India's annual output of scientific publications has grown eight folds in the last two decades (1990-2010) — from 2,406 papers to 19,297. That is good news. The bad news is that the growth rate of retracted papers due to misconduct — mostly plagiarism — is shocking.

"In the 1990s, there were almost zero retraction cases of misconduct but they took a distinctly upward turn during the 2000s," says T. A. Abinandanan, a professor of materials science at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore who has made a systematic study of the status of scientific fraud in India.

His study was prompted by the 'alarming' results of an analysis in a Nature News blog showing that India's fraud rate (number of fraudulent papers per 100,000 papers published) of 18 was the highest in the world.

For his analysis, Abinandanan made use of the PubMed database from the year 1990. There were no retracted papers involving Indian researchers before 1990. The number of such papers was just seven during the decade 1990-2000. "This number jumped dramatically to 69 in the next decade 2001-2010 when 103,434 papers were published from India," he says.

This made for a retraction rate of 67 for India, far higher than China (48), South Korea (44), Japan (16), USA (14) or UK (13). Of the 69 retracted papers, 45 were attributed to some form of misconduct, mostly plagiarism, he says. The year 2007 alone saw 16 retractions from India.

Abinandanan's analysis has thrown up some other interesting points. For example, 45 retracted papers from India had over 130 authors and 12 authors had at least three (overlapping) retractions due to misconduct. He notes that PubMed, the only source of his data, does not adequately cover fields other than biomedical sciences. "If the misconduct rate is similar in non-biomedical fields, the number of Indian authors involved in misconduct could be much higher," he says.

"I think (Abinandanan's) finding is just a tip of the iceberg," says Nandula Raghuram, former secretary of the Society for Scientific Values (SSV) in New Delhi — an independent body of scientists with the goal of upholding ethics in Indian science — and a professor of biotechnology at the GGS Indraprastha University, New Delhi. "The situation in Indian science is increasingly reaching a crisis point," Raghuram told Nature India . He and Abinandanan reported their work at a 'Workshop on Academic Ethics' held last month at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai.

"Occurrence of misconduct is not the real problem in India — lack of response is," says Raghuram adding that employers take action only if it suits them. While a feudal work culture, sycophancy, parochialism, loyalty versus integrity, bureaucratic, non-transparent system and poor accountability are conducive for misconduct, institutional response to misconduct is usually "to ignore, deny, diffuse or cover-up," he says.

Raghuram says that over the years, SSV investigations revealed that misconduct is as much prevalent (if not more) in top tier institutions in India as among smaller institutions. In fact three directors of national institutes were removed following indictment by SSV. Top scientists, agency heads, directors and vice-chancellors are often involved, Raghuram says. "It is therefore not surprising that official mechanisms to investigate misconduct are often compromised and the guilty go scot-free."

Abinandanan's analysis has borne this out. Institutions whose scientists were found engaged in misconduct included those under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Department of Biotechnology besides the Banaras Hindu University, Postgraduate Institute for Medical Education and Research and the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, says Abinandanan.

His analysis however presents a ray of hope: the misconduct rate has shown a dramatic downward trend after 2007. He believes a plausible reason for this is the increasing use of plagiarism detection software by an ever increasing number of journals. According to Raghuram, authors are getting smarter in finding ways to evade detection "by paraphrasing instead of verbatim copying" and resorting to falsification and fabrication of data which is harder to detect. "While plagiarism hogs headlines, falsification and fabrication of data are more serious issues in India," he warns.

Leading Indian scientists have been seized of this menace for long and proposals for a regulatory body to curb misconduct had been made at different times without any result so far. Says Goverdhan Mehta, the renowned chemist and an ardent advocate of a statutory body similar to the Office of Research Integrity in the USA, "I do not know anything that is happening in the matter," he told Nature India . "Quite regrettably, our scientific establishment at the moment is suffering from idea deficit and is gripped by a culture of bluff. There is an urgent need of cleansing."

According to Raghuram, "ethics education, right-to-information and whistleblower protection will help, but a lot more public engagement of intellectuals at all levels will be needed to stem the rot."