Monday, April 30, 2012

Pinky Pinky, Hanky Panky

That pink regions in the pic show the self-plagiarzed portions in just two pages (pages 4 and 5) of a paper published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) by Ron Breslow, an ex-President of ACS.

The picture is from Stuart Cantrill, who has posted two more: Page 1 and Page 2 and 3.

Nature News Blog has a good summary of this fiasco, which has led to calls for the paper's retraction. [See also Rahul's post].

JACS has temporarily removed the paper from its website "due to possible copyright concerns"; the notice at the paper's web URL adds, "The Journal’s Editor is following established procedure to determine whether a violation of ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research has occurred.”

* * *

Breslow is also a co-author of two JACS papers (published in 1989 and 1990) that were so sloppy and so riddled with basic errors that they cried out for retraction or correction. Two brave souls tried, through independent efforts, to get JACS editors to publish their Scientific Comment on the two papers. Read their tale in Nature (1992) [paywalled, unfortunately].

Breslow became President of ACS in 1996.

* * *

Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert with links to the Nature News Blog and the 1992 paper.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Public Discussions of Problematic Publications

Oh! Indian Intellectualism is the blog of GnaanaMaargi (GM) who appears to be an academic at an Indian institution. Please go and say hi to him (or is it her? I don't know; I'll go with 'he' until I'm corrected).

* * *

In his second post, GM urges Indian academics to boldly enter the public sphere: "speak up and speak out, in public". But he follows it up by taking a curious turn in his latest post in which he seems to argue that there was something illegitimate about the recent newspaper revelations of problematic publications from high profile scientists -- specifically, Prof. C.N.R. Rao and Prof. Ashutosh Sharma.

Here's what I think is the main reason for his complaint:

Going to the media if one does not get due justice in the appropriate scientific fora may be understandable, but doing so otherwise is simply not appropriate. And, it does a dis-service not just to the accused but to the entire scientific community, whose image is tarnished.

This concern for procedural correctness is misplaced. Consider the Rao case. After being alerted about the problems in his paper, Prof. Rao even offered to retract the paper, but eventually settled the issue by publishing an apology. The news stories appeared over two months later (without interfering with GM's preferred sequence), primarily because of who he is. Or, take the Sharma case; in what I consider a very brave act, The Student confronted Prof. Sharma about the problems in his paper. The news story (which appeared over 100 days after The Student's first e-mail) has this to say about Sharma's response:

[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.

In other words, The Student did all she could, before backing off (or, was forced to back off). The situation stayed there until "an anonymous email raked up the issue" last month; it was only the (threat of) news coverage that eventually forced Sharma into doing the right thing [see Footnote 2, below]. If this is not an argument for public discussions of problematic papers, I don't know what is.

* * *

Another reason for GM's disgust with the news stories appears to be his concern about the cost to personal reputations of the scientists concerned. Here's how he frames the issue about CNR's apology:

Whoever ... took that resolution of an independent scientific journal to the media had very little business doing so -- it seems like an obvious case of vendetta or one-up-man-ship.

Leaving aside GM's evidence-free speculation about the whistleblower's motives, he is still barking up the wrong tree here: the primary cause of the scientists's PR problems is not the whistlblowing, but their own prior acts of omission and commission. More importantly, this sort of personality-oriented analysis obscures the real issue, which is this: "When shit happens, how does one deal with it?" [see Footnote 3] In other words, among the many ways of reacting to adverse news, which one did these top scientists choose? (And, is that newsworthy?)

Consider just for a minute a what-if scenario in which Prof. Rao, on being alerted about the plagiarism in his Advanced Materials paper (sometime in late 2011), took the help of someone to investigate and identify the source of the problem. This step might have made him aware of other papers that were similarly tainted (instead of seeing them revealed in blog comments), and allowed him to take corrective steps on all the problematic papers -- well before presspersons started mobbing him in February of 2012. In this scenario, there might still have been some news stories, but they would have sounded a lot more positive than they did -- some might even have praised him for his actions.

In real life, though, that's not how Prof. Rao responded [see Footnote 1] -- and that made the story even more newsworthy.

* * *

In his focus on procedural correctness, reputational consequences, or whistleblowers' motives, GM misses what I think is the most important question: have the news stories been good for science? The answer is, "Yes, absolutely." Consider:

  1. The news stories allowed a discussion of students' writing skills as a source of weakness in the chain that connects an interesting research question to the eventual publication of its answer. This could lead to creating and implementing remedial measures at our academic institutions.

  2. A lot of people (including scientists) now have an enhanced awareness about ethics in science. The news stories, and the subsequent discussions in blogs, offer some guidance on how (not) to deal with problematic papers especially when the problems are not of one's own making, as well as on how to avoid them in the first place.

  3. Only the possibility of newspaper coverage spurred Prof. Sharma into thinking about issuing an erratum [see Footnote 2].

IMHO, these are all good, positive things.

* * *

Footnote 1: Prof. Rao's initial response included disowning his coauthors after underplaying the problem by saying, "This should not be really considered as plagiarism, but an instance of copying of a few sentences in the text." [By the way, does this gel with other reports that said he offered to withdraw the paper?] When problems in a few other papers came to light, his response was revealing: "... I don’t know who is trying to do this damage to me."

Footnote 2: Rahul has the most apt comment:

Somehow [the news of Prof. Sharma issuing an erratum] reminds me of Churchill’s comment about Americans, that they “can always be counted on to do the right thing, after exhausting all other possibilities.”

Footnote 3: This is a variation of a formulation was articulated by Prof. N. Raghuram at the Workshop on Academic Ethics last July:

That research misconduct happens (every once in a while) should not be shocking. What is truly shocking is the lack of a coherent, fair response to the discovery of misconduct [perhaps not his exact words; I'm quoting from memory].

