Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hoping for OPE, the research watchdog with statutory teeth

Here's the full text of my piece, which appeared in TNIE after some serious pruning that brought it down to about 800 words. One of the things that got pruned was an analogy with the corporate fraud which I thought would make things somewhat clearer to folks who don't see scholarly misconduct with the same seriousness as academics do.

Bottomline: Writing an 800 word piece is hard, especially if you want to pack it with nuances, examples, details and qualifications.

My respect for people who do this consistently well on a weekly basis has gone up tremendously after this experience.

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Hoping for OPE, the research watchdog with statutory teeth

T.A. Abinandanan

On 21 September 2009, TNIE ran a front page report on the plagiarism in an academic paper which led to its being retracted by its publisher. The reason for the high-decibel coverage is not difficult to discern: one of the authors of the plagiarized paper, Prof. Sandeep Sancheti, is also the Director of the National Institute of Technology (NIT-K), Surathkal.

This latest example of ignominy forces us to confront yet again the murky world of scientists gone wild, and the even murkier reality of lack of a fair, impartial and consistent mechanisms for dealing with allegations of scientific misconduct and fraud.

First, a quick chronology of events: A research paper by S. Joshi, S. Sancheti and A. Goyal was published in 2007 in the journal IET Microwaves, Antennas and Propagation. The paper has two sections with significant chunks of text plagiarized from a 1996 paper by a different group of researchers. This finding led to its retraction by the journal's publisher, Stuart Govan, who pointed to "the impression created in the readers’ minds ... that the equations derived in [Joshi et al's paper] are based on their own work."

There is no doubt about the plagiarism in the Joshi-Sancheti-Goyal paper. By its very nature, plagiarism is not only easy to commit, but also easy to detect -- one just has to compare the original and plagiarized versions!

And there is no doubt that the journal did the right thing by pulling the plug on the Joshi-Sancheti-Goyal paper.

Now, in a sane world, the retraction of a plagiarized article would not be front page news in a leading newspaper.

In a sane world, it would not be the subject of an opinion piece such as the one you are reading right now.

In a sane world, in other words, there would have been far saner ways in which l'affaire Sancheti would have been handled, resulting in, at best, a Page 12 coverage.

Clearly, India's S&T researchers do not live in a sane world.

L'affaire Sancheti underlines, once again, the need for this sane environment for India's researchers. The need, in other words, for clear and uniform rules for dealing with cases of scientific misconduct.

An analogy may be useful here.

Imagine a firm that has just issued its annual report with details of its audited accounts for the previous financial year. If a fatal flaw is found in the firm accounts, the company would retract the report, and reissue a corrected one.

Should the story end there? If it did, the entire nation would be up in arms!

If anything, the retraction of the annual report represents not the end, but the beginning of follow-up actions to be triggered automatically, once its disclosure reaches the regulatory and other statutory bodies -- SEBI and the stock exchanges, to name just two. In fact, the firm will invite criminal prosecution if it fails to disclose the problems in the retracted annual report.

Researchers who submit an article for publication are essentially like the firm publishing its annual report. When their article comes under an ethical cloud, its retraction is not the end of story; it should be the start of a follow up story with investigating agencies playing a central role.

At a minimum, researchers must be required to disclose problems in their published papers to their institution(s) and the funding agencies. It must then be the responsibility of these institutions to trigger an investigative mechanism that will determine whether the researchers violated the code of scholarly conduct and ethics.

India lacks a mechanism that comes to life when an ethical problem arises, and enforces regulations which are binding on all institutions. In this regulatory vacuum, each institution invents its own way of dealing with problem cases, all the while hoping that its method will stand up to public scrutiny.

The results of such decentralized policy-making are, to put it mildly, ugly. For the same offence of plagiarism, a Reader at one university is sacked, while a professor at another gets away with little more than a slap on his wrist. Equality before the law loses all meaning because there is no law to handle scientific misconduct.

Worse, the lack of a statutory mechanism allows inquiry committee reports to be ignored by institutions. A researcher in a pharmaceutical research lab found out that his contract was not renewed, sometime after he blew the whistle on a permanent member of the lab. He is fighting to regain that job even after an inquiry committee found his allegations to be correct.

In an extreme case, the lack of a statutory investigative authority led to a recent case being subjected to inquiry by no less than eight committees. Along the way, panel members who came to opposite conclusions about the case even fought it out in the pages of Current Science, India's premier science journal! The accused were reported to have been exonerated by a high-level committee; unfortunately for them, the non-availability of that final report in the public domain continues to feed the rumour mill.

At the time of Independence, the Indian scientific community in each field was so small that everyone knew everyone else, and peer pressure could be counted on to keep everyone from straying from the ethical path. We do not live in that era any more.

What we have now is a large, professionalized enterprise that employs lakhs of scientists. A tremendous growth in annual outlay for science and technology (over Rs. 30,000 crores in 2008) and publications (nearly 30,000 papers in 2008) has also been accompanied, unsurprisingly, by a steady growth in the number of allegations of scientific misconduct.

What this vast enterprise needs is a professional, independent regulator with statutory powers to carry out investigations that are credible, swift and fair to the accused (as well as the whistle blower, if any).

The need for such a regulator has been articulated by many concerned scientists over the last couple of decades, during which its urgency has only grown more intense. Leaders of our scientific establishment are also aware of it; as recently as six months ago, Dr. T. Ramasamy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, promised to create an Office of Professional Ethics (OPE) whose scope and functions will (presumably) mirror those of the ORI in the US.

As a problem in scholarly ethics, the Sancheti case should have been handled with ease. The fact that we are still discussing it in this opinion piece -- some sixteen months after the plagiarism forced his paper's retraction and robbed him of the moral authority he needs for policing ethical transgressions in his organization -- is a serious indictment of our ad hoc, inconsistent and porous way of dealing with questions of scientific misconduct.

This must change. It's high time the Indian scientific community demanded, in one loud voice, the establishment of a research regulator with statutory teeth.