Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Rao Row

John Cage once said, "I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it." Well, I have very little to say about this issue (and much of it is derivative, anyway):

  1. First, what Rahul said.

  2. The apology issued by Prof. C.N.R. Rao (and his co-authors) is a newsworthy event only because of who he is. Otherwise, there's absolutely no news here.

  3. G. Mudur's a report in today's Telegraph is about the most measured and least sensationalist you'll find [Disclosure: I am one of the people quoted in it; so is Rahul]. Here's a key section from his report:

    A PhD student at the IISc who is among the paper’s four co-authors had copied the four sentences without realising it was wrong to do so, Krupanidhi told The Telegraph. “It was an oversight, but it should not have happened,” he said.

    “We apologised to the original paper’s authors and offered to withdraw our paper from the journal when we learnt that this had happened. But the journal’s editors decided to retain the paper as the transgression was minor,” Krupanidhi said.

  4. Prof. Rohini Muthuswami (School of Life Sciences, JNU) gave a very nice talk at the Workshop on Academic Ethics held last July in the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. Her talk was about why students resort to plagiarism in their written work. As I recall, she dealt with two causes at length:

    • Lack of awareness: Many students don't even know what all the fuss is about. They are conditioned by their prior experiences: at school and college, they were rewarded for answers that are verbatim reproduction of material in text books. Similarly, they were encouraged to find data, text, pictures from various sources and pass them off as their own [anyone who has seen students demonstrating some experiment or the other at a science fair would know what I'm talking about].

      When they get to grad school, they have a lot of unlearning to do; to their credit, most of them (especially those in research-active groups) go through this process without too much of a hitch, and manage to learn -- by themselves, through osmosis from their peers, or through a formal training program -- the key ethical principles that rule the scientific enterprise.

    • Lack of language skills: Many students have done their schooling (and in a few cases, their college, too) in their own language, and simply lack the required level of writing skills in English. While a lot of emphasis is given in grad school on oral communication (talks at group meetings, for example), explicit training in writing is not formalized. Prof. Muthuswami suggested remedial English classes (where necessary), and lots of writing assignments in courses to help them develop confidence in their own ability to express themselves in written English.

    I do not want to sound all sour about the students here. As I said, most students in research-active groups do manage the transition rather well. The real trick is in figuring out how to go from "most students" to "all students".

* * *

Update: Added links to the Workshop on Academic Ethics and to the abstract of Prof. Muthuswami's talk.

UPdate 2: For the record, here are the reporters who have written their stories after talking to real persons with real names: Aishhwariya Subramanian (DNA), Kalyan Ray (Deccan Herald), Divya Gandhi (The Hindu), and of course, G. Mudur (The Telegraph)


  1. karthik said...

    Not that anyone takes it seriously, but can someone from Hindustan times explain how can an editorial have no name attached to it? Just curious to know the identity of the one who just called Dr Rao a lazy intellectual. Just curious, that all...

    PS: HT Link left out intentionally.

  2. sacredfig said...

    I'm glad that the press if giving this so much coverage, however belated and however slanted. Hope this much-needed hoopla will create some awareness for what constitutes plagiarism - and nothing better to achieve this than plastering the faces of your most eminent scientists caught in the act, as it were.

    Its astounding that suddenly everyone is blaming the media, for behaving like ....well, themselves! We don't expect better from the media, but we do expect, and should expect, much better behavior from our scientists.

    Some scientist-bloggers are nearly excusing this as a minor indiscretion because a few lines were lifted in the introduction section. WTF??
    Why even bother writing the remaining parts of the introductions. Just say, "read X,Y,Z's introductions and come back and read my results". This is ludicrous.

    There is zero-tolerance for this kind of behavior in even high-schools or undergrad term papers in the US! - and we have so called scientist-bloggers insinuating that this wasn't all that bad!!

    And can you even imagine if this whole thing had been done by a young assistant professor on tenure-track? Would a little "sorry" to the editor have sufficed to save his career (especially if he/she was not in CNR's favored circles).

    The authors issued an apology which is the LEAST that is expected. And regardless of who wrote the manuscript, they are all EQUALLY culpable in this episode. If they are going to count citations of all these papers and drum-beat about their h-indices, they better take responsibility for documents that bear their name.

  3. ajitjadhav said...

    The following point made by sacredfig had also happened to struck me as soon as I read the news:

    > If they are going to count citations of all these papers and drum-beat about their h-indices, they better take responsibility for documents that bear their name.

    However, the following point had completely escaped me. Thanks to sacredfig for highlighting this way of looking at it.

    > Just say, "read X,Y,Z's introductions and come back and read my results".

    ... Yes, it did make me laugh initially, but then, it also made me think seriously.

    Introductions (as also abstracts and conclusions) are important from the conceptual point of view; they help in integrating the new advancement to the rest of the existing knowledge.