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Indian Higher Ed Links

These news items seem significant, but I haven't seen a focused discussion of what led to these decisions and what they might mean on the ground. Let me park them here for the moment:

  1. Aarthi Dhar in The Hindu: Doctors pursuing higher studies in the US to sign return bond.

  2. Linah Baliga in ToI: Govt bans use of live animals for education, research.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Blood and Gore in Book Reviews

John Sutherland has a terrific piece in The Guardian: Which book reviewer will win the 'hatchet job of the year' award? Not only does he have links to some of the juiciest of them, he even links to a review that demolished one of his own books!

I should make full use of this opportunity to link to demolition jobs that are pure fun: Matt Taibbi and Mihir Sharma. But they reviewed non-fiction, while Sutherland's piece is about reviews of fiction, poetry, anthologies, and the like.

Some excerpts:

Give someone a hatchet and, quite likely, they'll get bored of clearing the literary undergrowth and sink it in some luckless writer's skull. More so in a hothouse literary world like London's. And it's fun to watch, so long as the hatchet isn't descending on your own cranium. Every sport benefits from a bit of blood. Personally I stop reading reviews at the first mention of words such as "splendid", "magisterial", or "meticulous". Gore beats puff every time. [...]

I've published some 28 books ("Splendid", all of them), over what some unfriendly reviewers have recently been implying is an overlong career (notably that young stripe Sam Leith, damn him, who I see is one of the hatchet judges). Most reviews of my books have been friendly. But there's always been a couple of stinkers. And those are, inevitably, the ones you can – 40 years later – still recite by heart. More so as, when time passes, you begin to suspect your assailant may have got some things right.

My most recent effort, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, has received the kinds of review that would please my mother in the Spectator, the Times, the Financial Times, the Independent, the Evening Standard. But it got the loo read of the year award in Time Out ("top of the world, Ma!").

It also got a review of such savagery in the Telegraph that, if I were a betting man, I'd go down to Paddy Power and put a tenner on Jonathan Bate walking away with the 2012 hatchet of the year award, still dripping with my warm blood and brains. (That's the one link you clicked on, isn't it? Point proved). Forget loo read of the year. As far as Bate is concerned my luckless volume wouldn't even qualify as toilet paper.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Prof. Ashutosh Sharma Issues an Erratum

Here it is: Biomimicked Superhydrophobic Polymeric and Carbon Surfaces (April 2012), DOI: 10.1021/ie300772p.

This erratum presents an addition to the original article. Two schematic figures (Figures 1 and 2) and some text of the experimental protocol on the preparation of negative PDMS replica of leaf in the Experimental Section were inadvertently published in almost-identical form (but with different preparation conditions) to that in a thesis by [The Student] (1) The authors also inadvertently omitted the citation to this work. The authors sincerely apologize to the editors, reviewers, and readers of the journal, and to the thesis author for this oversight. [Bold emphasis added].

[This text is followed by a reference to The Student's MTech thesisi].

Here's the front page article in The Telegraph that started it all; hers's my first post on this case (and more; and much more at Rahul's post and its comments section). In a post on the problems in Prof. Sharma's paper, I said:

The Student's thesis deserved a citation [in Prof. Sharma's paper] 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.

In acknowledging the plagiarism committed by the authors, the erratum addresses (a) and (b), but indirectly. By its very nature, an erratum is probably not a good place for (c). Finally, the authors have done the right thing by apologizing to The Student.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Steven Weinberg on the Future of Big (Experimental) Science

LHC may have been built successfully, but according to Weinberg, it may very well be the last of its breed, because it's going to be almost impossible to get the kind of funding needed for the next (and much more powerful) accelerator or observatory. He comes to this conclusion based on his experience with physicists' failure in the 1990s to get adequate funding for their dream machine -- the Superconducting SuperCollider (SSC); the project was abandoned after spending some 2 billion dollars on it.

How about a funding model based on international cooperation and collaboration? He's pessimistic about this as well; he says, "We saw recently how a project to build a laboratory for the development of controlled thermonuclear power, ITER, was nearly killed by the competition between France and Japan to be the laboratory’s site."

All in all, not a good prognosis for Big Science. Here's an extract on how a combination of political rivals as well as scientific rivals (scientists who argued that the money is better spent on Small Science) helped kill the SSC project:

So in the next decade, physicists are probably going to ask their governments for support for whatever new and more powerful accelerator we then think will be needed. ...

That is going to be a very hard sell. My pessimism comes partly from my experience in the 1980s and 1990s in trying to get funding for another large accelerator.

[... snip, snip...]

What does motivate legislators is the immediate economic interests of their constituents. Big laboratories bring jobs and money into their neighborhood, so they attract the active support of legislators from that state, and apathy or hostility from many other members of Congress. Before the Texas site was chosen, a senator told me that at that time there were a hundred senators in favor of the SSC, but that once the site was chosen the number would drop to two. He wasn’t far wrong. We saw several members of Congress change their stand on the SSC after their states were eliminated as possible sites.

Another problem that bedeviled the SSC was competition for funds among scientists. Working scientists in all fields generally agreed that good science would be done at the SSC, but some felt that the money would be better spent on other fields of science, such as their own. It didn’t help that the SSC was opposed by the president-elect of the American Physical Society, a solid-state physicist who thought the funds for the SSC would be better used in, say, solid-state physics. I took little pleasure from the observation that none of the funds saved by canceling the SSC went to other areas of science.

Hilarious Take on Fairness Creams

Triggered in part by a recent (viral) video ad that shows "[a] married girl thinking about those shame-shame areas of her body, that too while having coffee with her husband!", Suchi Govindarajan has penned a hilarious commentary in Himal South Asian about fairness creams and the video ads for them. Fabulous stuff -- go read it now!

