Thursday, January 26, 2006

A terrible editorial in Current Science


This piece of creative writing [caution: pdf] recounts the tale of Vikram Dixit, a scientist in a "well-funded national institute". It's a sad tale of a man who seems unsure of himself, makes bad choices repeatedly, and ends up feeling depressed. It should have been published as a short story with a title like "Vikram Dixit ko depression kyun aatha hai?" [rough translation: "Why is Vikram Dixit depressed?"], but it has, unfortunately, appeared as an editorial in Current Science, India's leading science journal.

It is really unfortunate, because the editorial's exalted position in this leading journal invests this piece of creative writing with a high status as the journal's (realistic ?) take on the state of scientific enterprise in India and elsewhere. Make no mistake; through this story of one lone individual, the editorial does make some sweeping generalizations. At one point, for example, it has this: "this is the story of Vikram Dixit so far. Although a reader will know that the same clone exists all around." (the story has several other such generalizations as well).

The most interesting thing about this piece (again, in its role as an editorial) is that it manages to insult pretty much everyone! The victims include scientists in India, Western scientists, editors of Indian journals (!), students in Indian universities. Let me comment on a couple of them.

First, the editorial paints a caricature of Vikram's post-doc advisor in a 'well-known university in the West'. This (straw)man comes across as a callous, results-hungry individual who doesn't even give his post-doc some time for discussing his work. He even has a strange reason to be glad when his post-doc chooses to return to his home-country: he doesn't have to deal with immigration-related hassles! Further, during their farewell dinner (an expensive one!), he

did not forget to mention which were the areas on which Vikram should concentrate as he was not interested in them any more.

Later in the story, Vikram even tells his student (after their paper has been rejected by an 'international' journal) that perhaps his post-doc advisor was the one who, due to a conflict of interest, made strongly negative comments about the paper!

Do you too feel that this editorial tries to -- in a hidden way -- discourage people from choosing to go abroad for higher studies or post-doctoral work?

Second -- and this is a meta-irony -- the editorial, published in Current Science, mocks 'Indian' journals without betraying any sense of irony. The following extended quotes reveal what the editorial thinks of 'Indian' journals:

One of the papers [by Vikram, the graduate student] in an Indian journal was actually meant for a journal published from a European society. It received very probing comments from two reviewers and several suggestions to improve upon. Vikram was ready with his thesis, going abroad and getting married, all within three months time and was just not ready to spend more time on experiments. His guide refused to pass on the work to another student and, instead submitted it to an Indian journal where it was accepted with minor revisions. Vikram did not like it ...

Few months back, a piece of work which his graduate student carried out appeared very attractive to Vikram [who is now a faculty member]. In fact for the first time in his career as a scientist he felt proud of his work and decided to communicate it to an international journal although he knew he was in a hurry and a few of the experiments lacked proper control. Yet he wrote it up and communicated. Today, first thing in the morning he received a rejection letter with reviewer’s comments so negative that he lost all his enthusiasm to redo some of the experiments and send it somewhere else. Vikram spent a whole day on it, discussed with his student and decided upon sending it to an Indian journal! This is, however, with no assurance that here it would be accepted, but there was a possibility. His student was upset like he was several years back but Vikram pacified this young man by telling him that a competitor, perhaps his former supervisor, had reviewed this paper and negated it due to conflict of interest. He claimed that by publishing in a home journal he would establish his priority, although all along he knew how hollow the claim was! All of a sudden Vikram felt how poor the work was which he thought was good before.

As I said, if it were a short story in a magazine, this sort of trashing of people and institutions may be justified as mere fiction. As an editorial in Current Science, however, it's absolutely, totally, utterly inappropriate. If the collective wisdom of Current Science editors doesn't protect it from this sort of editorials, I fear that the journal risks becoming just another 'Indian' journal to be mocked -- something it stoops to doing so shamelessly in its own editorial.

***

Thanks to reader V. Narayanan for the pointer.

4 Comments:

  1. Anand said...

    Absolutely agree. I got this piece the other day as a fwded e-mail. Junk!

  2. Aswin said...

    CS is pretty unpredictable. The Einstein Special had a good editorial. Close on its heels comes this!!

  3. Abi said...

    Anand, Aswin: Thanks for your comments.

    Aswin: Mukunda's editorial on Einstein is indeed fabulous. Perhaps Current Science should carry more editorials by him.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Japananese and Russians are good in Science and Technology and still they publish papers in their native country. Why not an Indian Journal be competitive to foreign journal? Well we have to contribute to the quality of native journals.