An Indian paper retracted for ‘legal reasons’

The Editor-in-Chief has retracted this article because it was published in error before the peer review process was completed. The content of this article has been removed for legal reasons. The authors have been offered to submit a revised manuscript for further peer review. All authors agree with this retraction.

This is the notice accompanying the retraction of a paper published in Springer Nature’s Journal of the Indian Society of Remote Sensing. The editor in chief is Shailesh Nayak, the director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies at IISc campus in Bengaluru. As Retraction Watch reported, the paper – about “suspicious activities” on the Indo-China border in 2020 – was being retracted for, legal reasons aside, being replete with grammatical errors. The excerpt on the Retraction Watch page also suggests it’s qualitatively less like a research paper and more like an internal submission; the paper’s corresponding author, an Aditya Kakde of the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, a private institute in Dehradun, also didn’t comment on the retraction, and isn’t contesting it either.

The comment by Nayak, the editor in chief, is interesting: he says the badly-written paper had been published before it was peer-reviewed. First, how is this possible?

Second, I’m personally convinced Nayak is trying to protect his journal’s reputation by implying that the mistake was processual in nature, and that their functional peer-review system would have caught the paper’s quality problem. But this is also an ex post facto explanation that makes Nayak’s claim hard to believe, considering the process error was a big one.

Third, if you think you need an exercise as formally defined and intensive as a peer-review to catch such low-quality papers, I doubt your credentials as an editor.

Fourth, and to continue from my previous post, when editors publish bad papers like this, instead of helping authors correct their mistakes and thus avoid a retraction later for bad language, they’re practically setting up the authors to incur a retraction against their names.

Finally, why – in Nayak’s telling – was the paper retracted for “legal reasons”? It seems like a ridiculous, but also devious, thing to say. Considering the paper’s authors, including Kakde, haven’t been accused of other issues, I assume the paper’s contents are legitimate: that the authors have developed an image-analysis tool that purports to eliminate one step of some military surveillance procedure (although the images in the paper look quite simplistic). At the same time, one of the hallmarks of the current Indian government is its, and its supporters’, tendency to threaten their detractors with vexatious police and court cases, especially under draconian anti-terrorism and sedition provisions in Indian law.

So Nayak’s allusion “legal reasons” can’t be dismissed easily, as an attempt to be ambiguous and beyond reproach at the same time – although that’s just as possible (note: he’s a “distinguished scientist” in the Ministry of Earth Sciences).