Viswa Jit Gupta – multiple acts of research fraud and misconduct in the Himalayas

Overview

Viswa or Vishwa Gupta was an Indian geologist and palaeontologist based at Punjab University who co-authored hundreds of papers, wrote several widely used books and was a star of Indian Geology in the 1970s and 1980s. He specialised in the fossil record of the Himalayan region and was regarded as one the leading experts on the fossil fauna of this area. He attended and contributed to dozens of conferences in all parts of the world until an Australian professor, John Talent, wrote an article in Nature in 1989 which implicitly accused Gupta of multiple acts of research fraud. The most blatant of these acts was to obtain fossils from shops, museums or academic collections and then falsely claim to have found them in the Himalayas even though some of them had never before or since been reported in India or indeed anywhere on the Eurasian land mass. He duped many other Indian and foreign scientists into becoming part of this fraud by sending them specimens to authenticate and describe which he claimed to have found in the Himalayas. Many eminent scientists then co-authored papers in which he dealt with the location of the find and its significance and they dealt with the authentication and description of the specimen itself. Despite overwhelming published evidence of multiple acts of research misconduct, despite condemnation by many of his colleagues and co-authors and despite being found guilty of misconduct by a Punjab University inquiry he was able to remain a Professor at Punjab University until his retirement in 2002 at the age of 60.

Career timeline and extent of influence

In 1964 when just 22 years old, Gupta co-authored a paper in the world’s most prestigious science journal Nature. Between 1964 and 1967 he published 3 Nature articles reporting the first findings of graptolites in the Himalayas. Graptolites are an extinct group of aquatic animals that form colonies; they are sometimes called index fossils because they can be used to date rock strata. Gupta was awarded his PhD by Punjab University in 1966 and became a regular delegate at scientific conferences around the world. He was awarded a D.Sc. in 1972 and at 36 years of age became the youngest professor at Punjab University. He wrote as many as 450 papers over 25 years. Many of his papers were published in relatively obscure places and low impact journals but the cumulative weight of these publications had a great influence on the fossil record of the Himalaya region. He also wrote several books, some of which have been used as texts to teach students. Gupta reported finding a variety of fossils in the Himalayas that have never been found there by anyone else.

Growing suspicions about Gupta’s publications

Professor John Talent from Macquarie University in Australia was largely responsible for unmasking and eventually making public the fraudulent activities of Gupta. He first became convinced that Gupta was committing research fraud when he visited the Himalayas in the early 1970s. This is a militarily sensitive area and it has been difficult for foreign scientists to gain access to the region and therefore to check the claimed sites of many of Gupta’s finds. Talent went to an area where Gupta claimed to have found graptolites in his 1967 Nature paper co-authored by the late Bill Berry who was a respected professor of palaeontology at the University of California at Berkeley. Talent’s group found no graptolites in this location, they inferred a quite different age to the rock formation to that reported by Gupta and also found that the intense deformation in the locality made it inconceivable that these fragile fossils would have survived in this location. Talent also noted that in two papers in 1975 Gupta had reported finding exactly the same specimen of conodonts in two different locations more than 600km apart. (Conodonts are tiny tooth like fossils that probably belonged to an ancient marine fish). These conodonts appeared to experts to be characteristic of those found exclusively in a limestone deposit in Amsdell Creek in New York. Gilbert Klopper of the University of Iowa said in 1989 that he was convinced that these Himalayan fossils had actually originated in New York.

Gupta reported fossils called amminoids at various sites around the Himalayas including in the same location and age strata of rock as conodonts even though they would be expected to be found in strata that would be 15 million years apart. Talent suggested that the amminoids reported by Gupta had signature characteristics of those from Morocco which Talent had been able to purchase from a fossil dealer in Paris. The high movement of iron into the Moroccan amminoids gives them a shiny reddish-black appearance and they have characteristic tropical weathering rather than showing the effects of frost which would expect of a Himalayan fossil.

A French palaeontologist Philippe Janvier was duped into co-authoring three papers with Gupta. He recalled in 1989 that on a visit to him in Paris, Gupta showed him a fossil of a fish skull that Gupta claimed to have found in the Himalayas and Janvier agreed to collaborate with Gupta in writing a paper on what he thought might be a new species. Janvier later saw a similar specimen which belonged to a visiting Chinese scientist who told him that this type of fossil was quite common in China and were often given as gifts to visitors. Gupta’s visit to Paris had followed directly after a trip to China and Janvier said that he was 99% sure that Gupta had brought the fish with him from his visit to China.

