Nfld. & Labrador

Memorial University called 'real villain' as BMJ ditches Chandra research

A prominent medical journal says Memorial University is "the real villain" in a case that's prompted the magazine to retract a scientific paper written by a Newfoundland doctor more than 25 years ago.

British Medical Journal retracts 1989 paper

Memorial University is being labelled a 'villain' for not telling scientific journals about problems with research by one of its professors. (CBC)

A prominent medical journal says Memorial University is "the real villain" in a case that's now prompted the magazine to retract a scientific paper written by a Newfoundland doctor more than 25 years ago.

The BMJ — British Medical Journal — announced Wednesday it is retracting a 1989 paper by Ranjit Kumar Chandra on the immunization benefits of baby formula, calling the long-running saga "a major failure of scientific governance."

Memorial University said it understands the decision to retract, but defended its reputation.

"We at Memorial University have very high standards. We maintain them, we enforce them," said vice-president of research Richard Marceau. "We have progressed over the years. We have learned a great deal."

Richard Smith, former editor in chief with the BMJ, says Memorial University 'failed to act.' (CBC)

However, the BMJ's former editor in chief, Richard Smith, said "MUN has failed badly."

He said the journal is acting on evidence that came out in a libel suit Chandra filed against the CBC, after a three-part documentary on The National in 2006 exposed him — a lawsuit dismissed in July by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

The university should have taken this much more seriously.- Richard Smith

Chandra worked in the faculty of medicine, and Smith said the university knew about problems with his research.

"Unknown to the BMJ editors, the university had already done an investigation in 1994-95, which concluded that scientific misconduct had been committed by Dr. Chandra," wrote Smith in an editorial.

"The university did not publish the committee's report, did not alert the editors of journals that had published the studies, and took no action against Chandra. The report came into the public domain only through the recent CBC libel case."

Dr. Ranjit Chandra's 1989 paper on baby formula and allergies has been retracted by the British Medical Journal. (CBC)

Chandra was never reprimanded by Memorial. He resigned from his position at the university in 2002, and is now the managing director of an India-based company that sells nutritional supplements.

"From my point of view, the university's the real villain of the piece," said Smith in an interview.

"I mean there will always be fraudsters, wherever there's human activity, there's misconduct, but the university should have taken this much more seriously."

Concerns expressed 15 years ago

Smith pointed out the BMJ had written Memorial in 2000 because it had suspicions about another Chandra study on whether multivitamins could reverse dementia in seniors — which was rejected by the magazine.

Smith said Memorial failed to act.

Richard Marceau, the vice president of research at MUN, says the university has learned a lot from the Chandra case. (CBC)

"They had already conducted this inquiry some five years earlier which concluded that most of his work was fraudulent and then did absolutely nothing about it," he said.

"It seems to me that universities should be about integrity and truth and as I can see, this university has completely ignored both of those things."

The study on memory and seniors was published in another journal, Nutrition, and then retracted in 2005 after other scientists found glaring errors in the data cited.

'Can't change the past'

The university expressed "regret" in a letter to the BMJ.

We can't change the past, but we can certainly shape the future.- Richard Marceau

"In retrospect it may have been better to have been more transparent, to have partnered with them more candidly," VP Marceau told the CBC.

"And today this executive team would do it that way."

Marceau said the university could not release the 1995 report because it was "flawed," and the university president at the time was told there was "a great deal of prejudice on the part of some of the investigating committee members."

However, he can't say why a second committee wasn't struck.

Ranjit Chandra published two articles that have now been retracted, one about baby formula, another about multivitamins. (CBC)

While the BMJ is calling for a public inquiry, Marceau doesn't think that's necessary.

He said Memorial is weeks away from releasing its own report on Chandra's research, an inquiry it began a decade ago, and halted when the libel suit was before the courts.

"We can't change the past, but we can certainly shape the future and this report will certainly have content that will be at the highest interest for BMJ and other journals," said Marceau.

"And we will share the report with them at the earliest opportunity."

He said MUN is "absolutely on the same page" as the BMJ when it comes to preventing academic misconduct.

Research has meant big bucks for the university. Total research funding for 2013/14 was $91.6 million.