Monday, November 30, 2009

DST nails an IIT-KGP professor


The verdict:

India’s leading science funding agency has withdrawn a prestigious fellowship it had awarded last year to a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, after an investigation charged him with scientific misconduct.

Who:

Suman Chakraborty, a professor of mechanical engineering at IIT-KGP.

Why:

Two panels of experts set up by the DST found that Chakraborty had portrayed research he had completed before 2005 as the outcome of a DST-supported project which he had undertaken between 2005 and 2008, sources told The Telegraph.

His DST-supported project involved the prediction of how biological tissues interact with lasers, a science that may lead to new strategies to fight cancer. In a project completion report submitted to the DST earlier this year describing his work during the 2005-2008 period, Chakraborty had reproduced verbatim his own research paper published in a scientific journal in 2005, according to the findings.

G.S. Mudur of The Telegraph has the full story.

Some quick observations / comments:

  1. First, a disclosure: Suman Chakraborty is an alumnus of IISc's Department of Mechanical Engineering, where he finished his thesis in record time (IIRC, less than a year). I have had casual chats with him a few times when he was a student; I do not recall any interaction with him after his graduation.

  2. Chakraborty has been accused of passing off his old (pre-2005) research as something that was done under a project whose funding started only in 2005. At least two panels have found him guilty of this charge. From The Telegraph story, it appears that Chakraborty himself is not disputing the fact behind the charge.

  3. I know of situations where people do quite a bit of groundwork before the project begins officially; they are then in a position to start publishing within a short time after the project starts. Chakraborty seems to have taken his groundwork to publications well before the official project start. In his mind, the whole thing -- his groundwork as well as the work he did after the project started officially -- may have formed one long continuum, but the funding agency (and the people it appointed to investigate this issue) has not bought into this view.

  4. In comparison with the "high crimes" in science -- fabrication, falsification or plagiarism -- Chakraborty's offence is a minor one. If I may use an analogy here, he has not been accused of murder or manslaughter; he has been found guilty of a Section 420 offence.

  5. Section 420 is an apt analogy here: he has been accused of cheating the funding agency. The penalty for it is in the nature of a fine -- the Swarnajayanti Fellowship, which he won before his offence blew up, has been withdrawn.

  6. This penalty appears to fit the offence here; it's far lower than what the 'high crimes' attract. [For example, fabrication and falsification might attract an outright dismissal, while plagiarism is punished with not allowing any student to come anywhere near the culprit.] While he has lost out on getting a grant from DST for some years to come, his right to work with students (as well as to seek funding from other agencies, including private industry) has been left intact.

  7. The Telegraph story talks about how this case has led to a debate among Indian scientists. I don't really get what the 'debate' is really about; maybe it's it's about whether the punishment is appropriate.

    If Chakraborty is really guilty as charged, not punishing him would make the funding agency look foolish. I mean, someone cheats you, and you still go ahead and reward him with a Swarnajayanti? WTF?

    Chakraborty has been unlucky in that the agency that felt cheated and that which made the Fellowship offer happened to be the same -- DST. The Swarnajayanti might still have been his if it was awarded by a different agency.

  8. Frankly, I'm surprised that DST's project review panel caught Chakraborty on this offence; typically, end-of-project reports get only a cursory look to see if the broad objectives have been met. The scrutiny that's required for catching this sort of offence must have been pretty deep indeed. Either the panel was amazingly effective (very admirable, but unlikely) in its scrutiny, or its members must have had some other reason to subject Chakraborty's project to a higher level of scrutiny.

  9. It looks like this stuff -- the investigation, the verdict and the Swarnajayanti withdrawal -- happened several months ago. Due to lax (or, lack of) disclosure norms, DST hasn't made its decision public. It is this lack of disclosure that makes The Telegraph story read like a major scoop.

    Compare this with what the NIH does: it discloses on its website, as a routine matter, the results of all its misconduct investigations -- see this example.

33 Comments:

  1. Anonymous said...

    I am sure it is a case of personal jealousy or rivalry. The offense is very minor indeed. The guy Suman chakraborty is an exemplery researcher with extremely high productivity. This minor slip-up on his part can cost him a great deal in his career.
    I think he was looking at bhatnagar award pretty soon. He also has a number of foreign collaborations and appointments. So all that will be stalled.
    Really feel bad for this guy. Someone with an axe to gring nailed him.

  2. Anonymous said...

    I agree with Anon #1. A look at Suma's website clearly indciates his excellence. Of course, this was a slip up on his part and someone jealous nailed him. He is being killed for minor offense without considering what all he has done. Yes, he should be penalized for slip up but not in this manner.

  3. புருனோ Bruno said...

    //Chakraborty had reproduced verbatim his own research paper published in a scientific journal in 2005, //

    That was his problem

    He should have re wrote the article, could have translated it into French via Google Translator, then from French to Greek - Greek to Latin and then Latin to English.