Professor Gerry Webster was a professor at Washington State University who co-authored nine Gupta papers relating to crinoids (tiny fossilised spiny invertebrates) which Gupta claimed to have collected in the Himalayas. In 1989, Webster said that he immediately recognised that several of these crinoids looked very similar to those collected from other parts of the world but he admitted that he had not been wary enough and was now “virtually certain” that most of the specimens had come from places other than the Himalayas.

Many of the Gupta’s supposedly Himalayan fossils could easily be bought from fossil shops or found in teaching and museum collections. One museum curator from Wales is said to have claimed in 1989 that slides and pictures of a specimen in one of Gupta’s papers were identical to one that had disappeared from the museum. These slides and pictures were very similar to those in articles relating to the missing specimen published in 1908 and 1912.

Suspicions about Gupta are made public

By 1987 John Talent had accumulated a portfolio of evidence against Gupta after harbouring suspicions about his scientific integrity since the early 1970s. He first made his suspicions public at a scientific conference in Calgary, Canada in 1987; a meeting at which Gupta was present. Talent showed slides of amminoids from Morocco alongside one from a Gupta paper that had been reportedly found in the Himalayas. Gupta is reported to have been furious with Talent for making these barely disguised public accusations of fraud. Talent then published a fifty-seven page dossier of evidence of Gupta’s deceptions in a respected but obscure journal Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg. A concise summary of this evidence was published by Talent in Nature in April 1989 although there is no direct accusation of research fraud. This paper opened the floodgates and many of Gupta’s collaborators and co-authors made it clear in letters or quotes that they accepted the evidence that Gupta had committed multiple acts of research fraud. Several gave detailed rationale for their belief that Gupta had purchased or otherwise procured fossils and then pretended to have found them in the Himalayas. Records from security checkpoints showed that he had never visited some of the militarily restricted sites where he claimed to have found fossils. Scientists do not expect colleagues with international reputations to tell them premeditated lies so the Indian and foreign scientists who collaborated with Gupta accepted his word for where he had found his fossils. By authenticating and describing these fossils they were inadvertently adding authority to Gupta’s papers and his claims of finding them in the Himalayas.

Gupta replied to Talent’s accusations in a Nature letter in September 1989 this response is unconvincing and he fails to address any of the key accusations made by Talent. He finishes his reply with a fairly personal attack on Talent:

“I can only conclude that his attack on me was for two reasons – to draw attention to himself and to deflect criticism of his own failure to contribute to Himalayan geology.”

Also in the September 1989 Nature issue there are four letters: two by colleagues at Punjab University, A.D. Ahluwalia and S.B. Bhatia, one by U.K. Bassi from the Geological Survey of India also based in Chandigarh and one by Philippe Janvier from the Natural History Museum of Paris. All four support Talent’s accusations against Gupta, for example:

Most of the doubts expressed by Talent are well founded”…….”must speak up honestly, and address the grave charges point by point, as the issues involved can no longer be evaded” A.D. Ahluwalia

Bhatia recounts how he accepted in good faith a sample containing ostracodes that Gupta claimed to have found close to the India-Tibet border even though his own survey had suggested that the rock in the area was of a different time period from that suggested by Gupta. He did notice a striking similarity of the ostracodes to fossils that had been found in Oklahoma. He calls for a full investigation and for Gupta to lead a party of Earth scientists:

“To a few of the controversial localities to prove the authenticity and reproducibility of his fossil finds. This is the only way Gupta can redeem his reputation as well as the fair name of our university.”

Bassi lists four findings of Gupta that he considers to be impossible and gives his rationale for these conclusions. Referring to the reported finding of ostracodes on the Tibetan-Indian border:

“It would be impossible to obtain the Devonian ostracode fauna from Kurig”

Referring to two of Gupta’s papers on conodonts:

“The anomalies in lithostratigraphy and fauna levels renders these two papers worthless”

Referring to finds reported from an area known as the Khimokul La, he says that neither Gupta’s nor his co-authors’ names appear in the register at the border post through which they would have had to pass to reach the area. Local people said that neither Gupta nor any foreigner had visited this valley. Referring to his collaboration with Gupta:

“I regret having published three palaeontology papers with Gupta”

Philippe Janvier tries to explain how so many eminent scientists could have been taken in with such apparent ease by Gupta:

“I would guess that 90 per cent of published palaeontological data are based on trust in the field geologist who collected the fossils; when the fossiliferous localities are later re-visited, the data are generally confirmed.”

