Credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Dealing with plagiarism? Look at thy neighbour

Four doctors affiliated with Kathmandu University (KU) in Nepal are going to be fired because they plagiarised data in two papers. The papers were retracted last year from the Bali Medical Journal, where they had been published. A dean at the university, Dipak Shrestha, told a media outlet that the matter will be settled within two weeks. A total of six doctors, including the two above, are also going to be blacklisted by the journal. This is remarkably swift and decisive action against a problem that refuses to go away in India for many reasons. But I’m not an apologist; one of those reasons is that many teachers at colleges and universities seem to think “plagiarism is okay”. And for as long as that attitude persists, academicians are going to be able to plagiarise and flourish in the country.

One of the other reasons plagiarism is rampant in India is the language problem. As Praveen Chaddah, a former chairman of the University Grants Commission, has written, there is a form of plagiarism that can be forgiven – the form at play when a paper’s authors find it difficult to articulate themselves in English but have original ideas all the same. The unforgivable form is when the ideas are plagiarised as well. According to a retraction notice supplied by the Bali Medical Journal, the KU doctors indulged in plagiarism of the unforgivable kind, and were duly punished. In India, however, I’m yet to hear of an instance where researchers found to have been engaging in such acts were pulled up as swiftly as their Nepali counterparts were, or had sanctions imposed on their work within a finite period and in a transparent manner.

The production and dissemination of scientific knowledge should not have to suffer because some scientists aren’t fluent with a language. Who knows, India might already be the ‘science superpower’ everyone wants it to be if we’re able to account for information and knowledge produced in all its languages. But this does not mean India’s diversity affords it the license to challenge the use of English as the de facto language of science; that would be stupid. English is prevalent, dominant, even hegemonic (as K. VijayRaghavan has written). So if India is to make it to the Big League, then officials must consider doing these things:

  1. Inculcate the importance of communicating science. Writing a paper is also a form of communication. Teach how to do it along with technical skills.
  2. Set aside money – as some Australian and European institutions do1 – to help those for whom English isn’t their first, or even second, language write papers that will be appreciated for their science instead of rejected for their language (unfair though this may be).
  3. DO WHAT NEPAL IS DOING – Define reasonable consequences for plagiarising (especially of the unforgivable kind), enumerate them in clear and cogent language, ensure these sanctions are easily accessible by scientists as well as the public, and enforce them regularly.

Researchers ought to know better – especially the more prominent, more influential ones. The more well-known a researcher is, the less forgivable their offence should be, at least because they set important precedents that others will follow. And to be able to remind them effectively when they act carelessly, an independent body should be set up at the national level, particularly for institutions funded by the central government, instead of expecting the offender’s host institution to be able to effectively punish someone well-embedded in the hierarchy of the institution itself.

1. Hat-tip to Chitralekha Manohar.

Featured image credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Appa Rao Podile made fellow of science academy that published his problem paper – some questions

Appa Rao Podile, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, has been elected a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in spite of one of his three papers – which The Wire had identified in April 2016 as containing evidence of plagiarism – having been published by the academy. According to the citation, he “has made important contributions in the field of plant-microbe interactions. His work on chitinases has enabled the development of alternatives to toxic antifungal compounds for plant protection.”

INSA is one of India’s three science academies. The other two are the National Academy of Sciences and the Indian Academy of Sciences. Between them, they’ve formally divvied up an agenda of three portfolios. The National Academy of Sciences handles women in science; the Indian Academy of Sciences handles science education. And INSA, ironically, handles ethics.

The paper Appa Rao had coauthored (and for which he also the lead author) and published by the journal Proceedings of the INSA in 2014 was titled ‘Root Colonisation and Quorum Sensing are the Driving Forces of Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR) for Growth Promotion’. It contained six instances of plagiarism – the most among the three papers. After The Wire had reported on the offence, Appa Rao assumed complete responsibility and apologised for his mistakes. Proceedings of the INSA also issued a clarification accompanying the paper.

Two scientists I spoke to said on condition of anonymity that Appa Rao Podile’s election only damaged the credibility of the academy. Om Prasad, a history student at JNU, added, “He cannot be a role model for any aspiring researcher in the sciences or in academia in general” for having handled the Rohith Vemula suicide and protests the way he did (almost completely devoid of dignity) and for his plagiarism in various papers.

This is an issue I’d explored in January this year, when Appa Rao had been awarded the ‘Millennium Plaque of Honour’ by the Indian Science Congress (ISC). The plaque is awarded every year by the congress’s organisers to ’eminent’ scientists. In a time when the ISC’s credibility has been flagging, and considered by many scientists to be a waste of time, it is odd that the award would be given to someone whose administrative and academic credentials are in question. I expected the INSA also would’ve had similar considerations – but no.

I’d asked A.K. Sood (INSA president), Subhash Lakhotia (senior scientist at the academy) and Lahiri Majumdar (plant sciences editor of the Proceedings of the INSA) about these issues. In response, I got a carefully worded statement from Alok K. Moitra, the secretary of fellowships at the academy. I’ve pasted the bulk of it below; only one paragraph has been left out because it discussed a set of emails exchanged between INSA members and me last year.