Among the things Govindarajan mocks is "technology behind the bleach and fairness creams." Which reminded me of the infamous Challenge of the Month that launched a crowdsourcing experiment put together jointly by DST and P&G [by the way, the experiment appears to have died after two "Challenges"].

Here's a quick taste of what Govindarajan dishes out:

I am hearing there is lot of technology behind bleach and fairness cream. Are you knowing that some creams is coming direct from smart scientists at research institutes? First of all, these creams are all acting at a cellular level, not like our rose powder. Some ions are being released by the cream, and it is going into the underside of skin and just burning all the melanin into hot air (this melanin is useless compound anyway). At the same time, the ions are going outside and building big shield like Karna had in Mahabharata TV show. This shield is preventing bad things like sunlight, dust, common sense, etc. I am also reading on how the cream is improving IQ. It seems our brain is like a cauliflower. Fairness creams are having some hi-fi technology, namely Nano OzoNe Sensitiser agents. This NONSens agents is going into brain and like cement, it is sitting between the cauliflower gaps and that is how it is increasing IQ. I am really amazing about this every time.

An Early Example of a Patent Troll

Written by Gary L. Reback almost ten years ago, this article -- Patently Absurd -- describes the drivers behind the horrible degeneration of the patent system in the US. The entire article is worth reading, but this description of an early patent troll is just fantastic:

My own introduction to the realities of the patent system came in the 1980s, when my client, Sun Microsystems--then a small company--was accused by IBM of patent infringement. Threatening a massive lawsuit, IBM demanded a meeting to present its claims. Fourteen IBM lawyers and their assistants, all clad in the requisite dark blue suits, crowded into the largest conference room Sun had.

The chief blue suit orchestrated the presentation of the seven patents IBM claimed were infringed, the most prominent of which was IBM's notorious "fat lines" patent: To turn a thin line on a computer screen into a broad line, you go up and down an equal distance from the ends of the thin line and then connect the four points. You probably learned this technique for turning a line into a rectangle in seventh-grade geometry, and, doubtless, you believe it was devised by Euclid or some such 3,000-year-old thinker. Not according to the examiners of the USPTO, who awarded IBM a patent on the process.

After IBM's presentation, our turn came. As the Big Blue crew looked on (without a flicker of emotion), my colleagues--all of whom had both engineering and law degrees--took to the whiteboard with markers, methodically illustrating, dissecting, and demolishing IBM's claims. We used phrases like: "You must be kidding," and "You ought to be ashamed." But the IBM team showed no emotion, save outright indifference. Confidently, we proclaimed our conclusion: Only one of the seven IBM patents would be deemed valid by a court, and no rational court would find that Sun's technology infringed even that one.

An awkward silence ensued. The blue suits did not even confer among themselves. They just sat there, stonelike. Finally, the chief suit responded. "OK," he said, "maybe you don't infringe these seven patents. But we have 10,000 U.S. patents. Do you really want us to go back to Armonk [IBM headquarters in New York] and find seven patents you do infringe? Or do you want to make this easy and just pay us $20 million?"

After a modest bit of negotiation, Sun cut IBM a check, and the blue suits went to the next company on their hit list.

* * *

I had read this article long ago, and even remember unsuccessfully googling for it sometime ago; I'm glad I found it via Brad DeLong's link-post.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Congratulations ...

... to Prof. K. VijayRaghavan (Director, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Banaglore) and Prof. M. Vidyasagar (who is currently with the University of Texas - Dallas, after decade-long stints each at the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Bangalore, and TCS, Hyderabad) who have just been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. [News via Subhra Priyadarshini at Indigenus].


Prof. Partho Sarothi Ray's Interview

On NDTV, aired on the day he was released on bail (two days ago). [Link via Rahul]

Partho strikes just the right note in the interview, expressing his concern that six of his fellow activists are still in jail, his outrage that fighting for the rights of slum dwellers gets the State to respond with such fury, his anguish that the current government -- one whose election he appears to have supported -- is repeating the mistakes of the earlier one.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Annals of Unusual Awards

I'm sure the people who created this award mean well, but why insist on the nominees being already dead at the time of nomination? [link via DrugMonkey].

For one thing, it makes this part of the FAQ sound rather spooky:

Who does SfN contact when a decision has been made?

SfN will contact nominators to notify them that a decision has been made. SfN will only contact nominees if they have been selected to receive an award.

1982: Imagining the Intelligent Encyclopedia

Bob Stein has posted a bunch of wonderful pictures of imagined scenarios in which people use the intelligent encyclopedia. Pretty amazing how much those futurists got right.

Check out his post: Back to the Future -- In honor of Encyclopedia Britannica giving up its print edition:

These drawings date from 1982 (thirty years ago). Alan Kay had just become the Chief Scientist at Atari and he asked me to work with him to continue the work I started at Encyclopedia Britannica on the idea of an Intelligent Encyclopedia. We came up with these scenarios of how the (future) encyclopedia might be used and commissioned Glenn Keane, a well-known Disney animator to render them. The captions also date from 1982.


  1. Tony Cookson: How similar are the markets for textbooks and drugs?

  2. Charlie Stross: What Amazon's E-Book Strategy Means.

  3. Mihir Sharma: Our Creamy Layer.

    India is the most elitist, exclusive, unequal and stratified country in the world, and we don’t even know it. The Indian elite – which smugly calls itself the “middle class”, since it alone benchmarks itself globally – has constructed walls of privilege for itself that are all the more powerful for being invisible to many eyes. And if not invisible, then concealed behind other words — “culture” and “merit”, for example.

