As It Happens

Scientific journal retracts fabricated study by Canadian researcher 26 years later

The BMJ is retracting a 1989 study on baby formula by Ranjit Chandra. Despite a 1995 report by Memorial University on Dr. Chandra's "scientific misconduct," it took decades for the medical journal to get the report and declare the study untrustworthy.
Ranjit Chandra was a researcher at Memorial University in Newfoundland when the BMJ published his 1989 study on infant formula. Today it was retracted. (CBC TV)
Listen6:18

The British Medical Journal is retracting a study fabricated by a Canadian researcher -- 26 years after publication.

The researcher, Dr. Ranjit Chandra, has been dogged for years by questions about his work on the immune benefits of infant formula. But it took until now for the British Medical Journal, or BMJ, to get the evidence it needed to declare the 1989 study, and its author, untrustworthy.

It's very doubtful that there were any patients at all. I think he may well have invented the whole thing.- Former BMJ editor Richard Smith

That's because the journal only recently got its hands on a report on Chandra written by his employer, Memorial University, back in 1995. That report said he'd committed "scientific misconduct."

Chandra's 1989 study "was very flawed, so flawed that people cannot believe it," Richard Smith, former editor-in-chief of the BMJ, tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It's very doubtful that there were any patients at all. I think he may well have invented the whole thing. The university couldn't find any raw data, the co-authors of the paper didn't know anything about it and there weren't any hospital records showing that these patients had been in any kind of trial."

Richard Smith, former editor-in-chief of the BMJ, spent years trying to find out the truth about Dr. Chandra's research. (BMJ)

Smith became suspicious about Chandra's work in 2000, when the Memorial researcher submitted another paper, this one about the benefits of a vitamin he was selling. But when Smith raised his concerns with Memorial, officials told him everything was fine. And they said nothing about the 1995 report.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago that the BMJ finally got its hands on that report. After CBC TV did a three-part investigative piece on Chandra, he sued -- and lost. The court said it was true that Chandra made up the study. The 1995 report by Memorial was part of the evidence.

Dr. Chandra sued the CBC, following a three-part series on his work on The National, and lost. The court case led to the publication of Memorial's 1995 report into Dr. Chandra's misconduct. (CBC TV)

Smith says he believes Memorial withheld the damning report because the school was worried that Chandra would sue. But Smith is taking Memorial to task.

There will always be people who misbehave . . . so, in my mind, more guilty, in a sense, is the university.- Former BMJ editor Richard Smith

"There will always be people who misbehave, as there are in every form of human activity. And I think Chandra is a rather extraordinary individual. So, in my mind, more guilty, in a sense, is the university, which has completely failed to act on all of this, despite, really, considerable evidence of misconduct on the part of Chandra."

For its part, the university says it "regrets that Memorial did not partner with the BMJ to achieve a timely and effective response to the journal's concerns." And it says it now has policies on research misconduct that meet the highest Canadian standards.

Memorial University investigated Dr. Chandra in 1995 and found him guilty of "scientific misconduct," but did not tell the BMJ when journal staff began questioning Dr. Chandra's research in 2000. (CBC TV)

But Smith points out that, at one point, a representative of the university played down the importance of the problems with Chandra's research, saying if he was claiming a cure for cancer, the university might have acted differently.

"It potentially had important information for mothers, for pediatricians, for infants, but even if it was a very insignificant piece of research, the fact that it was fabricated and fraudulent, I mean, what are universities about?," he says.

"I found it quite extraordinary that the university should somehow say, 'Well, as far as we can tell, nobody died, therefore it doesn't matter too much.'"

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.