Twenty-five years after it was first published, one of the world's top medical journals is retracting a study by a once-renowned Canadian researcher after an internal university report surfaced, revealing the paper is the result of scientific fraud.
In an editorial, the BMJ sharply rebukes Memorial University for covering up what it knew about problems with the researcher's work for years.
The paper, published in the BMJ in 1989 by Dr. Ranjit Chandra, then based at Memorial University in St. John's, is being pulled as a result of mounting evidence that he falsified information, fabricated study participants and had no raw data to back up the claims made by his research into the rate of eczema among babies who were either breast or formula fed.
The study concluded that eczema rates were low in breastfed babies whose mothers avoided dairy, peanuts and other allergens. The rates were similarly low for babies fed a special hypoallergenic formula compared with those that consumed soy- or cow's milk-based formula. This led Dr. Chandra to recommend hypoallergenic formula to babies at risk of eczema if their mothers chose not to breastfeed. The study was funded in part by Mead Johnson, which produced the hypoallergenic formula used in the study.
Critics say the incident raises serious questions about problems handling scientific misconduct in Canada, with secrecy and a lack of transparency prevailing far too often. "It is shameful that the university, Canadian authorities and other scientific bodies have taken no action against Chandra," Dr. Richard Smith, former editor-in-chief of the journal, and Dr. Fiona Godlee, current editor-in-chief, wrote about the decision on Wednesday. "The biggest failing lies with the university."
Memorial University was aware of allegations of fraud against Dr. Chandra for years but failed to take action, according to the BMJ. Specifically, the university conducted an investigation into his work in 1995 and concluded he committed scientific misconduct in several of his studies. But Memorial did not release the report, even after the journal approached the school in 2000 with concerns over the veracity of Dr. Chandra's work relating to a study that claimed a vitamin and mineral formula he patented helped improve memory in older patients. That study, published in the journal Nutrition, was retracted in 2005.
The investigators' report was finally made public earlier this year during a trial between Dr. Chandra and the CBC, which he was suing for libel. Dr. Chandra lost the case.
"This terrible case should prompt some sort of soul-searching," Dr. Smith said in an interview. "I would have called in the police if I was at the university."
Richard Marceau, vice-president of research at Memorial, said in an interivew the report was not released because of evidence that the investigators had made assumptions about the outcome. For that reason, it was decided the report could not be relied upon. But Dr. Marceau said the university is currently wrapping up a new investigation into allegations against Dr. Chandra. The new investigation, which has taken more than eight years and was interrupted numerous times, will be published soon, he said.
"We have not been sitting and doing nothing over the years," Dr. Marceau said. "We can't change the past. We can only change the future."
Dr. Chandra resigned from Memorial in 2002. He is an officer of the Order of Canada for being a "leader in medical research" in the areas of pediatrics and immunology, according to the Governor-General's website. His personal website lists him as president of the Nutritional Immunology & Allergy Center in India. He is also registered with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario and lists his primary practice in Mississauga, Ont. A woman who answered the phone at a number provided on his registration said he was out of the country. An e-mail sent to Dr. Chandra was not answered.
The question plaguing many in the medical community is whether the necessary changes will be implemented so that universities, medical journals and other authorities start to proactively root out misconduct and crack down when fraud or other problems are detected.
"It's not just Canada, it's all over North America," said Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta, co-director of the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health in Toronto. "There are patterns of behaviour that reflect principally a pattern of getting away with it and principally getting away unscathed."
There have been numerous recent examples of high-profile scientific misconduct, including the resignation of a researcher at Toronto's Women's College Hospital after an investigation revealed she manipulated data in a published study. Another high-profile example of misconduct involves Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a former British surgeon who falsified research to claim that vaccines are linked to autism. His research paper was retracted by the Lancet in 2011.
Journals themselves should take more responsibility for what is published, Dr. Bhutta said, particularly given the rise of publications that publish articles with little or no screening or oversight, often in exchange for money.
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. Chandra was nominated for the Nobel Prize in medicine. This digital version has been corrected.