  4. Data on suicides in IITs, IIMs and NITs for the years 2009-12 [via Satyanarayan's tweet].

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Awesome Abstract of the Day

Via the guys with an uncanny eye for hilarity -- aka Retraction Watch -- here's the abstract, in full:

In this study, a computer application was used to solve a mathematical problem

Published in 2010, the paper (which a commenter recommends for its utter hilarity) with this awesome abstract was retracted by the journal recently "as the article contains no scientific content and was accepted because of an administrative error."

Read all about it at Retraction Watch.

Prof. Dibyendu Nandi's Appeal to Scientists

Update [9:30 p.m.]: Dr. Partho Sarothi Ray has been granted bail -- he should be out sometime in the morning tomorrow. Some good news, coming as it does on the 10th day of Partho's detention.

* * *

Rahul has already posted the text of a letter from Prof. Dibyendu Nandi, an astrophysicist and Prof. Partho Sarothi Ray's colleague at IISER-Kolkata.

Prof. Nandi sent his letter by e-mail to quite a few people, and at his suggestion, I'm also posting it here -- the idea being that the call for justice for Prof. Ray should reach as many people as possible:

Fellow Scientists,

I am writing to you as an individual and in my personal capacity of having known you. You are perhaps, by now, aware of the plight of Partho Sarothi Ray -- a faculty at IISER Kolkata, whom I consider to be one of our most talented scientists. Partho was picked up by the police for a peaceful demonstration against the eviction of slum dwellers in Kolkata and is still in judicial custody. I would like to bring to your attention that a website detailing the case of Partho has been set up by some of us and is available at:

Personally for me, it has been difficult to come to terms with this case; however, I have come to realize that whether we completely support Partho's activities beyond academics, or not, is not the point. What is important is that there has been a miscarriage of justice to one of our fellow scientists; somebody who has never compromised on his science and his teaching at our Institute.

I encourage you to peruse the material in the website, including the many news stories and testimonials about Partho that are in the public domain and make an independent assessment. Based on this, I also request you to consider giving Partho's case and this website wide publicity within your Institutes, Scientific Organizations, Academies and beyond and join the appeal for justice. If you would like to give a testimonial on behalf of Partho and are willing to have it hosted in a public domain, write to us at: .

Monday, April 16, 2012

Day 9 of Dr. Partho Sarothi Ray's Illegal Detention

It's important to remind ourselves: he's in judicial custody under on false charges.

Some updates:

  1. There's now a website set up by his colleagues and students: Justice for Dr. Partho Sarothi Ray. [Update: A blog has also been set up on This one is better because it allows readers to leave their comments -- see #4 below.]

  2. The news of Prof. Ray's arrest and illegal detention has been picked up by Nature. Its India portal has a post by Subhra Priyadarshini, and its Nature News Blog has a post by K.S. Jayaraman, Nature's India correspondent.

  3. Quite a few media outlets have covered this travesty. Justice for Partho site has a compilation of links.

  4. A letter has been sent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- after describing the case of Prof. Ray (and that of another professor from Jadavpur University, Prof. Ambikesh Mahapatra), it urges Prime Minister Singh to "personally intervene to resolve these matters urgently." You can read the text of this letter, along with a first list of signatories here.

    Update: The letter has also been posted at at the Petition Partho blog. Leave a comment there if you agree with the contents of the letter.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Arrest of an Academic on False Charges

Rahul has a post on the arrest of Dr. Partho Sarothi Ray (a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at IISER - Kolkata, and an alumnus of IISc, Bangalore) by the Kolkata Police following a protest against a slum eviction drive.

What makes this case particularly distressing is that the police have charged him (and six of his fellow activists) with crimes that allegedly took place some five days earlier -- on the 4th of April, a day on which Dr. Ray was elsewhere (to be precise, in the campus of IISER - Kolkata). With these allegations, the police have sought to keep them under their custody for two full weeks -- instead, the magistrate has ordered that they be sent to jail. Here's an excerpt from the ToI report on the court proceedings:

In the packed courtroom, lawyers Tamal Mukherjee, Shankar Mukherjee and Subhasish Saha bore holes in the police claim. Mukherjee said: "When the first arrests were made in the Nonadanga eviction case on April 4, the court had granted bail. These seven names didn't figure in the original FIR. Suddenly on April 9, the seven were shown as arrested in the same case. Police now claim they had arms and ammunition. The court gave them three days to unearth evidence but today, police could only show that seven bricks were recovered."

Mukherjee added: "Partha Sarathi Roy is a molecular biologist who has done his PhD in [IISc], Bangalore. He was in Kalyani when police claim that he led the attack on them. The case has been lodged by police. What's worse, the people who were assaulted by police had complained to Tiljala police with their medical certificates but no complaint was lodged."

It's heart-breaking that this academic activist will be spending the next several days in jail -- on false charges. It is important that we raise our voice in protest against this travesty.

Please read Rahul's post which has the text of a letter he received from Dr. Ray's friends and well wishers.

Also, please consider joining the protest by sigining this online petition. The State counsel's veiled threat of torture must terrify us all.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Two Body Problem: Cultural Differences?

Sometime last year, we had a great discussion in this post about whether it's better for an academic couple to be upfront about the fact that they are both looking for academic jobs at the same institution (as opposed to, say, applying as individuals in the hope that things will somehow work out). Many people were of the opinion that it was better to be candid about the "second body" right at the time of applying for the job.

That was in the Indian context. Would this advice hold in other job markets as well?

I just read a similar discussion -- the problem is the same (i.e., when is a good time to disclose the "second body"?), but the context is American. The difference is pretty stark: many commenters there appear to share the view of gerty-z, the author of the post, that the candidate has to wait until an offer is in hand before bringing up the second body. Here is the advice, in gerty-z's words:

Here is what I would advise my hypothetical postdoc: Bring up the second-body the minute you have an offer, and not a second sooner. At that point, the faculty has decided they REALLY want to hire you. There is incentive to "solve" the "problem". Instead of just avoid it.

