Saturday, March 31, 2012

St. Stephen's under Rev. Valson Thampu

Mayank Austen Soofi's cover story in today's Lounge [the weekend supplement of Mint] on how "the college of the elites" has changed under the leadership of Rev. Valson Thampu who came under fire from famous alumni [see this post for links] outraged by his decision to increase to 40% the quota for Christians (and to carve out a sub-quota for Dalit Christians).


Update: Check out The Unofficial Guide to Mission College, a 30-minute film about St. Stephen's made by Aditya Basu.

* * *

The exclusivity that marked Stephen’s is now being challenged. The old bastions of privilege are crumbling. Thampu, a man with decided views—he talks against the growing materialism and the pitfalls of globalization in his morning assemblies—says: “The disarray among hegemonistic political parties like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party is on the increase. More people from low castes and communities are entering the corridors of power. In social terms, the mushrooming of merit in mofussil towns is seriously challenging the dominance of metropolitan cities.”


Thampu says the number of students from extremely poor backgrounds has gone up threefold in the last five years. Today, there are about 50 such students, up from 10 about two decades ago.


Thampu admits that the interview round in the college’s admission process favoured English-speaking candidates, who had better communication skills than students from a vernacular background. “Those more comfortable in Indian languages felt intimidated by the ambience of the interview, a feeling aggravated by the awe the college inspires,” he says. “Since 2007, depending on the candidate, our interviews also take place in Hindi, and that’s why you find more people coming from the towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.” This segment, however, still forms less than one-tenth of the college’s total student strength of 1,200, according to Thampu.

"Bill, honey"

Just a quick link to William Zinsser's charming essay on being chosen by Woody Allen to act in a couple of scenes in Stardust Memories. [BTW, Zinsser's On Writing Well is a fantastic book with great advice and practical tips. Highly recommended!].

The year was 1980, and I was sitting at my typewriter in New York, plying my writer’s trade. When the phone rang I had no great expectations; freelance writers answering the phone tend to be braced for negative news.

“Bill, honey?” said a young woman’s voice. “This is Sandra from Woody Allen’s office. Woody wondered if you’d like to be in his new movie.”

That was something new in phone calls. I had never done any acting or dreamed any theatrical dreams. But who didn’t want to be in a Woody Allen movie? I knew that he often cast ordinary people in small roles. What small plum did he have for me? I hesitated for a decently modest moment and then told Sandra I’d like to do it.

“Good,” she said. “Woody will be very pleased.” She said that someone else would be calling me with further details.

A half hour later the phone rang again. “Bill, honey,” a voice said, “this is Stephanie from Woody Allen’s office.” How wonderful, I thought, to be in a line of work where I was called “Bill, honey.” Stephanie said she was calling to get my measurements. Measurements! I caught a whiff of greasepaint over the telephone line. She needed my jacket size, my waist size, my trouser length, my inseam and my collar size, and I gave them to her gladly. I would have told her anything. I wanted to ask what role I was being measured for, but she was gone. I called my wife to tell her I was in show business.

And this, from the last paragraph:

... as I look back on my movie career I have a larger regret. I never got called “Bill, honey” again.

Kota: City of Cram Schools, Poached Coaches, and Consultant Guardians

Dilip D'Souza has an absorbing profile of Kota, Rajasthan, the cram school capital of India. His comprehensive coverage includes a section on the schools that admit the students enrolled in cram schools:

This is a place for schools. When students come to Kota to work towards the IIT exam, they still have to sit for their 12th Standard board exams. For that, you can enroll in a school at home, or in one of several Kota schools. Rushika, for example, was officially a student at A’s Saint Steward Morris Convent School in her hometown, Bhilwara. Her two friends were enrolled in two Kota schools, but neither could tell me their names.

Puzzled by this stuff—that Rushika was enrolled in a school hundreds of miles away, that her pals could not remember their schools’ names—I walked one morning into one such school, in Talwandi. A man ushered me straight into the principal’s narrow office. From behind a desk that seemed to fill the room, he told me all I needed to know: annual fees 35,000, admission guaranteed as long as you are admitted to one of the coaching institutes, attendance required once a week.

