Time for a new type of post here on Science Integrity Digest: Updates!
What happened to the papers discussed here, a year or more after reporting them to the journals and the institutes? Which journals care about scientific rigor, and which journals do not give a fork? What are the authors up to now?
In this post, let’s take a look at the Space Dentist papers.
In May 2019, I wrote about the extraordinary work carried out by The Space Dentist, Balwant Rai, who specializes in aeronautical dentistry. Basically, his research focuses on the question of how our teeth would be doing if we were in space.
Rai participated in several Mars-analog expeditions in Utah, where he measured participants’ jaws and teeth. In other types of studies he had volunteers lie on backwards-tilted beds for up to 6 weeks at a time.
Serious concerns about the validity of experiments, data, and affiliations
Rai’s papers appear to contain a plethora of problematic data. In my May 2019 blog post and on PubPeer I described cases of plagiarism, identical average ages or weights in different groups of subjects, impossible percentages, lack of clear institutional approval of human subjects research, and incorrect institutional affiliations.
Some of the experiments and data appeared to be so outlandish that it cast serious doubts about whether the experiments had actually been performed.
In addition, Balwant Rai often listed the Kepler Space Institute as his affiliation, but the KSI denied he had ever worked there. As I wrote last year, a KSI representative told me that “He has never worked here, does not currently work here, and – based on the information you gave us – will never work here.“
I reported several of Rai’s papers on PubPeer in April and May 2019 (some additional papers were flagged by other people). Understandably, Balwant Rai was not pleased, and I invite you to read some of his replies for your entertainment.
He accused me of using sockpuppets, of trying to blackmail him, and of being responsible for financial irregularities at my previous work place. Instead of answering my questions about some inconsistencies in his studies, he started questioning my work and integrity. He obviously has the right to do so, but he could have settled any concerns about his work by showing original data. He never did.
Reported to the journals and institutions
On May 27, 2019, I reported 17 of Balwant Rai’s papers to the journals and affiliated institutions. As this is more than a year ago, now would be a good time to look back and reflect on what has happened.
I sent the email to about 40 different email addresses, including the editors of all journals in which the papers had been published, publisher contacts, and research integrity officers at the listed institutes. Finding all the correct email addresses always involves a good deal of searching.
Responses of the institutions:
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium): Seven of the 17 papers were published under affiliation with this university. KU Leuven wrote to me back in November 2019 that they did not consider these to be KU Leuven papers, even though the authors had been students there, and even though they listed the university as their affiliation. They also said they cease to have responsibility for papers once they are over six years old, which these were. But they wrote they would ask the journals to remove the KU Leuven affiliations from the papers. For one paper, which also listed KU Leuven staff as authors, they said they would ask for a retraction. As of today, this has not happened.
Two of the papers in this set were written with co-author Bernard H Foing from the The Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (The Netherlands), so I also sent my email to two addresses listed at the VU website as contact persons for “Academic Integrity”. Alas, no one replied to my email.
A top Kepler Space Institute (USA) official confirmed that Balwant Rai did not represent the KSI on these papers and said that he has never been associated with their institute. They also wrote that they were not concerned because they considered they were not involved in the papers.
Conclusions: KU Leuven appeared to somewhat care about being associated with the papers (albeit they were less concerned about the content of the papers themselves). The other institutes did not seem to give a fork.
Responses by the journals and publishers
Three papers were published in Elsevier journals, two in Neuroscience Letters (May 2012 and June 2012) and one in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine (2010). The Editor in Chief of Neuroscience Letters never replied to my email. The APJTM journal had a new publisher, so I wrote to both current Editors in Chief, but they never replied to my email.
Two papers from this set had been published in Wiley journals, Gerodontology and J Periodontology. The EiC of the Journal of Periodontology never replied to my email. None of the four Associate Editors of that journal replied to my email either. The EiC of Gerodontology never replied to my email.
The JStage Journal of Oral Science had published three papers of the set (here, here, and here). I wrote to one of the EiCs (I could not find the correct email address for the other one); they never replied to my email. I also wrote to the journal’s general email address; nobody replied to my email.
The Journal of Aeronautics & Aerospace Engineering (Longdom) published one paper. The EiC never replied to my email. I also sent an email to the journal itself. They never replied to my email. I also sent the email to a couple of other Editors, none of whom replied to my email.
The Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences never replied to my email, even though I wrote to two separate Editors. However, they did take action. Three days after I had sent them an email they silently retracted the two papers by Rai et al. published in their journal (here and archived here).
Hindawi (responsible for one of the 17 papers, published in the International Journal of Dentistry) quickly confirmed having received my email and said that that they would work on it. Success at last! After that, nothing appeared to happen for a long time. But! Today they wrote to me saying that they had carried out a detailed investigation and are close to making a decision about the paper. I will update here once it has been confirmed.
Conclusions: Just one publisher contact answered me. Not a single one of the 30 editors cc’d ever replied to my email.
Not even an acknowledgement of receipt.
Where are they now?
A person called “Balwant Rai” is a co-author of a 2020 paper about pancreatic infections, but this might be a different person.
Balwant Rai still lists himself as a Program Director and Associate Professor of Aeronautic Dentistry at the Kepler Space Institute, as well as a Researcher working at the Vrije Universteit in Amsterdam.
And based on the lack of responses from both journals as well as some of the institutes, that is totally fine.