    That would have altered the language substantially

    --

    He should have changed the tables.
    At least he should have changed the rows and columns

    --

    The rotated all graphs 90 deg or 180 degree

    --

    :) :) :)

  4. Anonymous said...

    Read the full Telegraph item. IMHO, they should have asked Suman to send an updated report with results of research done after the grant.

  5. Anonymous said...

    poor guy. Well, I am sure he will have company if somebody looks into all the scientific misdemeanors of all the swarnajayanti/bhatnagar awardees, including that of the committee members'

    Guaranteed outcome.

  6. Abi said...

    @Anon #5: WTF are you talking about? If you have names and appropriate evidence, present them. If you have guts, do it under your real name.

    Else, get the hell out.

    At the least, stop this kind of indiscriminate mud-throwing.

  7. Nuteshan said...

    "Chakraborty said he had a legitimate explanation why he had pasted the 2005 research paper onto the project report, and that the two investigative panels chose not to accept his explanation."

    Abi, Can we hear his side of the story before jumping the gun and labelling someone 420, even if by analogy? Even though it may look milder than what the big wigs have in mind, it still hurts.

    Is it that he pasted only his 2005 paper, or did he do so as a basis for ongoing work? When the proposal was submitted, was this paper already listed as a prior work because of which he got funding?

    Can you send him a mail or point him to the site and ask him to respond?

    Unless we know some of this answers, we owe it to a bright young scientist to give him the benefit of doubt and side him.

  8. sunil said...

    Abi,

    As an avid reader of your blog, I am deeply dissapointed at the tenor of this piece. Though I hold no brief for Prof. Chakraborty, I would have preferred hearing his side of the story before drawing these 420-type of conclusions as you have done here.

    The title of the telegraph article which you have linked to has been careful about its wording, but IMHO you have been far more careless. This is nothing but mudslinging, and is something which would expect from the mainstream media, but not from an academican like you.

  9. Abi said...

    @Nuteshan: I'm afraid I'm being misunderstood here (probably because I wasn't being clear enough). Let me reiterate: as offences go, Chakraborty's is pretty minor, and as penalties go, what he has received is also pretty minor. Perhaps the 420 analogy rankles you, but that's effectively what DST has nailed him for.

    This post is not (just) about Chakraborty's misdemeanors. It's about adding my views to the 'debate' that Mudur claims is going on. It's also about the lack of suitable mechanisms by which misconduct investigations are carried out in a fair and transparent way, and their results are communicated to the public in a timely fashion.

    Whether Chakraborty wishes to offer a public comment on this issue (perhaps through his website) is up to him. If he does, and if I think it's pertinent, I'll certainly post an update.

    @Sunil: I have tried my best in interpreting info that's in the public domain. Remember, I didn't 'break' this story; it first appeared in a newspaper, so the charge of mudslinging is unfair. As I said in response to Nuteshan, this post is a set of observations not just about the Chakraborty case, but also about its broader implications.

    I'm sorry you feel that I have been careless. Please point out any misrepresentation in my post arising out of this alleged carelessness; I'll add an addendum / correction.

  10. Anonymous said...

    I think the poor guy is being victimized. IIT Kharagpur is famous for a bunch of do-nothing professors whose sole aim in life is to put up obstructions in other peoples paths. This is a "clerical mistake".

    Research projects are open ended, and sometimes, are conceived years ahead of a formal proposal or grant. You cannot draw neat lines partitioning various phases of a project. Funding agencies around the world understand this, specially, NSF and NIH in the US. I have no clue why DST has to be so anal about when exactly a project started and ended, that too for a fellowship, where the award is usually based on the abilities of the researcher and not the merit of the proposal (if at all any).

    Based on Chakraborty's track-record (a look at his web page will show that he is exceptional), I think the DST has more to loose with this than gain. I will not be surprised if in a few years, I open up an MIT/Stanford faculty roster to find Chakraborty's name on it: I sincerely hope that we (that includes Abi with his 420 references) don't drive good people out of the country.

  11. kulkarni.ankur said...

    I think the grounds of his dismissal are silly. This is a project report, not an exam-paper which cannot be repolished after it has been submitted!

  12. gaddeswarup said...

    Slightly off topic. I always had problems writing research proposals in mathematics. Often there is no question of accumulating data and if you get an idea that is it and one did not want to give away one's ideas ( this was after some bitter experiences). Otherwise what one could do was uncertain. So I tended to very non-specific generalities as research aims and tended to put published papers or preprints as evidence. I do not know how it works in other areas. Sometimes, there was no work or only preprints at the end of the funding period and somehow there were no problems, may be because the funding authorities went by track record.

