Friday, March 23, 2012

Plagiarism Snares a Big Gun at IIT-K

At the end of the second paragraph, the authors of a 2011 paper entitled Biomimicked Superhydrophobic Polymeric and Carbon Surfaces in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research (I&EC), say this:

Hairy surfaces have not been reported to be widely mimicked except for a few recent reports [37,40].

Ref. 37 and Ref. 40 do not take you to the one key document that deserved a citation right here (and at several other places in the paper). That document is the M.Tech. thesis of a student [hereafter, The Student] working in a different group in the same department in the same institution.


A quick note about names: The Student is still a student, currently in her doctoral program at IISc [see the mandatory disclosure at the end of the post]. I don't want Google to serve up this post when someone searches for her, so I'll just go with "The Student". Similarly, the first author of the I&EC paper is another young person who's now an assistant professor at another IIT; so I'll just call him "First Author".]

* * *

In her thesis, which she submitted in 2007, The Student had reported her success in synthesizing hairy surfaces made of several polymers (prepared using the same bio-mimicry principles, and later studied using some of the same techniques) one of which also makes its appearance in the I&EC paper published over three years later in 2011; so, clearly, the content of I&EC paper has quite an overlap with that in The Student's thesis. Further, the authors, led by Prof. Ashutosh Sharma of IIT-Kanpur, knew about the work reported in the thesis.

How do we know they knew?

They plagiarized, that's how! They lifted some seven sentences in their description of an experimental protocol (and assorted other sentences in the same section), and used two figures that are "strongly inspired" by the originals in The Student's thesis.

G. Mudur covers this story in The Telegraph today: Plagiarism boot on faculty foot -- Scientists feel mails suggest IIT teachers tried to silence student. This is how the story unfolded:

[The Student] ... noticed the similarities in December 2011 and sent an email query to the paper’s first author ... and senior author Ashutosh Sharma ...

... scientists say that emails exchanged between the student and the IIT faculty members suggest that the faculty members tried to badger her into silence in December 2011 and offered to issue an erratum only after an anonymous email raked up the issue earlier this month.

Sharma's defence includes arguments that would keep The Student away from co-authorship of the I&EC paper:

“The student who has questioned us about the paper’s contents has made no contribution whatsoever to this paper,” Sharma said. “Nothing at all would have changed for this paper if she had not been around in IIT Kanpur.”

First Author, on the other hand, gets a bit more aggressive by trying to muscle his way into "co-authorship" of The Student's thesis, a claim that is strongly denied by The Student (who, thankfully, gets ample support from her adviser, Prof. Animangshu Ghatak):

[First Author] told The Telegraph that the two diagrams in the MTech thesis were based on a sketch he had given to the student. Some language in the paper and the thesis is similar, he claimed, because he had also helped her with her thesis writing.

But the student has asserted that while she wrote the entire thesis on her own and showed it to two fellow-students, she did not give [First Author] her thesis for correction. She has also said that she drew the schematic diagrams on her own.

It is a fact that that First Author has not been able to provide any credible, verifiable evidence to support his claim so far. If he has such evidence, I'm sure he and his co-authors would not be talking about an erratum to their paper now.

There is also a curious attempt by Sharma and First Author that takes this issue beyond who wrote what first. They seem to claim some ownership of The Student's thesis research itself:

Sharma and [First Author] both claim that the student, while assigned to Ghatak, used Sharma’s laboratory facilities, attended its group meetings and learned protocols, some of which she used for her thesis work. Sharma said he had no knowledge until December 2011 that the student had used some of his group’s ideas and laboratory facilities for her thesis work.

There are at least three implicit claims packed into that paragraph, and all of them are wrong, ludicrous, or both:

  1. The Student's research could not have been done without Sharma. This claim is not just wrong, it insults his colleague, Prof. Ghatak, who has all the knowledge and expertise required for getting the job done. Further, there's ample, uncontested evidence that the idea of making polymeric hairy surfaces through bio-mimicry came from Ghatak, whose proof-of-concept experiments looked so promising that he gave that research problem to The Student.