“Once a week?” I asked. “But even once in two weeks is OK with us,” he replied (“chalega” was the word he used).

“Dummy” schools, of course: everyone in Kota knows about them. Kids enroll not to attend, but only so they can take their board exam. At dinner one evening, a friend told me that the Talwandi school I had visited has 40 or 50 students per class until the 10th. In the 11th, enrollment suddenly swells to 500 per class. Dummy students, too.

* * *

Update: After writing this post, it occurred to me that Kota has been the subject of quite a few articles in newspapers and magazines over the years; and I have linked to many of them: here (ToI, 2005), here (WSJ, 2008), here (Rashmi Bansal's blog, 2008), here (Sunday Tribune, 2009). Anand Kumar's Super 30 is probably the only phenomenon that beats Kota in media attention.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Plagiarism in High Places: Hungarian President Loses His PhD

Remember The Economist story -- "He copied, but he's not a plagiarist"? The Budapest Times reports:

The rector of Budapest’s Semmelweis Medical University announced on Thursday evening that its senate had voted overwhelmingly, 33 to four, in favour of withdrawing the doctorate awarded to the president in 1992. Tivadar Tulassay said Schmitt’s dissertation had failed to meet either academic or ethical standards. This came two days after a fact-finding committee, following up press reports, concluded that almost all of the 215-page thesis had been copied, much of it verbatim, from other academic texts. [Bold emphasis added]

The Wikipedia entry has a lot of information and background on the scandal.

* * *

Update (3 April 2012): Pál Schmitt has resigned, "saying the controversy over allegations that he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation was dividing the nation".

Thursday, March 29, 2012

If you decide to go anyway: Reproduction of Privilege

"If You Decide to Go Anyway" is a special page in a blog devoted to 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School. [It's at Reason # 80. I haven't explored it yet; this summary in IHE is all I have read.]

On the other hand, Karen Kelsky's CHE article -- Graduate School is a Means to a Job -- has some very practical advice for aspiring students.

Granted, they are US centric; but some of what they have to say is valid for the others as well.

Both emphasize the importance of going to prestigious schools, an advice that acquires a very sharp edge in a bad job market (in the US). When the going gets tough, you'll need all the privilege an elite university can give you!

Here's 100 Reasons:

Where you go to graduate school matters. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this point. As everyone knows, there is a hierarchy of universities, but no one takes this hierarchy more seriously than academics (see Reason 3). There are so few jobs in academe that the competition for virtually every open position is a national (and often international) competition. Those with the best chance of securing employment are the products of the nationally (and internationally) prestigious institutions. There are very few genuinely prestigious universities, and almost all of them are private. They are the Ivies and the quasi-Ivies like Stanford and MIT. The number of genuinely prestigious public universities in the United States can be counted on one hand, probably on three fingers, and quite possibly on one.

The large, perfectly respectable public university in your area is almost certainly not one of them, even if it offers an enormous array of graduate programs with extremely competitive admission standards. The problem is that there are hundreds of universities just like it all over the country, together producing tens of thousands of graduate degrees every year. If you happen to earn your PhD at such a place, you will be at a severe disadvantage on the job market, where you will be pitted against people with degrees from the genuinely prestigious universities.

And here's Karen Kelsky:

Go to the highest-ranked graduate department you can get into—so long as it funds you fully. That is not actually because of the "snob factor" of the name itself, but rather because of the ethos of the best departments. They typically are the best financed, which means they have more scholars with national reputations to serve as your mentors and letter writers, and they maintain lively brown-bag and seminar series that bring in major visiting scholars with whom you can network. The placement history of a top program tends to produce its own momentum, so that departments around the country with faculty members from that program will then look kindly on new applications from its latest Ph.D.'s. That, my friends, is how privilege reproduces itself. It may be distasteful, but you deny or ignore it at your peril.

Plagiarism in High Places

The latest to be outed is the President of Hungary Dr. Pál Schmitt, whose 1992 PhD thesis had 17 pages of stuff lifted from the work of a German scholar, and a further 180 pages "partly copied" from the work of a Bulgarian sports scholar. [Thanks to my colleague Prof. Atul Chokshi for the e-mail alert].