The question of plagiarism in an article published by him and his colleagues in one of the issues of the Proceedings of the INSA was thoroughly examined by the editorial office of the journal immediately following the allegation made by you in April 2016. The examination revealed that although there were instance of similarities in five-six isolated sentences with some earlier publications, none of them would qualify for typical plagiarism since these did not pertain to someone else’s data. These were general statements, some of which may not need any specific citation as such. Being general in nature, they are also likely to share variable strings of words. Nevertheless, the authors did publish a note of apology in a later issue of our journal for inadvertent identity/similarity of a few isolated sentences in the published paper with those in some other papers.

The INSA Council while discussing the election of Professor Appa Rao Podile to fellow of INSA considered this allegation and decided that the allegation of plagiarism was without merit. His election to the Fellowship of INSA is based on his scholastic research contributions.


Based on these facts, I have a few questions. But before that, a short note (just in case for some idiotic readers who comment on a story without reading it first): I’m not saying at all that we forgive Appa Rao Podile for the way he dealt with the students and faculty at the University of Hyderabad campus (under political pressure to boot) as well as for the way he conducted himself when a police inquiry was initiated against him.

1. Appa Rao admitted to his mistake and issued a correction and an apology (subsequently publicised by the journal). His misconduct wasn’t in the experiment but in the descriptive part of the paper. Prasad argued that none of this exculpates him – but this is quite in opposition to what former UGC chairman Praveen Chaddah had written in 2014: that entire papers shouldn’t be retracted or dumped when misconduct like plagiarism is confined to the paper’s descriptive parts and doesn’t spillover into the data or experiment itself. I don’t know where I myself stand, but I think there’s some introspection to be done here about whether we’re being too strict apropos Appa Rao’s plagiarism infraction because of his role in the University of Hyderabad protests, violence, etc.

2. An obvious follow-up question arises: when we’re felicitating a scientist for his scientific accomplishments and electing him as a fellow of a reputed science academy, are we allowed to pull up the academy for not having considered his non-scientific work as well? (I realise this is a loaded question because it suggests that I’m not going to be happy with the academy until it recants its fellowship offer, but no – I’m actually curious.)

3. Are we paying attention to the academy itself only because it has elected a controversial fellow? I know my answer is ‘yes’. India has three science academies and they rarely ever feature in public conversations about science in India, so it feels somewhat embarrassing to suddenly consider the INSA to be important. And part two: do we expect all the fellows at India’s science academies to be role models? If we’re going after Appa Rao now because he’s not been a model citizen, shouldn’t we be asking such questions of all the fellows of the three academies?

4. Should our consternation at Appa Rao’s election be directed towards Appa Rao or towards INSA? Common sense would dictate that we divert our scrutiny towards INSA. And we immediately realise that as much as Appa Rao had erred in plagiarising in his paper, INSA had also erred in publishing the document without checking it for plagiarism first. We find further that the INSA guidelines for the election of new fellows is insipid, making no room to consider the possibility that some scientists may be great with the science but jerks at other things. There are also no guidelines for what actions it would take against a fellow should he be implicated for some offence in the future (and gradations therein). What happens when the fellow of a science academy commits murder? (Can you imagine anyone rushing to find out what INSA/IAS/NAS is saying?)

Update: I’d had a follow up question for Moitra, to which I received a reply late yesterday.

Q: Apart from Appa Rao’s academic credentials, did INSA consider his administrative track record at the University of Hyderabad? Did it consider the fact that a fact-finding team (of three well-regarded academics) concluded that Appa Rao had acted unethically and in a way damaging to the reputation of the University during his term as VC? Wouldn’t Appa Rao’s election to the academy thus seem as if – as long as a scientist does good science, his other transgressions can be ignored?

A.K.M.: In our earlier response, we did state that the election was based on scholastic achievement. Administrative failures/successes can be subjective impressions depending upon from which angle one looks at it. Election to fellowship is essentially on the basis of scientific contributions. However, only if there are established cases of wrong-doing as judged by the judiciary system of the country, the election would not be made in spite of scholastic achievements.

Featured image: Appa Rao Podile. Credit: YouTube.

The Indian Science Congress has gutted its own award by giving it to Appa Rao Podile

Featured image credit: ratha/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I hadn’t heard of the Millennium Plaque of Honour before yesterday, January 3. From what I was able to read up before filing my report in The Wire (about embattled Hyderabad University vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile receiving the plaque at the ongoing Indian Science Congress):

  1. It has been awarded by the Indian Science Congress Association since 2003, when it was instituted as the ‘Science & Society Award’
  2. Its name was changed to the New Millennium Plaque of Honour in 2005
  3. It carries a citation, a literal plaque and a cash component of Rs 20,000 “to cover incidental expenses”
  4. It is awarded to two eminent scientists at the Science Congress every year

If the annual event was considered prestigious or even very laudable until 2014, I’m not entirely sure (although it certainly wasn’t a very gala affair). But in 2015 and after, it’s certainly taken a beating. In 2015, particularly, the congress was invaded by right-wing nuts convinced that Vedic age scholars had flown planes to Mars and transplanted animal heads onto human bodies. Proceedings were relatively free of controversy in 2016 before taking another turn for the worse in 2017: by giving a Millennium Plaque to Appa Rao (as well as to Avula Damodaram, but that’s a lesser problem we’ll come to later).

