Monday, April 02, 2007

Mashelkar: Two columnists get personal!

First, in the Economic Times, V. Raghunathan feels that the plagiarism angle did not get enough press in India. According to him, Mashelkar's eventual resignation came about more because of accusations of bias than because of accusations of plagiarism. He should have resigned, says Raghunathan, as soon as the plagiarism story broke.

Dr Mashelkar seems to have missed out on an opportunity to raise the bar for intellectual honesty in the country. Particularly because he was heading the body with the last word on the IPR issues in the country.

He could have resigned from the technical experts group, not for reasons of accusations of bias (which could after all be considered a professional hazard, hardly calling for one’s resignation), but by owning up the moral responsibility for plagiarism.

As many people have pointed out, plagiarism is just a start. To stay there would imply that everything else in the Mashelkar Panel's report was just fine -- almost as if the only thing lacking in its report were a few references to its sources! Serious as the plagiarism angle is, the other failings of the Panel are more damaging; I don't know why Raghunathan urges us to give importance to the former at the expense of the latter. For example, we now know that the panel failed in its moral duty to provide a reasoned analysis behind its conclusions. We also know that it relied unduly on just a few of the inputs it received. And we know that the report itself was so poorly drafted that it made a professor opine that "if this came from my students as "finished" work, I would throw it back at them." In short, there is a lot in this episode that points to the possibility that the panel just didn't take its job seriously. And I don't see any reason why this critique should give way to one focusing exclusively on plagiarism.

* * *

The other columnist is Ramachandra Guha, writing in the Telegraph. At the end of a rambling column, he drops this bombshell:

As I write this, news comes in that Dr Mashelkar has resigned from the Technical Expert Group on Patent Law Issues. Although belated — it comes several weeks after the charges of plagiarism were made public — it is a welcome acknowledgement of error, if not negligence. With this, the controversy in the press will die down. However, Dr Mashelkar has still to withstand the proper scrutiny of his peers. I would be most interested in the reactions of the scientific academies of which he is a member, sometimes a leading member. Will they chastize him for violating the ethical code that mandates scientists always to scrupulously acknowledge the source of their data or analysis? Or, will they instead close ranks and let off the errant member of their community? This will be a test of their integrity, as well as their courage.

I am almost certain that the science academies are not going to take the bait. They have a pathetic record of standing upto the powerful [Mashelkar is currently the president of one of them -- the Indian National Science Academy]. So pathetic, in fact, that even when the very definition of science was being corrupted under the NDA regime at the Centre, they chose strategic silence over making a scientific ruckus:

... Rarely have scientists occupying important positions ... taken a firm and consistent stand against superstition and irrational belief. The same would be true of the country's socially and intellectually sterile science academies none of which have, for example, formally and officially objected to the proposal of the Universities Grants Commission ... to introduce and fund liberally graduate and undergraduate courses in Vedic astrology in our universities from the 2001-2002 academic year. [Source: The Saga of Indian Science since Independence: In a Nutshell by Pushpa Bhargava and Chandana Chakrabarti (Universities Press, 2003, p. 107)].


  1. Rahul said...

    I don't think Raghunathan is suggesting that the plagiarism was the most important issue. He is suggesting that it was more important than what Mashelkar chose to resign on -- his wounded feelings at his integrity being questioned. It is certainly not more important than the issues you raise, but I'd be staggered if Mashelkar admitted guilt there.

    Anyway, in both cases his excuse is sloppiness: he didn't read and verify what was in his name. We can argue that he should have done that, should have supplied a more reasoned analysis and so on. But Raghunathan's point is that the sloppiness is already worthy grounds of resignation: this particular form of sloppiness violates every norm of academic integrity. If we don't admit that first, we are excusing everything else and giving legitimacy to his "other people did it" argument.

  2. Ashutosh said...

    Science, even more in India than in other places, is a hierarchical enterprise.

  3. Abi said...

    Rahul: Point taken.

    I was a bit miffed that in his enthusiasm for IP, Raghunathan was not willing to say anything useful about the more substantive failures of the Mashelkar Panel.

    Ashutosh: It's so sad, isn't it?