But wait, it gets worse:

The committee found that even though Mr Schmitt had copied large chunks of other people’s work and passed it off as his own, he should not be blamed. The problem lay rather with his supervisors, who did not do their jobs properly. Mr Schmitt's thesis met the formal requirements of the time. He will keep his degree.

The Economist story has a great title: "He copied, but he's not a plagiarist."

This belongs right up there with another recent episode that produced a novel definition of plagiarism: overlap by oversight."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Problems in Prof. Ashutosh Sharma's I&EC Paper

In his comment, Ankur asks:

... 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?

Even to an outsider to the field like me, the answer is "yse" and "a qualified yes". [In the following, I'm not even touching on the plagiarism, which is pretty bad: see for yourself]

A big part of the I&EC paper is about micromolding, which may be thought of as a miniature version of the process that produced the famous Dancing Girl statuette over 4500 years ago. Essentially, you make a mold out of an object (a leaf, in this case) such that holes (or empty spaces) in the mold match the object's features. You then fill the mold with a liquid, wait for it to become solid, and remove the mold -- you now have an exact replica of the original object.

While micromolding has been used widely for preparing surfaces with relatively short, stubby features on them, it had been very difficult to use it for producing surfaces with hairs (long, slender features with a large "aspect ratio") found in certain leaves. My impression is that The Student is among the first (if not the first) to demonstrate the successful use of this technique for making hairy surfaces.

Let's now look at the overlaps between the paper and the thesis: both use leaves from the species Argyreia Nervosa as the starting 'object'; both report the making of the mold -- the negative replica -- with a polymer called PDMS (using similar experimental protocols); both report preparation of hairy surfaces -- the positive replica -- of polystyrene and RF gel (using similar protocols). Both report similar experimental results (scanning electron microscope images, contact angles and sliding angles) on the hairy surfaces.

[To be sure, there are differences too; the most important, to my outsider's eyes, are: (i) the paper talks about a second technique called nano-imprint lithography, (ii) it studied leaves from another species, (iii) it studied hairy surfaces made of glassy carbon (obtained by heating the hell out of the RF gel hairy surface).]

Conclusion: The Student's thesis deserved a citation for (a) having achieved much of what the authors of I&EC paper achieved, but three years ahead of them, (b) developing the protocol for making negative and positive replicas, and (c) reporting a set of results that ought to have been compared and contrasted with those reported in the paper.

(a) and (b) are about priority, and (c) is about decency. They are all about crediting relevant prior work.

Bottomline: In comparison with this serious violation of scientific ethics, the plagiarism (which, by itself, is a serious problem) in the I&EC paper is pretty pale.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Punishing Good Deeds

David Perlmutter has an advice column in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His two recent entries have appeared in a new series on Good Deeds That Are Most Punished: Teaching and Service. Consistent with the premise -- No good deed goes unpunished -- they have amusing anecdotes. Here's one from the second piece:

Beware the kamikaze assignment. For new faculty members, good service deeds that are punished can be those that turn out either to be a colossal waste of time or, worse, end up angering the colleagues who will vote on your tenure.

Take the case of the assistant professor who was hired at a small, liberal-arts college that was increasing its research aspirations. The chair flattered him, saying, "We hired you because of your productivity and research talents; you can help lead the way for the department. I'd like you to write a report for us making recommendations about changing our annual review to put a greater emphasis on research."

The assistant professor felt empowered, threw himself into the project, came back with an incisive memorandum that would help propel the department forward to greatness ... and ended up alienating every single tenured faculty member. The chair, as may happen in such cases, backflipped and disclaimed any support for the tenure tracker who had now been labeled a troublemaker.

What Good is a PhD?

Harvard professor turned Google engineer Matt Welsh has a great post on Do You Need a PhD?.