In 1992, Talent and four colleagues summed up the accusations and the harm caused by Gupta in a four page article. They suggest that he produced at least 432 articles and five books over a 25 year period. He involved many others in his deceptions and wrote about almost every aspect of palaeontology:

“His contributions involve 119 co-authors (55 non Indians) and embrace all major phyla, protista to vertebrates, and all intervals of time, Precambrian to Pleistocene”

They assert that:

“The palaeontologic database for the Himalayas (India, Nepal and Bhutan) had been polluted by scientific malpractice in at least 14 different ways”

They list and explain these 14 different types of malpractice. They suggest that unless there is some form of corroboration:

“It is easiest and safest to ignore all contributions authored or co-authored by Gupta and to treat with utmost caution all syntheses that have accepted his “data” as reliable”

Seven of Gupta’s articles were published in the Journal of the Geological Society of India which in 1991 advised readers to ignore all publications in the journal emanating from Gupta.

The consequences for Gupta

In 1991, Punjab University eventually responded to the international furore regarding Gupta’s conduct and a committee of inquiry chaired by a retired judge was formed. Gupta was briefly suspended in 1991 but was re-instated within a few months. The Indian courts seem to have ruled in his favour and allowed him to continue his university career; the court focusing largely on his conditions of employment and contract rather his alleged frauds. Six years after the accusations against Gupta had become public and generally accepted by the worldwide scientific community, the committee of inquiry produced its report in 1995. In the interim there had been two other independent investigations and field assessments which had both concluded that he had acted dishonestly. These reports were not made public but were submitted to Justice Gujral who headed the Punjab University inquiry. The 1995 report concluded that:

“All the charges have been established against him and Dr Gupta is guilty of scientific malpractices”

He was found to have committed plagiarism, recycling of fossils, claiming to have made discoveries in places he had not visited and claiming that fossils from museums and other sources were recovered in the Himalayas.

Despite being found guilty of multiple, blatant and extreme research fraud, he remained a professor at Punjab University until he eventually retired in 2002 at the age of 60 presumably to enjoy the pension benefits of his long professorial tenure. Following the inquiry he was barred from holding any administrative posts and his salary increments were stopped. He was moved away from teaching palaeontology to environmental geology. His PhD and DSc were not rescinded despite being based upon his published work. There are suggestions that some of Gupta’s deceived co-authors, including his later accusers, were themselves investigated and censured by the university despite the apparent tolerance shown towards this unapologetic mass fraudster.

Bibliography

Sahni, MR and Gupta VJ (1964) Graptolites in the Indian sub-continent. Nature 201, 385-6.

Berry, WBN and Gupta, VJ (1967) Ordovician graptolites from the Kashmir Himalayas. Nature 216, 1097.

Lewin, R (1989) The case of the “misplaced” fossils. Science 244, 277-9.

Talent, JA (1989) The case of the peripatetic fossils. Nature 338, 613-615.

Gupta, VJ (1989) The peripatetic fossils: part 2. Nature 341, 11-12.

Ahluwalia, AD, Bhatia, SB, Bassi, UK and Janvier, P (1989) The peripatetic fossils: part 3 (a series of letters from each of the above listed authors). (i) Upper Palaeozoic of Lahul – Spiti. (ii) Early Devonian Ostracodes. (iii) The Kinnaur region. (iv) Breakdown of trust. Nature 341 13-16.

Stevens, WK ( 1989) Scientist accused of faking findings. The New York Times 23rd April 1989.

Brock, GA, Mawson, R, Talent, RC, Engelbretsen, MJ and Talent, JA (1991) Spurious and scrambled data: V.J. Gupta’s impact on the Prototethyan/Tethyan database. Saito Ho-on Kai special publication No. 3 (Proceedings of Shallow Tehys 3, Sendai 1990).

Singh, BP (1998) The skeleton that won’t fossilise. The Indian Express 8th October 1998.

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One thought on “Viswa Jit Gupta – multiple acts of research fraud and misconduct in the Himalayas

  1. Pingback: John William Heslop Harrison (1881-1967) – distinguished botanist, Fellow of the Royal Society and research fraud | Dr Geoff

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