The US laws prohibit personal questions about the candidate's spouse (and about many other things, including the candidate's age); they don't, however, do a good job of preventing people from prying / spying -- one of the commenters there says she "was quizzed once by the chair's wife while we were sightseeing post-formal-interview"!

* * *

Update: Just a couple of links suggested by commenters in two previous posts on this topic:

  1. Coming as a Pair: Finding Jobs and Managing Careers in India by Jonaki Sen (who is a faculty member in the Department of Biological sciences and Bioengineering at IIT-K) at the India Bioscience website.

  2. Love and the Two Body Problem (published in 2001 in Physics World -- free registration required).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Advice on Grad School ... from a Grad Student

Much of this kind of advice is from academics and other such ex-grad-schoolers. Here's an awesome essay from a current grad student: Graduate Student: To Be or Not To Be; published last month in the IIT-B Student Magazine Insight, it's by Karthik Shekhar, an alumnus who is now doing his PhD at MIT. Some excerpts:

Now back to what’s different about research – exams and quizzes are like short sprints but doing scientific research is the equivalent of running a marathon. You can maintain an extremely unhealthy lifestyle and impress your friends by outrunning them in short sprints thanks to your height or long legs (or vitamin supplements) but you cannot fluke a marathon. Analogously, many of us at the IITs have been ‘nurtured’ to cram lots of information [2] with little or no deep understanding, and reproduce it in a three-hour sanitized setting but real research is a different game. [...]


Most important lessons of life are learned in the gut, not in the brain [3]. It took me two and a half years into my PhD to understand that my IIT degree, despite its bells and whistles, had left many gaps in my education and work ethic that needed desperate attention. [...]

The footnote #2 in the text takes us to this:

[2] The coaching class empires are to be held singularly responsible for this malady. Yes, I think it is a malady.

Here's his very good advice on picking advisers:

... It is extremely important to pick an advisor who is concerned about your intellectual growth and not just your productivity. Students who are starting up are often swayed by credentials and fail to evaluate the human side of the research advisor: of how flexible he/she will be to your needs and whether you can look up to him/her as a mentor?

* * *

Thanks to Deepak Malani for the link.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Striking Infographic of the Day

Like the previous infographic, this one too is about women in MIT. Specifically, the number of women faculty in MIT's School of Science during the period 1963-2006, taken from Prof. Nancy Hopkins' article -- Diversification of a University Faculty: Observations on Hiring Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT -- published in the March/April 2006 issue of MIT Faculty News Letter.

The two big jumps, one in the early 1970s and the other in the late 1990s, are striking, aren't they? Here's Prof. Hopkins:

igure 3a shows the total number of tenured and untenured women faculty in all six departments in the School of Science from 1963 (when there was a single woman faculty member) through 2005 (when there were 36 women faculty). The curve rises steeply twice: once between 1972-1976 and once between 1997-2000. These rises do not reflect contemporaneous increases in the size of the faculty during those periods. The number of male faculty at several relevant years is shown in the numbers at the top of the graph. The number of male faculty actually decreased (from 259 to 229) during the rise in female faculty between1997-2000, due to an early retirement program. As of 2006, there were 36 female faculty and 240 male faculty in the School of Science at MIT.

I deduce that the first sharp rise in the number of women faculty in Science, beginning in 1972, is the result of pressures associated with the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action regulations. In particular, in 1971 Secretary of Labor George Schultz ordered compliance reviews of hiring policies of women in universities. All institutions receiving federal funding were required to have such plans in effect as of that year. In addition, a group of women faculty and staff worked to persuade MIT to hire more women faculty at this time (M. Potter, personal communication). The second sharp rise, between 1997-2000, directly resulted from Dean Birgeneau’s response to the 1996 Report on Women Faculty.

Academic Advice: Grad School, CV, Academic Talk, etc.

Grad school ...:

  1. An old post by Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance: Unsolicited Advice: Part Deux. Choosing a Grad School [this and its predecessor post became a part of the discussion in this post just the other day]

    How prestigious is the school and the department? Prestige is something that is much more relevant (to the extent is is relevant at all) to your undergraduate school than your grad school. Not that it’s completely irrelevant, but the prestige of your advisor is more relevant than that of your department, which is much more relevant than that of the university as a whole. Of course, there are tight correlations between these different kinds of prestige, but they are not perfect.

    Although we had a debate about this in comments to the previous advice post [here's the link -- see the debate take off with the very first comment!], I still think that the identity of the school/department from which you get your Ph.D. is essentially irrelevant to ultimately getting hired as a faculty member. This is not some utopian perspective that we live in a perfect meritocracy in which where you come from doesn’t matter; rather, what matters is where you are doing your postdoc(s), not where you went to grad school. Of course, where you do your postdoc might be affected by where you go to grad school! But more important is who your advisor is.

  2. Ross McKenzie at Condensed Concepts: Should you work with a young turk or an old fart?

    ... old farts may offer you wisdom, experience, and stability. Hopefully, they have learnt from the mistakes they made when they were a young turk and are now more effective at picking good research topics, particularly ones suitable for students, and will produce publishable results in a reasonable time. They may also be able to quickly see dead ends and save you a lot of time. On the other hand, they may be stuck in a rut in an old research field and be getting distant from nuts and bolts technical details. ... [Bold emphasis in the original]

  3. My own take on choosing advisers: Just avoid the jerks.

    Bottomline: Do everything you can to figure out who the jerks are. And avoid them.