Doing a PhD is certainly not for everybody, and I do not recommend it for most people. However, I am really glad I got my PhD rather than just getting a job after finishing my Bachelor's. The number one reason is that I learned a hell of a lot doing the PhD, and most of the things I learned I would never get exposed to in a typical software engineering job. The process of doing a PhD trains you to do research: to read research papers, to run experiments, to write papers, to give talks. It also teaches you how to figure out what problem needs to be solved. You gain a very sophisticated technical background doing the PhD, and having your work subject to the intense scrutiny of the academic peer-review process -- not to mention your thesis committee.

In his essay, Welsh links to Matt Might's absolutely wonderful Illustrated Guide to a PhD. I remember seeing it sometime ago, and may have linked to it earlier, but it's worth another look!

On Character

Iskra Fileva at the Opinionator: Character and Its Discontents:

What is character? Ordinarily, we envision character as a set of stable and unified dispositions: we expect the timid employee to be shy on a regular basis, not just on some days, and we picture him as a mellow father, not as a tyrant at home. Since we suppose that characters are unified in these ways, we are almost invariably surprised when it turns out that the different aspects of someone’s personality stand in tension with one another. It is news to us that Tolstoy’s attitude toward his own illegitimate son was worse than aloof, notwithstanding the humanism and sensitivity of Tolstoy’s writings, or that Richard Nixon was rather a good father and husband despite his mendacity in other contexts. [...]

What is the basis for our assumptions that people’s characters are unified, and that their behavior in one context will resemble their behavior in other contexts? [...] There are, indeed, various features of our perception of other people’s characters that make us prone to expect unity.

Consider first what I would call the “privileged perspective” bias. We tend to give priority to our own interactions with and feelings for the person we are called upon to judge, and since people are usually consistent in their behavior toward us, we form unfounded beliefs in the stability of their dispositions. [...]

There is another, more general limitation on ordinary observation that inclines us to find unity where none is to be found. Everyday experience rarely affords us grounds to discover what people are capable of and how they would behave in novel contexts. And the truth about what they are capable of may well contradict our beliefs about them. [...]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Sharma Case: An Update

First, go read Rahul's post -- he gives you a very good sense of how horribly badly Prof. Sharma has handled this issue.

There seems to be some misunderstanding -- see the first comment on Rahul's post -- that The Student didn't acknowledge Prof. Sharma and his group members. This impression is not correct: The Student's thesis does have an "Acknowledgements" section, in which Prof. Sharma and several members of his group (including First Author) are thanked for their help, innovative suggestions, etc.

Some quick observations (nothing out of the ordinary, but still worth mentioning):

  1. A good faith effort (and a very, very brave one at that) was made by The Student way back in December 2011 to point out to the authors that there are problems in their paper. Instead of badgering her into silence, if they had addressed the problems, and issued an erratum at that time, they would not be dealing with a front page story in The Telegraph.

  2. Just because the authors of the I&EC paper have a serious problem on their hands (why else would they tell Mudur that they are issuing an erratum?), they don't have a right to start questioning the contents of The Student's "Acknowledgements" section in The Student's thesis. Four full years and three full months later.

    But that's essentially what they have done -- in a sort of diversionary "Look there!" move.

  3. As any good story, Mudur's also leaves the readers with a lot of interesting questions, which cannot all be answered in 800-900 words.

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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pet Physicist

This SMBC cartoon will make your day if you have physicist friends ...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation

... The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.

The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at.

Then this happened: The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.

It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks.

Read all about it (and the new ethical questions it poses) in Sally Adee's post -- Better Living Through Electrochemistry


Since I've been seeing this term in various forums lately [sorry, no links!], it was good to see Ross McKenzie's post: Polywater: lest we forget. McKenzie mentions a 1981 book -- Polywater by Felix Franks -- on this fiasco, and excerpts a section from the Science review of the book wherein David Eisenbert, the reviewer, lists some of the factors that fed the polywater frenzy, factors that have an enduring relevance (e.g., I remember some of these from another iconic fiasco from a decade later: Cold Fusion):

[Franks] is interested in the factors, partly nonscientific, that created the gold rush atmosphere and distorted the normal scientific process. Among the factors blamed by Franks are:

  • the willingness of some scientists to submit for publication incomplete or even shoddy work in order to achieve priority;

