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.


  1. Thommy said...

    I am a "Grand-Student" of Prof.CNR, meaning my thesis adviser at IIT-M was one of Prof.CNR's students. I have known Prof. CNR and followed his work for a long time. There is no doubt that he is a stalwart of Indian Science and his contributions have been well recognized. Its hard to believe that Prof. CNR will intentionally or force the student to do this. However, when "similar error" occur more than once, I am speechless. Its very true that he has "dearly" missed the Nobel Prize for High Temperature superconductors, which was discovered in compounds reported by him. I those HTS days, I remember him trying to publish papers in a "hurry"...may be out of frustration. He may be (still) in a hurry and in the process missing the due-diligence.

  2. gaddeswarup said...

    'Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister'(from Rahul's essay) is stirring some vague memories. I heard that there are now research funding agencies whichare ot answerable to the parliment but only to the Prime Minister. I wonder whether you can throw sime light on these funding processes. I have also heard at various times from scientists that they have been asked to establish a department or an institute. I wondered where the authority and funding was coming from. These are decided vague questions from vague conversations and there may not be much more to it.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Jaspal Bhatti nailed it two decades ago: the relationship between and Indian PhD student and guide