    Corollary: If it takes some time before you discover the jerk in your boss, it's never too late. Dump him/her immediately, and move on: change your adviser, university, field, line of work, whatever! Life is too short and precious to spend around nasty people.

Academic CV, academic talks, etc:

  1. Joshua Eyler in The Chronicle: The Rhetoric of the CV. What you put into (or omit from) your CV (and how it is crafted) says a lot about you; for example:

    Never include your graduate school GPA or the scores you received on your comprehensive examinations. Doing so amounts to a significant rhetorical blunder, because you are emphasizing your role as a student rather than as a future colleague. Don't worry: The rest of your materials will demonstrate your intellectual prowess. There is no need to undermine your candidacy by overtly calling attention to your grades.

  2. Cosma Shalizi: The Academic Talk: Memory and Fear:

    The point of academic talk is to try to persuade your audience to agree with you about your research. This means that you need to raise a structure of argument in their minds, in less than an hour, using just your voice, your slides, and your body-language. Your audience, for its part, has no tools available to it but its ears, eyes, and mind. (Their phones do not, in this respect, help.)

    This is a crazy way of trying to convey the intricacies of a complex argument. Without external aids like writing and reading, the mind of the East African Plains Ape has little ability to grasp, and more importantly to remember, new information. (The great psychologist George Miller estimated the number of pieces of information we can hold in short-term memory as "the magical number seven, plus or minus two", but this may if anything be an over-estimate.) Keeping in mind all the details of an academic argument would certainly exceed that slight capacity*. When you over-load your audience, they get confused and cranky, and they will either tune you out or avenge themselves on the obvious source of their discomfort, namely you.

    Therefore, do not overload your audience, and do not even try to convey all the intricacies of a complex academic argument in your talk. The proper goal of an academic talk is to convey a reasonably persuasive sketch of your argument, so that your audience are better informed about the subject, get why they should care, and are usefully oriented to what you wrote if and when they decide to read your paper.

  3. Female Science Professor at Scientopia: Promote Yourself:

    I think a key question is: What is the purpose of the self-promotion? Is it essential to your progression in your career; for example, making you more visible (as an early-career scientist) to those who might eventually write letters as part of your tenure evaluation? Is it important for your tenure evaluation that you give invited talks? Is it a way to develop new collaborations and recruit excellent grad students and postdocs (important for any career stage)? Or do you just generally want to be more famous in your obscure field?

    In my discussion, I will focus on strategies for self-promotion as an essential element of career development, not for hunger-for-fame purposes. I am also writing from my point of view as a non-extrovert. You do not have to be loud, talkative, sociable, aggressive, or even supremely self-confident to self-promote in the interest of career development.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Infographic of the Day

MIT Numbers: Women as Percentage of Total Undergraduates, Graduate Students, and Faculty: 1901–2012

What would the success of MITx mean for MIT?

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Steve Kolowich has an article on an interesting debate within MIT about MITx, its effectiveness, its potential, and its role within the institution. He links to two articles -- by Prof. Woodie Flowers and Prof. Samuel Allen -- that appeared in the MIT Faculty Newsletter [Update: Should have added here links to MITx: MIT's Vision for Online Learning by L. Rafael Reif and the editorial which appeared in the same issue]. While both are worth reading in full, the critique by Prof. Flowers is what I want to focus on.

Prof. Woodie Flowers takes a hard line against MITx in its current form arguing (among other things) that (a) "education" is not the same as "training", and that (b) online resources are probably good for "training":

I believe that education and training are different. To me, training is an essential commodity that will certainly be outsourced to digital systems and be dramatically improved in the process. Education is much more subtle and complex and is likely to be accomplished through mentorship or apprentice-like interactions between a learner and an expert. [...]

Education is the source of comparative advantage for students. Education is worth its cost. Person-to-person training often is not worth its cost.

To clarify a bit: Learning a CAD program is training while learning to design requires education; learning spelling and grammar is training while learning to communicate requires education; learning calculus is training while learning to think using calculus requires education. In many cases, learning the parts is training while understanding and being creative about the whole requires education.

And this is how he sees MITx:

I believe the “sweet spot” for expensive universities like MIT is:

  1. access to highly-produced training systems accompanied by

  2. a rich on-campus opportunity to become educated.

MITx seems aimed at neither.

Flowers is clear that the web offers a chance to develop effective training tools (he cites Khan Academy) by replacing textbooks with media-rich, interactive texts:

We seem to have decided to offer “courses” rather than participate in the exciting new process of replacing textbooks with more effective training tools.

Apple just announced their software system to support new-media texts. If they do for textbooks what iTunes did for music distribution, the tipping point will be passed.

All early indicators are that E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth is the current gold standard for digital biology texts. The first two chapters are already offered through Apple’s new e-text system. These chapters are impressive. The entire text will require years of work by a talented team and already represents an investment of millions.

These are early days for online (or, more broadly, web-enabled) education, so it's not clear what may work well, what may not, and how much of the success/failure can be attributed to the use of the web. It will probably take a few years before these issues are settled with some (semi)definitive evidence. In the meantime, it's time for experiments, lots and lots of them.

I think we already have some evidence that short video explanations of concepts / phenomena / examples, à la Sal Khan, work well. Hour-long video lectures? Not much, unless they are delivered by rock-star teachers. As the experiments progress, we will get a clearer picture of the kinds of things that work well online. The IHE story also touches on this experimental nature of MITx:

The goal of developing virtual laboratories and software that automatically assesses students’ ability to vanquish complex problems and tasks is not to eliminate the need for real, live professors, says Sussman; it is to figure out what parts of the face-to-face delivery model can be automated so professors and students can double-down on the pieces of an MIT education that are oriented to apprenticeship.