  • a breakdown in normal standards of reviewing, particularly in journals such as Nature and Science that publish short notes on matters perceived to be of wide current interest;

  • a concern among administrators in defense-sponsored research agencies that in the post-Sputnik era it would be unfortunate to allow the Soviets the lead in another field;

  • a fascination on the part of the public, created in part by exaggerated and inaccurate reports in the popular press, with a new form of water;

  • a tendency of investigators to leak results to the press before publication;

From the Annals of Academic Pranks: "Disacknowledgements"

This one ended badly for the prankster. A "Disacknowledgements" section in your thesis / dissertation is apparently not protected by the First Amendment [via Scott Lemieux].

[That this case involves my academic discipline -- Materials -- makes it doubly delicious!]

In the spring of 1999, Plaintiff brought his thesis, "The Morphology of Calcium Carbonate: Factors Affecting Crystal Shape," to his committee for final approval. Plaintiff did not include an acknowledgments section of any kind in the document that he delivered to his committee. All three committee members signed an approval page stating, "This Thesis of Christopher Brown is approved." (Emphasis added.) In accordance with UCSB rules, that approval page became the second page of the thesis.

After he had obtained the signature page from his committee, Plaintiff inserted an additional, two-page section into his thesis without the knowledge or consent of his committee members. That section, entitled "Disacknowledgements," began: "I would like to offer special Fuck You's to the following degenerates for of being an ever-present hindrance during my graduate career...." It then identified the Dean and staff of the UCSB graduate school, the managers of Davidson Library, former California Governor Wilson, the Regents of the University of California, and "Science" as having been particularly obstructive to Plaintiff's progress toward his graduate degree. Plaintiff later explained that he had not revealed the section to the members of his committee because he feared that they would not approve it.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


  1. A pseudonymous author on Withdrawing from a Job You've Accepted.

  2. A great collection of Dilbert cartoons on PowerPoint Presentations [Hat tip to Sachin Shanbhag].

  3. How would a violin sound if its strings were made of spider silk? BBC News has the story and an audio clip.

  4. Video: MIT Students Fight Nerdy Reputation with Charm School.

  5. An awesome catch by Scicurious: Friday Weird Science: Got PMS? Time to Spot the Snake!

"What his résumé lacked was five bad papers"

Richard H. Thaler, a former colleague at Cornell and another contributor to the Economic View column, once remarked about an unsuccessful candidate for a faculty position, “What his résumé lacked was five bad papers.” By that, he meant that while the candidate had published several papers containing enough genuinely important ideas to satisfy any rational hiring committee — more than could be said of most faculty members — he had too few to satisfy the bean counters, who fretted about how uninformed outsiders might react to the appointment.

Researchers have responded as expected to these incentives. But the additional papers they’ve written have added little value. The economist Philip Cook and I found, for example, that in the first five years after publication, many fewer than half of all papers in the two most selective economics journals had ever been cited by other scholars.

From Robert Frank's column on rising college costs.

Friday, March 09, 2012

An update on the Rao row

Today's Hindu carries an excellent op-ed by Rahul. Just drop everything and head over there to read it. All of it.

First, an excerpt from the end of Rahul's op-ed:


So the Advanced Materials paper cannot be dismissed as a one-time incident, and it seems inappropriate to blame it entirely on one student. This does not, of course, invalidate the work that Rao has earned respect for over the decades. Rao is a prolific scientist — he has over 1,500 published papers, an unthinkable number for most scientists. Five questionable papers may seem a small number in comparison, but they should not be ignored. A scientist of Rao's stature needs to ask himself some hard questions, and then share his answers with the scientific community.

There was widespread agreement among the participants at the ethics meeting on the need for institutional (and perhaps governmental) mechanisms to deal with cases of lapses in academic ethics in an impartial manner, without fear of influence or conflict of interest. Rao himself has previously urged the necessity of such a body. It is a pity that he is now demonstrating, in word and deed, the need for such a mechanism.

