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön from Germany. The scandal provoked discussion in the scientific community about the degree of responsibility of coauthors and reviewers of scientific articles. The debate centered on whether peer review, traditionally designed to find errors and determine relevance and originality of articles, should also be required to detect deliberate fraud.

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  6. Seraman
    Plagiarism can never be tolerated. But what pushes them to such a level is also a matter of concern. Apart from the regular work load, a lot of clerical work needs to be done by the teachers. After the introduction of semester system, the pleasure of teaching as well as the interest of doing research gone. Sometimes, a teacher has to supervise six to eight PhD scholars, setting aside MPhil scholars,unliike Central Universities and IITs. Another issue is poor funding by the state ,especially to infrastructure. I don’t justify the aforesaid reasons drive the teachers to such a kind of ‘academic theft’. But Universities should think of other ways to promote research. Time bound imposition of publication of papers correlated with Career promotions may result in such pathetic situations.

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  7. The spurious metrics has also contributed to this. There are very good articles om metrics and what has has led to perverted thinking in academics. Here are some

    1) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3109/09638237.2013.850153?needAccess=true
    The h-index, the citation rating, impact factors and the aspiring researcher.
    This article informs you how to increase ones h index.by making friends ( Do not need to work in the project). There is a reference which led to splits of laughter, Here is the reference from the above article.

    Schreiber, M. (2012). Seasonal bias in editorial decisions for a physics journal: You should write when you like, but
    submit in July. Learned Publishing, 25, 145–151.

    2) https://www.ntu.edu.sg/home/qjwang/resource/Bibliometrics%20as%20Weapons%20of%20Mass%20Citation.pdf
    There are two in the above web site the first one is written by R Ernst a NL
    The Follies of Citation Indices and Academic Ranking Lists A Brief Commentary to ‘Bibliometrics as
    Weapons of Mass Citation’
    The second one is truly a rigorous one on why quality is ignored,
    Bibliometrics as Weapons of Mass Citation. Geoffey Bodenhouse a NMR expert is a co-authot.

    3) https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/ees.2016.0223
    or ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING SCIENCE
    Volume 34, Number 1, 2017
    Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
    DOI: 10.1089/ees.2016.0223
    Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity
    in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition
    Marc A. Edwards*,{ and Siddhartha Roy{
    Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.
    Here is the abstract
    Abstract
    Over the last 50 years, we argue that incentives for academic scientists have become increasingly perverse in
    terms of competition for research funding, development of quantitative metrics to measure performance, and a
    changing business model for higher education itself. Furthermore, decreased discretionary funding at the federal
    and state level is creating a hypercompetitive environment between government agencies (e.g., EPA, NIH,
    CDC), for scientists in these agencies, and for academics seeking funding from all sources—the combination of
    perverse incentives and decreased funding increases pressures that can lead to unethical behavior. If a critical
    mass of scientists become untrustworthy, a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself
    becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to
    humanity. Academia and federal agencies should better support science as a public good, and incentivize
    altruistic and ethical outcomes, while de-emphasizing output

    There should be some method to ascertain quality and replace this bizarre metrics .

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  8. Please publish articles in the journal Accountablity in Research taylor and francis. Elizabeth Bik , this is not a sales pitch for the journal but if you in a text all what is happening it would crown you as true succesor of Arthur Conan Doyle
    Science badly requires not one but many more.

    Like

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