MITx may have the official backing of its parent institution, and others, like Udacity and Coursera, may have the "brand pull" of some of their charismatic founder-teachers. [And a company called 2tor seems to be making waves, too, with its "expensive" model.] But these are all just early experiments -- online education is yet to get out of its Friendster days.

Friday, April 06, 2012


  1. xkcd on chemists.

  2. SMBC on mathematicians. [And this one, on the life cycle of a physicist, is worth another look/link!

Unintended Consequences of Regulations: PhD Thesis Factories

A company in Mylapore [in Chennai] that calls itself a “research guide organisation” agrees to work on a Ph.D thesis for a cost of Rs. 1.5 lakh.

“We should be informed about the title eight months in advance. We take care of the entire thesis — right from the title till the work is completed. We will be in constant touch with the candidate and every 15 days we will mail them the details. Also we train them for viva-voce,” says Ganesh, an employee of an outsourcing firm. His company claims that it has students from almost all the universities in India, and from other countries such as UAE and U.K. for master's work too. “In India, the demand for master's thesis work is less,” he adds.

Another company in Vadapalani [also in Chennai] offers to complete the thesis work in the engineering and science domains. “Our professors and experts are in various parts of the State. Some are attached to universities while others are full-time employees. The candidate can contact them over phone. The guide should not be informed as the thesis would not be accepted if it is prepared by someone else,” a staff at the company told this correspondent when asked about the procedures involved.

There's a lot more in M. Lavanya's story in The Hindu.

I got to this article through this post by L (who saw it in a G+ post by my colleague Vishwesha Guttal). L offers this explanation for this unethical trend:

The rush to somehow beg, borrow or buy a PhD is something I have been lamenting about in my blog. This is a fallout of the requirement by the UGC for a PhD if one wants one's scale etc. This is the driver of this gold rush.

This point was also made by Prof. S.R. Hashim in his talk in the Workshop on Academic Ethics held in Chennai last July.

‘Plagiarism cases are also fuelled by the race to publish more as our education system demands a Ph D degree with at least ten research publications as the minimum criteria for the post of professor’, noted S. R. Hashim (Forum for Global Knowledge Sharing). [Source: Richa Malhotra's Current Science report on the Workshop]

* * *

Related post: Final Year Project from 2005!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Flynn Effect for the Physique?

... research by The Economist finds that the average British size-14 pair of women’s trousers is today more than four inches wider at the waist than a size 14 in the 1970s, and over three inches wider at the hips.

From this short post at Graphic Detail.

Research on Asterix et al

Following a comment by L that "As for actual comic books, Asterix deserves a thesis," I did a quick Google Scholar search for Asterix Obelix, and was surprised to find some 2400+ entries.

Long story short: most of it is pretty grim [see footnote], but this one is a gem: Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books. You can imagine the researchers having a lot of fun, and laughing all the way to their academic CV with a "Clinical Article". To paraphrase Asterix, "These Germans are crazy!"

Here's the abstract:

Background The goal of the present study was to analyze the epidemiology and specific risk factors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Asterix illustrated comic books. Among the illustrated literature, TBI is a predominating injury pattern.

Methods A retrospective analysis of TBI in all 34 Asterix comic books was performed by examining the initial neurological status and signs of TBI. Clinical data were correlated to information regarding the trauma mechanism, the sociocultural background of victims and offenders, and the circumstances of the traumata, to identify specific risk factors.

Results Seven hundred and four TBIs were identified. The majority of persons involved were adult and male. The major cause of trauma was assault (98.8%). Traumata were classified to be severe in over 50% (GCS 3–8). Different neurological deficits and signs of basal skull fractures were identified. Although over half of head-injury victims had a severe initial impairment of consciousness, no case of death or permanent neurological deficit was found. The largest group of head-injured characters was constituted by Romans (63.9%), while Gauls caused nearly 90% of the TBIs. A helmet had been worn by 70.5% of victims but had been lost in the vast majority of cases (87.7%). In 83% of cases, TBIs were caused under the influence of a doping agent called “the magic potion”.

Conclusions Although over half of patients had an initially severe impairment of consciousness after TBI, no permanent deficit could be found. Roman nationality, hypoglossal paresis, lost helmet, and ingestion of the magic potion were significantly correlated with severe initial impairment of consciousness (p≤0.05).

* * *

Footnote: A lot of the hits are from some particle physics experiments by groups named ASTERIX collaboration and OBELIX collaboration. Which is kinda fun in a geeky-quarky sort of way, but they ended up polluting the search results on research on Asterix.

Thursday Morning Fun

It's great to see this stinging attack by Stephen Colbert who goes after Rick Santorum's ignorant rant about what California universities (don't) teach:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Rick Santorum Speaks from His Heart - California Colleges
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

How about writing a thesis on comic books ...

... in the form of a comic book? This awesome idea is what Nick Sousanis is running with, and I think it's great that his advisers/mentors at Columbia University's Teachers College are supporting him.

On his blog, Sousanis has been posting some of his work (including his HASTAC talk in which he presents some ideas that will presumably go into his thesis). I especially liked his letter / tribute to Prof. Maxine Greene the comic entitled Maxine Says.

He gets it exactly right when he highlights the superiority of the comics format over the "research paper":

"I know if I took a research paper I wrote of the same topic, the same density, there's no chance I could hand it to somebody on the street [and they would read it]. My mom might read it, but that's about where it would end."

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Quantum Politics

David Javerbaum has a geeky-hilarious piece in NYTimes -- A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney:

Complementarity. In much the same way that light is both a particle and a wave, Mitt Romney is both a moderate and a conservative, depending on the situation (Fig. 1). It is not that he is one or the other; it is not that he is one and then the other. He is both at the same time.