Let me restrict myself to repeat here what I said in my comment on Rahul's post announcing the publication of his op-ed:

While much of the early discussion in the media (including Nature) focused on students and their (in)ability to write, your article does two important things: (a) it tips the balance back to the role and responsibilities of the senior authors, and (b) it goes beyond the issues of plagiarism and enters the grey zone where papers by “et al and Rao” appear to have a strong technical overlap with those that they have plagiarized from.

* * *

This is a good time to take stock of where the Rao row stands:

  1. As should be clear by now, the total number of plagiarism-tainted papers involving Prof. Rao and coworkers stands at five; the first is that for which Advanced Materials published "The Apology" from the corresponding authors. After the media started reporting on this paper, four others appear in the comments section on Rahul's earlier post.

  2. This is what we know about the five tainted papers. They all follow a pattern: verbatim (or, near verbatim) lifting of a bunch of sentences from others' work and using them in the introduction section. In at least one case, there is no citation to the earlier work. In addition, the technical content of at least two papers has an overlap with earlier work, an overlap that goes unacknowledged in the text.

  3. One of the four new cases is special in the sense that the only student associated with this paper is from Rao's own group at JNCASR making it somewhat difficult for Rao to pass the buck to his senior co-author.

  4. Immediately after the early coverage of The Apology, The Hindu carried an editorial on this issue. I think this part is worth excerpting:

    ... Fortunately, the scale of the infraction did not warrant rejection or retraction, as the plagiarised portions form only a part of the introduction, and description of an equation and do not in any way reduce the significance of the research work. But the scientists' subsequent justification that the verbatim reproduction does not amount to plagiarism but is only an instance of “copying of a few sentences in the text,” and text “overlap” amounts to a disservice to science. The very fact that the journal took cognisance and published their apology is proof enough of the gravity of the transgression.

  5. So far, The Telegraph, The Indian Express and The Hindu have run stories that go beyond The Apology with reports on the new cases of plagiarism.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Some more links

  1. Stuart Shieber on An Efficient Journal: The awsome story of JMLR, an open access journal.

  2. PhD Comics: The Methodology Translator. Here's one that cuts a little too close: when the paper says, "Simulation parameters were chosen based on empirically realistic values," it actually means this: "We made stuff up."

  3. Peter Stothard: The Ancient Art of Fooling Voters: A review essay on How to Win an Election..

Links ...

  1. Kathryn Hume: Giving a Job Talk. Buried in some seriously great advice is this little nugget about the role of "class" in faculty recruitment:

    How you pitch your argument will depend on the institution interviewing you. A few very elite universities believe in intellectual hazing, and will think you a wimp if you don’t try to cow them with a brilliant, jargon-laden analysis. If you come from such a department, you presumably know how this game is played and can prepare for it, and only people from that kind of university are likely to be invited for a campus visit. Most departments are more welcoming and friendly; they want a good colleague with whom exchanging ideas will be fun, not someone determined to bully them intellectually in every exchange. You may meet someone who emerged from that kind of training in the audience, and that person may try to give you a hard time in the Q and A, but most of your potential colleagues don’t feel the need to prove themselves that way.[Bold emphasis added]

  2. Matt McAllester: America is Stealing Foreign Doctors:

    As we sat in the cafeteria, I suggested [to Indian-Zambian doctor Kunj Desai] that if he did return to Zambia, he might be seen as something of a returning hero. Desai is a naturally polite and courteous man, but he is also disinclined to hold back from criticizing when he finds fault. In this case, his target was himself. He looked at the table and said: “The heroes are the guys that stayed. They didn’t quit, and they didn’t run away.”

Thursday, March 01, 2012


This piece of nerdy cool is from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science. From the description at YouTube [Hat tip: Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance]:

Flying robot quadrotors perform the James Bond Theme by playing various instruments including the keyboard, drums and maracas, a cymbal, and the debut of an adapted guitar built from a couch frame. The quadrotors play this "couch guitar" by flying over guitar strings stretched across a couch frame; plucking the strings with a stiff wire attached to the base of the quadrotor. A special microphone attached to the frame records the notes made by the "couch guitar".

These flying quadrotors are completely autonomous, meaning humans are not controlling them; rather they are controlled by a computer programed with instructions to play the instruments. [...]