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New Lancet Study about Deaths by Litchi Fruit Raises Questions about Misappropriation of Indian Science Research


In a development that raises a number of profound and fundamental questions about the phenomenon of Indian science research being misappropriated without proper attribution, a study recently published in the Lancet has identified the consumption of the litchi fruit as the causative factor responsible for the death of scores of young boys in the Muzaffarpur region of Bihar.
Published by India’s National Centre for Disease Control and the India Office of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the study documents the authors’ close scrutiny of 390 children, under the age of 15, in Muzaffarpur over a 2-year period as the NY Times notes.
According to the study, consumption of the litchi fruit, which contains high levels of hypoglycin and a toxin called MCPG, by malnourished children results in a significant reduction in blood glucose levels and causes acute brain swelling.

As the Times of India notes, Muzaffarpur has been plagued by the phenomenon of a mystery illness, characterized by seizures and a changed mental status, for over two decades. While there were many rumours about possible causes for this phenomenon, ranging from infectious encephalitis to pesticide exposure, this study puts all those rumours to rest by identifying the precise cause of the illness.

While this is doubtless a welcome development which equips doctors and Muzaffarpur residents with the information needed to prevent a recurrence of the illness, what makes it especially fascinating is this article by Priyanka Vora in Scroll which demonstrates how the connection between this illness and the litchi fruit was established by doctors more than two years ago and this study wrongly claims to be the first one to do so.
As Vora notes, Dr. T. Jacob John and Dr. Mukul Das published a paper in Current Science in May 2014 which explored the hypothesis that the consumption of hypoglycin and MCPG found in litchi fruits by malnourished children is the cause of abnormally low blood sugar levels, resulting in their eventual death.

They further substantiated their assertion through a paper in December 2015 which demonstrates how the seed as well as the pulp of the litchi fruit contains the MCPG toxin which blocks the free flow of glucose in the body.
The research conducted by John and his colleagues was also widely reported in such reputed newspapers as the Hindu and the Times of India.

To be sure, allegations by Indian scientists/commentators that their findings/discoveries have been misappropriated by their western counterparts without any attribution is by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, India’s oft-repeated assertions that some of mankind’s most significant discoveries – from reproductive genetics to plastic surgery to the aero plane – were first made by Indians is but a concrete manifestation of this propensity.

Therefore, I think it would be desirable to distinguish between ludicrous claims such as the ones outlined above and those that are appropriately substantiated by documentary evidence and other supporting material.

While what the authors of the Lancet study did may not constitute copyright infringement stricto sensu, inasmuch as they merely borrowed the ideas embodied in the papers published by Dr. John and his colleagues and not their mode of expression, their claim of plagiarism, prima facie, does appear to carry force. For those interested, the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism was explained by Devika in a lucid fashion here.

The reason why these allegations, if true, are so significant is also because they point to a need for Indian scientists and science journals to develop the wherewithal to claim sole and exclusive credit for findings and hypotheses that are rightfully theirs.
As we have noted multiple times on this Blog, [see here and here for instance], a critical reason why Indian science research is in such an abysmal condition right now is attributable to India’s failure to appropriately incentivize the publication of high-quality, rigorously researched papers.
Ergo, in order to create conditions conducive to more meaningful research, it is imperative that the limited research that is currently conducted and documented be protected from misappropriation in the most robust fashion.

Interestingly, a Lancet report published last year had noted how Indian medical colleges have completely failed to recognize the importance of cutting-edge research which is evident from their failure to put in place appropriate infrastructural facilities and incentives to foster such research. Therefore, it is ironic that the same journal has now published a paper that has allegedly undermined the work of Indian research scientists and may disincentivize this kind of indigenous research in future.

While I have not been able to find any precedents for the type of plagiarism that John and his colleague allege the Lancet authors of engaging in in this case, I am given to believe that CNR Rao’s inventions were patented by the Japanese on multiple occasions without proper attribution.
If our readers have any more information about this or are aware of any other examples of research by Indian scientists documented in Indian journals being misappropriated, please let us know!

Rahul Bajaj

Rahul Bajaj is a fourth year law student at the University of Nagpur. His interest in intellectual property law began taking a concrete shape when he pursued Professor William Fisher's online course on copyright law in the second year of law school. Since then, Rahul has worked on a diverse array of IP matters during his internships. He is particularly interested in studying the role of intellectual property law in facilitating access to education.

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