A piece of news that made headlines in the afternoon of August 20 claimed that a 14-year-old Indian girl made an extraordinary achievement by securing a position of a panellist on “NASA’s MSI Fellowships Virtual Panel”. The source of the news was ANI. It quoted the girl, Diksha Shinde of Maharashtra, claiming that her paper on “a theory of black holes and God” was accepted by NASA and the agency has asked her to write articles for its website.

ANI shared pictures of alleged certificates and purported email correspondence with NASA to back Shinde’s story.

“The International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research accepted her research paper on ‘We Live in Black Hole?’ in May 2021. Shinde said that she was selected as a panellist for the 2021 MSI Fellowships Virtual Panel in June,” claimed the report.

ANI’s complete story can be read here.

The ‘news’ was published by nearly every media outlet in India – Livemint, Times Now, She The People, Amar Ujala, The Economic Times, Aaj Tak, Lokmat, News18 English, New18 Bangla, India Times, DNA, Newstrack, Asianet, Latestly and Yahoo News.

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NASA’s response

There are several red flags in Diksha Shinde’s claim which were overlooked by ANI before publishing her story as legitimate. The news agency also did not contact NASA to corroborate Shinde’s story.

A NASA spokesperson informed Alt News via an email correspondence, “In May 2021, NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement sought applications through a third-party service for expert panellists to review a series of proposals and applications for NASA Fellowships with Minority-Serving Institutions. Diksha Shinde was selected as a panellist based on false information regarding her background and credentials. NASA is currently reviewing the process of verifying potential panellists’ backgrounds. The matter has also been referred to the agency’s Office of Inspector General.”

The several red flags in the certificates, proposal, etc shared by Shinde to support her story are discussed below.

The certificates

ANI shared pictures of two certificates allegedly presented by NASA to Shinde. One of the certificates, more legible than the other, has been posted below. The discrepancies are numbered.

1. The certificate carries the name ‘Jim Bridenstine’ who is identified as ‘CEO and President’.

2. Another person named ‘James Frederick’ has been identified as ‘Department Chair’.

Both of these names belong to the same person.

James Frederick “Jim” Bridenstine was the 13th Administrator of NASA from April 23, 2018 to January 20, 2021. He was nominated by former US President Donald Trump. The incumbent Administrator is Bill Nelson.

The certificate is dated 2020 when Bridenstine was the Administrator. But his name has been split into two to show him as both “CEO and President” and “Department Chair” of NASA. The agency has an Administrator and a Deputy Administrator. These are the highest ranks in NASA. There are several other people at NASA – from scientists, technicians, engineers to analysts – but the agency neither has a President nor a CEO. Furthermore, the certificate vaguely says “Department Chair” without mentioning which department.

3. The third red flag that we noticed was a sentence in the certificate that reads, “For her excellent efforts for the perfect proposals”. The sentence doesn’t sound like something NASA would write. There is also no mention of the said proposal. Moreover, ANI reported that Shinde wrote “a theory that was accepted by NASA” yet the certificate says “perfect proposals” in the plural.

Alt News has emailed Bridenstine about the certificates circulating in his name. This article will be updated if he responds.

This isn’t an isolated case of Shinde sharing fake certificates in her name. Several social media users pointed out that she had uploaded a certificate of nomination for a $25000 scholarship from the American Astronomical Society on LinkedIn. The certificate resembles a template on Canva.

Jackie Faherty whose name is on the certificate tweeted, “I don’t know why my name got tied into this but someone has created a scam using a 14 yr old girl in India…”

Shinde’s LinkedIn profile has now been taken down but she used to refer to herself as ‘Dr’ Diksha Shinde on the platform. A Twitter user had pointed out that her bio was picked up from a template.

The MSI Fellowships

Screenshots of the emails shared by Shinde show that NASA accepted her as a panellist for the 2021 MSI Fellowships Virtual Panel. MSI stands for Minority Serving Institution. As stated earlier in the report, a NASA spokesperson said that she was selected as a panellist based on false information regarding her background and credentials.

Shinde also did not secure a seat at the MSI Fellowships. “Shinde is not employed by NASA nor has the agency awarded her a fellowship, which are only opportunities available to U.S. citizens,” the spokesperson clarified.

MSIs are institutions of higher education that serve minority populations in the US. To be eligible to apply to the 2021 fellowship, the candidates must attend an MSI, be a US citizen or a US national before August 31, 2021, must hold a bachelor’s degree and must be enrolled at a master’s degree or doctoral degree program no later than September 1, 2021.

Diksha Shinde is ineligible for the fellowship on all counts.

One of the answers to an FAQ clearly states that international students cannot apply for the fellowship.

Acceptance of paper by IJSER

Another email shows the acknowledgement of acceptance of Shinde’s paper ‘We Live In Black Hole’ by the International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research (IJSER).

Her paper was found on the journal’s website.

IJSER has nothing to do with NASA.

The NASA spokesperson said, “We have not accepted a scientific paper from Shinde or presented her with any other accolades. Any claims that NASA is funding a trip to the U.S. for her are also false.”

IJSER is listed as a “potential predatory scholarly open-access journal” on Jeffrey Beall’s website. Jeffrey Beall was a librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver who first coined the term “predatory journals”, wrote The Hindu.

A 2016 article about research fraud in The Wire said that “IJSER publishes across nearly all disciplines, which is another known marker of a fake journal. In many cases, the articles are nonsensical. Many are plagiarised or are crude copy-and-paste efforts. And this is just one journal among thousands that are operating to serve academics from around the world.”

IJSER lists the amount charged to submit papers. Authors can essentially submit papers by paying a fee.

A fake story was thus, published by ANI which led other media outlets to further amplify the misinformation. After several people pointed out that Diksha Shinde’s story is fake, ANI editor Smita Prakash tweeted that the news agency stands by the report. It is noteworthy that several news organisations that carried the story later took it down.

While it is true that Diksha Shinde, a 14-yr-old girl from Aurangabad, was selected as a panellist on NASA’s MSI Fellowships, the selection was based on false information regarding her background and credentials, as clarified by a NASA spokesperson. The spokesperson also said that NASA has neither accepted any scientific paper from Shinde nor presented her with any other accolades or fellowships.

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About the Author

Pooja Chaudhuri is a senior editor at Alt News.