Probability. Mitt Romney’s political viewpoints can be expressed only in terms of likelihood, not certainty. While some views are obviously far less likely than others, no view can be thought of as absolutely impossible. Thus, for instance, there is at any given moment a nonzero chance that Mitt Romney supports child slavery.

Uncertainty. Frustrating as it may be, the rules of quantum campaigning dictate that no human being can ever simultaneously know both what Mitt Romney’s current position is and where that position will be at some future date. This is known as the “principle uncertainty principle.”

Entanglement. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a proton, neutron or Mormon: the act of observing cannot be separated from the outcome of the observation. By asking Mitt Romney how he feels about an issue, you unavoidably affect how he feels about it. More precisely, Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker.

Monday, April 02, 2012

R&D Spending at US Universities

The National Science Foundation has released the data for 2010 (2009 data can be found here).

Unsurprisingly, Johns Hopkins tops the list with a research budget of just over 2 billion dollars of which over 85% is from federal funding sources. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is at #2 with an R&D spending of $1.184; The Universities of Wisconsin and Washington, at #3 and #4, respectively, join Johns Hopkins and UMichigan to form the rather exclusive Billion Dollar Club.

And the total R&D spending in all the universities exceeded $60 billion in 2010!

A few years ago, I tried to estimate the R&D spending of Indian institutions -- it's a difficult and imprecise exercise because we don't get disaggregated data on academic R&D spending exclusive of spending for higher education [if you know of a source of such data, please let me know]. I arrived at a figure of about 450 million dollars for all of India].

I don't know what India's academic R&D spending is now, some five years since that exercise. Perhaps it has doubled to about a billion dollars? Maybe it's two billion dollars now?

The NSF data on US universities are worth keeping in mind (Johns Hopkins is bigger than all of India!) when people pipe up with questions about when India will become a scientific superpower.

T-Shirt Slogan

We do it on the table

Found just below a stylized picture of, what else, the periodic table on the T-shirt of a student in the Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit at IISc.

D. Balasubramanian on Democratic Societies in Animal Species

In the latest column in his fortnightly Speaking of Science series in The Hindu, Prof. Balasubramanian does a great job of presenting in a popular format a bunch of studies of social lives of animal species -- wasps and cockroaches, red deer and chimpanzees. Fascinating stuff!

Here's the section where he talks about the work of Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar, a colleague in the Centre for Ecological Sciences at IISc:

Professor Raghavendra Gadagkar of the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore is a well known “eusociologist” who specializes in insect group behaviour of wasps and bees. He recently described to us how a colony of wasps or bees organizes itself and optimises resources. He points out that while the colony has a queen, workers and drones, this is no monarchy. The queen does not proclaim what the colony should do. (We call her the queen, rather anthropomorphically, since all she does is sit around and lay eggs, and is pampered by a retinue of ‘assistants').

She too is just a worker, a special type of worker whose job is just to keep on laying eggs. There are no palace intrigues, and she too can be, and is, overthrown or displaced by another ‘egg laying machine'. When the colony is divided into two, the second queen-less part makes its own queen.

The “queen” is of course more important than the average worker, but she is not a dictator whose order the colony must obey. It is a group activity, with each member playing its role by common agreement.

How do scientists design experiments to answer questions such as "Do members of species X "practice a ... form of democracy"? Balasubramanian gives an example from the work on cockroaches:

How does one devise an experiment to arrive at such an important conclusion? Halloy's experiment was simple and decisive. He placed the group of cockroaches in a large dish that had three shelters.

The cockroaches did much “consultation” among themselves by touching and probing each other through their antennae, and after such consultation, divided themselves into groups and ran towards the shelters, away from the light (recall they like dark and no light).

The surprise was in the result. Each shelter could hold 50 insects. Yet when 50 cockroaches were used in the experiment, they divided themselves into two groups — 25 went off to shelter 1 and 25 to shelter 2, leaving shelter 3 vacant. When the researchers brought far larger shelters, each housing far more than 50, the cockroaches formed a single group and all went into a single shelter.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

If you are on Facebook

Or, for that matter, any other social networking site, you should read John Brownlee's post about an iPhone app called Girls Around Me: This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy.

The post's title says it all!

Charlie Stross expands on Brownlee's story to flesh out the whys and hows of the incentives that drive social networking sites [via Brad DeLong], and their implications for people using those sites:

The problem is this: all social networks run on the principle that if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. They operate as profitable businesses because they encourage users to channel their social interactions via their network, perform data mining on the interests that users disclose, and present the users with advertisements tailored to their interests (which are consequently much more likely to result in a successful sale).

However, to make such micro-targeted advertising practical, the social networks need to motivate their users to disclose information relevant to advertisers. There's no point marketing bacon to Jews or Muslims, so religion is relevant. There's no point marketing turkey to vegans or wheat products to coeliacs, so dietary preferences and medical conditions are relevant. If a user is a member of a subculture associated with a distinctive clothing fashion, that information is relevant to garment vendors. And so on. So Facebook, Orkut, G+ and so on all attempt to induce their users to maximize their self-disclosure and to tie their accounts to as many useful third-party information sources as possible.

You may have noticed that Facebook provides privacy controls, for those who are sufficiently worried about stranger danger to want some illusion of control. Unfortunately the vast majority of people have no idea how widely visible "show to all" really is, or that it might enable the users of apps like "Stalking Targets Around Me" to identify and track them. And it is not in Facebook's commercial interest to promote the use of privacy controls [Emphasis in the original]. If someone is using the privacy controls with all the settings jacked up to 11, it becomes very unlikely that long-lost friends and relatives will be able to make contact with them through Facebook. Which is a lost advertising opportunity, and therefore detrimental to the revenue stream.