  2. The Student did something illegitimate by "[attending] ... group meetings and [learning] protocols, some of which she used later for her thesis work." This is just plain wrong -- unless one is willing to also accept that Sharma's lab in IIT-K is a high-security fortress where everything is a State Secret. It is one thing for an accomplished scientist to pick up ideas from one-off conversations and run with them to a journal; it's an entirely different matter when it's a student learning stuff through lab meetings, shop-talk and chats around a coffee-table with friends, and finds creative ways of using this knowledge in her work. Learning is what The Student was there for!

    [It is in this context that I have been quoted near the end of Mudur's story.]

  3. Use of laboratory facilities by The Student implies "collaboration." By itself, this is an unethical claim. It becomes ludicrous when you combine it with what just went before it: that "Sharma .. had no knowledge until [2011] December" of what The Student was doing!

* * *

Prof. Sharma has many ways of handling this terrible embarrassment, which comes at a very inopportune moment in his much-decorated career.

At the nasty end is the low road: refuse to take responsibility, blame other people, and / or question their motives, even if they had nothing to do with the problems in the paper. [He has already taken one step down this road by staking a claim for part-ownership of The Student's thesis research.]

At the lofty end is the high road: issue a well crafted erratum to teh I&EC paper, stating clearly and graciously that the priority and credit for synthesizing hairy surfaces by bio-mimicry on a variety of polymers should go to The Student (and, by association, her adviser). This graceful act will establish him as a scientist-statesman who does the right thing when faced with adversity. [Footnote 1]

Let's wait and see what Sharma does next.

* * *

[Mandatory Disclosure: As I said in the post, The Student is now a doctoral student in my institution (but in a different department). And, yes, I have spoken to her a few times.]

* * *

Footnote 1: I don't know if this would qualify as taking a step up the high road, but I do admire Prof. Sharma for not throwing First Author under the bus by blaming it all on him, like another famous person recently did.


  1. Skeptic said...

    I suppose all of us can draw lessons from this incident and be more careful in future. Why not acknowledge all sources especially when it does not cost you much and the repurcussions are so high?

  2. Duleep Samuel said...

    It is difficult to apportion credit (every body wants) much easier to share blame (which no one wants), but the senior authors must ask a honest question "Are the contributions by all rewarded appropriately".

  3. Anonymous said...


    Blogspot bumps me off for my reply, saying it exceeds 4096 characters, even as Gedit tells me it's: 42 lines, 706 words, 3256 characters (without spaces), 3981 bytes, and 3977 characters (with spaces).


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  6. Ravan said...
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  7. Abi said...

    @Skeptic, @Duleep: Thanks for your comments. A lot of heartburn could have been avoided with a bit of sensible and sensitive thinking -- at various stages until the Telegraph story. While it's a pity that all those opportunities were missed, it's good to see the authors of I&EC paper some taking some corrective steps now.

    A note to readers: I have just deleted three comments (two from Ajit, and one from Ravan) which indulged in some unnecessary speculations about The Student.
    I'm sure they would disagree with this decision, but they are welcome to take their views to their own blogs.

    I'll just say this in my defence:

    The problem is with Sharma's paper. It's certainly not with The Student's thesis. To the extent she is featured in the story, it is to clarify to Mudur about her thesis research was conducted.

    Sharma may have found it useful to try "Look there!" move by asking for amendments in the "Acknowledgements" section -- read that again: the "Acknowledgements" section! It doesn't mean that we should fall for it.

  8. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    Abi, is there a significant overlap between The Student's work and the work of Sharma and First Author? In other words, is the matter only that some lines and some images were lifted verbatim from The Student's thesis or is it more grave: that Sharma and First Author are claiming old research of The Student as new and as their own?

    We often forget in our discussions on plagiarism that the definition of plagiarism covers only the most blatant form of copying (the verbatim one). There are other ways of copying and denying due credit which are also unethical, just that they do not classify as plagiarism.