  13. Abi said...

    @Ankur: Chakraborty has not been 'dismissed' (as you seem to have [mis]interpreted the news report). He has lost his Swarnajayanti, and the right to apply to DST for funding for an unspecified period. These are not onerous, as penalties go -- and I believe this (minor) penalty fits the (minor) offence that has been established.

  14. Abi said...

    @Swarup: Yes, some of what you have said applies to research proposals in other areas also -- in that it's sometimes difficult to know what will work and what won't; so, one tries to word things in a way that gives one some flexibility when the project is underway.

    Just to clarify, Chakraborty's problem was not with the proposal; it was with the project completion report. [At least, that's how I understood it].

  15. Anonymous said...

    Chakraborty has been punished by DST for his oversight - consicous or otherwise. But in my institute there are people who took printouts of the telegraph report, went to offices and canteens and showed it to anyone who had an eye and an ear with unabahsed glee that Chakraborty got screwed and got his SJ withdrawn.

    I was diappointed that no sweets were distributed.

    I am bemused more because, those with the printouts are themselves SJ awardees.

    They go on to prance that this "punishment" shows Chakraborty's phenomenal research record is unsustainable. And he has copied papers, which when pointed out, is overlooked by editors. When I inquired why the whistle on such a serious matter is not blown, I didn't get a proper reply.

    Such cheap gloating soaked in spiteful slander by "distinguished" individuals across India's other elite institutes reveal only one thing: That many across Indian academia are jealous of Chakraborty for his track record. And waited for one slip from him to pounce and bury him forever. I tend to agree with the first paragraph of Anonymous in comment #10.

    Even the Telegraph report that you have linked carries different perspective on this issue, from at least another academic (Prof. Das from IIM). Yes, what Chak. did was wrong and unethical. And even the "exemplary punishment" meted out is fine. But opportunistic professional and personal bashing and name calling with printouts reveals only as academics we are no different from cheap politicians who ruin the country with lack of any moral values.

    Jai Hind

  16. Anonymous said...

    Anon 15:

    You are absolutely right. As Indians, we have this crappy habit of fighting witin ourselves and enjoying the downfall of others. We have never learnt from the history and continue to be like in politics or in science.

    Sometimes I really wonder at the act of so called academician. It is disgusting for these SJ awardees to enjoy the downfall in such manner.

  17. Anonymous said...

    "You are absolutely right. As Indians, we have this crappy habit of fighting witin ourselves"

    Look at IISc. The real professors who publish are criticized so much within the campus. one of the SJ winners from IISc told me that if any faculty publishes more than 3-4 papers a year, he will be considered an outcaste in the community. He mentioned that he is under tremendous pressure NOT to publish. The reason: if someone publishes a lot, it makes others look bad.

  18. Anonymous said...

    Rubbish!!.

  19. Abi said...

    @Anon (# 17): WTF are you talking about? Ask your SJ-winner friend from IISc should change his friends. Or, at the least, join a different lunch table!

  20. Anonymous said...

    An and IITian and does not know how to do a TOPO Marna... Shame... Every IITian is skilled to copy somebodies work and get more credits than the original. Here one is not able to copy his own work!!!

  21. Anonymous said...

    There is no doubt that the present lot of teachers at IIT's are the ones who did their B.Tech from some regional colleges and M.Tech & Phd from KGP ..... I would still consider an ex-IITian as the one ... who has done his B.Tech from IIT after clearing JEE. Unless we have such Profs ... the quality and brand image of IIT's built over the past 50 years will go down the drain ....... M.V.Singh EE, 1977, R.K.Hall

  22. Anonymous said...

    "I would still consider an ex-IITian as the one ... who has done his B.Tech from IIT after clearing JEE. Unless we have such Profs ... the quality and brand image of IIT's built over the past 50 years will go down the drain"

    Singh Saab, were you so egoistic before you joined IIT or was it after you graduated from IIT? NEWS FLASH to you: Many SJ and Bhatnagar winners did not do their B.Tech from IIT. JEE does not test research skills. People like you are a disgrace to the IIT community.

  23. Anonymous said...

    Prof. Abi, kindly clarify us between plagiarism ( stealing other work) and the episode of Dr.Chakraborthy ( presenting his own work but...)

  24. Abi said...

    @Anon: Looks like you have clarified the difference in your own words.