    Only someone in a too much hurry to publish papers (or jack up h-Index) could accord introductions a secondary importance.

    And, reading through the linked Hindu news report, I wonder how the perceptibly awkward wording in the following line could have escaped any of the senior authors' attention:

    "In addition, controlled reduction of GO [graphene oxide] by chemical or thermal means allows the tunability of optoelectronic properties."

    Even someone with as poor an English as mine would instinctively want to rewrite it to something like:

    "Controlled reduction of GO [graphene oxide] by chemical or thermal means allows [for?] tuning of optoelectronic properties."

    ... What's this "tunability" business? Couldn't that line have been straightened out a bit? Or was it the case that unlike what Rahul says, the senior authors didn't go through every word? Do the senior authors recall reading this "the tunability" thing? Did they not instinctively reach for the red pen?

    If lines like that are not only being lifted verbatim, but also are slipping past senior authors' attention, and if this happens with PhD students (and professors) from IISc and JNCASR, then you have to seriously wonder about this publish-or-perish, high h-Index culture. After all, in addition, such parameters allow the staff selectability and the promotability, not to mention the PhD studentship selectability, the INAE outstanding thesis award selectability, etc.

    Bad for science.

    ... No, it's not a major ethical issue, in the sense, it can't be described as plagiarization. Nevertheless, it does reveal something unsatisfactory, something unwholesome, doesn't it?



  4. Santosh Sali said...

    I would like to speak on your comments about "Most Students" to "All Students" , and being graduate student myself , I resonate with the thoughts more.

    For instance if we take case of our business schools, where majority are coming from engineering streams, they severely lack skills in academic English. Even the premier Institutes don't offer any guidance on "Academic Writing". Even if you check the courses available at most of the Institutes (Check that double ego's called IIM & IIT), there are hardly any courses available on Academic writing.

    There is abysmal information or knowledge transfer to students about plagiarism. The least that Institutes can provide to all students and faculties is good plagiarism checking software like turnitin. But a reality check will shock that even faculties are not used to such Software.

    It is better if we don't discuss what guidance does majority of "guide" provides to graduate students (with few respectable exception).

    Thanks for highlighting such a important topic.

  5. Pratik Ray said...

    "The authors issued an apology which is the LEAST that is expected."

    If you read through the entire report in the link mentioned here, you will notice that the authors offered to retract the paper. The editors, instead, decided an apology was enough. Therefore the authors did handle this in an appropriate manner and they did not try to "escape" with the LEAST punishment.

    In most cases, it is the student who writes the first drafts of the paper. The professors then read it and add their inputs. With a few thousands of scientific articles being published every month, it is unreasonable to expect that a professor will have all the articles, verbatim, in his mind. This is probably why anyone who writes a scientific article are not excessively harsh, while at the same time acknowledging that this is an infringement that should not happen.

    Regardless, given that the names of all the professors appear in the article they should be held EQUALLY culpable. I can agree with you on that.

    Scientists are expected to document all their measurements and results correctly, so that they can be tracked later. Its high time that scientists contributing in multi-author articles regarding the contribution of different persons in the article itself. For articles having more than 15-20 co-authors, an additional appendix can be created, which need not appear in the print version, but should be made accessible free of charge, online.

    Not only will such an approach help single out who should take the responsibility for the errors in articles, this will also help identify the scientists who deserve more credit than others. Say what you will, but all authors in a paper are definitely not equal in terms of their contributions, whether it is regarding conceptualizing the problem, or collecting the data, or writing up the results and communicating them.

  6. Payal Kumar said...

    Scholars in India often fall I into the trap of plagiarism because at many universities and B they are not sensitized to the WHY and HOW of citing. I am conducting a workshop on the art of academic writing for doctoral scholars and faculty around the country (so far have conducted this for about 600 scholars and 100 faculty), and I am surprised by the lack of awareness on how to cite academic works. The good news is that all it takes is one workshop for the participants to fully understand the nuances!

  7. anonymous said...

    stupidity galored in the news paper report

  8. anonymous said...

    No one asked you to judge anything. why are you so drumbeat about others mistakes. Are you getting one day meal for that. Are u satisfied with this vitriolic attributions? Better go and check all your paper(if you have published some..) introduction before you make any comments on a closed issue.

  9. anonymous said...

    It clearly shows your fire and vengeance against some performing guys. It also reflects that you are doing this as a full time business. Here the scientific paper already looked into this issue and accepted the paper. Now you don't have any idea except to play around with the foreign language words. Your slavery mind always find fault against some well known guys. May be you can do onething. Start an english coaching class where you can do good business.Anyway you are not having any idea in science to do and will have more time to find fault on others scientific papers published.

    Do you think that GO will change its properties if you write 'tunability' instead of 'tunin'g? Here you want to talk science or english?. Have some sensible though rather than accusing others. What is your achievement so far? What contributions you have made to this country except getting salary and bitching others? Find answer before anyone raise this questions