  25. Anonymous said...

    Somebody plagiarises others' thesis and books for their PhD thesis and get their Degree. When it is complained with evidence by somebody, the Univ/res-Org should formally form two committes first to is verify the facts (academic) and other committee should be ethics committee which has to give judgement on the findings.
    It is learned that one Dr.Raghava, basically a mechanical engineer, submitted his PhD (in Chemistry) thesis to Madurai kamaraj University during 1995 and he was awarded PhD degree in Chemistry during 1996. He applied for Director post for CECRI, Karaikudi. he was appointed as Director in 1998. Somebody (a Alumini of IISc and a senior scientist at CECRI) complained to madurai kamaraj university with evidences that Raghavan has plagiarised his thesis from One Dr.Shunmugom's theis, books and ISRO' Project completion report submitted by CECRI to ISRO.
    The university formed a comittee consisting of Prof.Sivasubramanian, Prof Shunmugasundarm and Prof.Dharmalingam. The committee verified all the original evidences and they went to ISRO, Valimala and got the ISRO report from and verified it also. They submitted their final findings that Raghavan has plagiarised his PhD thesis. But VC of the University instead of placing the report before the syndicate and withdrawing the PhD degree awarded, he got a letter from the theis's examiner Prof. Sivan (dept-metallurgy, NIT, trichy) that the PhD theis is original and not a copied one as found by the committee. Dr.Raghavan simply escaped. Complainants made their appeal to UGC chairman, Prof. Hari Gowtham and he tried to intervene, but guided the complainants to take up the matter with governor of TN and Education Minister (DMK). Complaintants were victimised. CSIR did not take any action on the report.... But the action of DST is ... DST would have stopped the funding instead of stripping of the fellowship award.

  26. Anonymous said...

    Well to keep it short, I didnt expect such academic mudslinging from a professor of your stature, or from the DST officials.

    Academicians should stick to academics and Politicians to politics...

  27. Anonymous said...

    could prof.Abi.. spend time for blogs during official hours ? whether is it admissible as per govt of india rules and regulations for conducting blogs and forums and have discussions on social matter other than science and clarify. We are also researchers in govt of india, we have started a e-forum, people started writing about the facts , agonies, frauds etc in the organisation, now management (admn) has threatened us to stop the e-forum for airing public views on social matter and issued OM to some of us. kindly help us or indicate how to go about.

  28. Blore-gator said...

    When I first read the title, I was (1) shocked and (2) thinking - does this explain his amazing productivity... does he plagiarize? I am among those who have been looking at his output with awe, admiration and an iota of disbelief. After reading this blog as well as the Telegraph article, it was shocking to see that such a minor thing could be blown up like this. I would love to see that DST report to see exactly how the 2005 paper is presented. Hope Suman will ignore this bullshit and continue to produce.
    Disclosure: I have met Suman once and the DST secretary, T. Ramasami once :-)

  29. sarodplayer said...

    @Abi "These are not onerous, as penalties go -- and I believe this (minor) penalty fits the (minor) offence that has been established."

    I am surprised that you view withdrawal of SJ as a "minor" penalty.
    Personally, I feel NO OFEENCE has been done. What he reported is his OWN work - niether falsification, nor plagiarism. As Abi himself points out, it's a common practice worldwide to take your research to a certain level before applying for funds. If DST really wanted to send out the right signals, they should have reprimanded him and disontinue funding him for 1-3 yrs. By stripping him of SJ, they are unnecessarily trying to flex their muscles and sending out wrong signals.

    I wish entire academic and scientific community rallies behind Suman. But given the jealousies that people are talking about and teh fact that everyone there depends on DST for their own funding, I am not too sure if we will see too many people speakign up in his support.

  30. S Ramasesha, IISc said...

    I just learnt about this episode of Professor Suman Chakraborthy. I was quite shocked as I have heard Professor Chakraborthy speak on his work and thus know a little bit of his work and publication profile.

    I think he is an outstanding scientist and has published remarkably well. As long as they are his own papers and if he includes an earlier paper in a report it is no crime. The committee looking into it can set aside that paper and look at the remaining he published during the SJ period. Going by this criterion he still would come out way ahead. I think young and performing scientists should be encouraged and this kind of knit picking is not constructive. I only hope the scientific establishment goes after funds given to nonperformers and hold them accountable.

  31. Anonymous said...

    But if one can get a Ph.D. degree in less than a year, he is already a genius, so no qualms and querries. Imagine people within a single Ph.D. getting 15-20 papers in biosciences even in 3-4 years duration in all high impact factor (beyond 5 easily) journals is a reality in a great system/ intitute in India!! Calculate yourself, how much duration to experiment and how much time to write..........given one takes 2-3 months even to get 1 paper refereed by editors and sent back/ accepted....fF 2-3 such exceptions always exist......that does not mean all should start whinning and crying.............Such talented exceptions/ individuals are always desired to be in society, to evaluate one's moral and ethics/ values/ conduct to compare against standard mis-conduct and evils..........

  32. Anonymous said...

    typical indian mentality, nothing can be done at iit,
    so iit profs keep begging alumni to give them
    projects( who have become faculty in US univs) when they get one in foreign, they behave as if they are studs of the world. these iit faculty
    tell us about patriotism while they will do anything in the world to get a foreign collaboration, height of hypocrisy.

    why are the big guns of iit having most famous projects in collaboration with foreign faculty ?

  33. rajan said...

    He is awesome prof.