A day or so ago, in a conversation on Twitter, both R. Prasad (The Hindu‘s science editor) and Gautam Desiraju (a celebrated chemist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru) agreed that many Indian events had off late been banking on legitimacy ‘loaned’ from foreign institutions. For example, a large part of the Indian Science Congress’s public outreach every year involves blaring that X Nobel laureates will be in attendance. Nobel laureates are eminent people men, sure, but often they don’t do much other than give a talk and just be in attendance. And their presence doesn’t do much for the quality of the conference, overall in a decline, either (see footnote). In December 2012, P. Balaram, the director of IIT-Madras, wrote in an editorial in the journal Current Science,

… few practising scientists of note consider the Congress as an important event. Pomp and ceremony take precedence over substance. Over the years the Congress has been reduced to an occasion where the inaugural session appears to be the raison de etre for the meeting. The traditional opening address by the Prime Minister predictably reiterates governmental commitment to support science and invariably promises to remove the many bureaucratic hurdles that sometimes loom larger than life in the minds of many scientists. The presence of the executive head of government invests the inaugural event with an importance that is often not commensurate with the quality of the scientific sessions that follow. The occasion is also used to showcase a couple of Nobel laureates, who fly in to speak to audiences with little appetite for excessively technical talks. The organisers, bolstered by considerable government backing, are always good hosts; the distinguished foreign presence ensuring that the Congress always acquires a degree of respectability rarely supported by the scientific program.

In such times, the value of reinforcing local rewards, recognitions, symbols, ideals, etc. is as important as respecting and re-legitimising them as well. This means that an award like the Millennium Plaque of Honour (despite its pompous name), instituted as it has been by the Indian Science Congress, should be given on every occasion to scientists truly deserving of the award and, more importantly, never to anyone who will lower by association the prestige accorded to the award.

Appa Rao is capable of doing the latter. Particularly after Rohith Vemula’s suicide last year (and more generally for a half-year period before that), Appa Rao, as vice-chancellor, was responsible for allowing partisan interventions from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to interfere in university student politics as well as for violently quelling student protests that followed on the University of Hyderabad campus. Shortly after the news of Vemula’s death broke, the Times of India also reported that Appa Rao had acquired his vice-chancellorship through political connections, especially with BJP minister Venkaiah Naidu and Telugu Desam Party chief Chandrababu Naidu.

A relevant passage from our coverage of the incidents:

Police, CRPF and RAF forces came to the campus, and students assembled on the lawns outside the VC’s lodge were brutally removed and lathi charged. Some students were badly injured and had to be taken to hospitals, sources have said. Students have also said that they were abused and insulted, and female students were threatened with rape. Students from minority communities were allegedly called “terrorists”.

It’s impossible to overlook the fact that his only presence in recent memory was as a craven but powerful stooge, and in fact almost never for his work as a scientist. He hasn’t done anything memorable of late nor as he displayed the integrity due a vice-chancellor of a public institution. In fact, shortly after the student protests, I had also published evidence of plagiarism in three of his research papers. If he has won a Millennium Plaque, then it only means the ‘honour’ doesn’t stand for research excellence anymore as much as for neglecting one’s duties and for perverting the all-important autonomy of an important position.

Worse yet, it seems an award of the Indian Science Congress has become subverted into becoming an instrument of negotiation for political agents: “You let me interfere in your duties, I will give you a fancy-sounding award”. The other recipient of the same award this year, Avula Damodaram, doesn’t inspire confidence, either – although I concede I have no evidence following my suspicions (yet). Damodaram is the vice-chancellor of Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, the same institute that’s hosting the science congress this year. Binay Panda, a bioinformatician and friend, wasn’t surprised:


Footnote: Mukund Thattai, a biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, conducted a poll on Twitter asking why people took to science. The option ‘once saw a Nobel laureate’ clocked in last:

Seventy-four is not a great sample size but 1% is a far more abysmal number.

Podile, plagiarism, politics

On 17 January, Vemula hung himself, saying in his suicide note, “my birth is my fatal accident.” His death has rocked academia, with unabated protests on the Hyderabad campus and elsewhere. Even before the incident, Tandon and others openly referred to Appa Rao Podile, the university’s vice chancellor, as the famed institution’s first political appointee. Appa Rao has since left the university on indefinite leave.

This is from a February 3, 2016, blog post on Scientific American by Apoorva Mandavilli. I quote this to answer the question I’ve been asked throughout today from different people: “Why did you not publish your piece on three of Appa Rao’s papers containing plagiarised content earlier or later?” (The link to my piece, which appeared on The Wire, is here.) Appa Rao, as Mandavilli writes, is the university’s first VC to be appointed via the political route. In fact, according to The Times of India, he once campaigned for the Telugu Desam Party.

My piece was put together over three or four days – from the time I found out about the issues in Appa Rao’s papers to when I had all the information necessary to put my article together. Finally, though its publication date was postponed by a day thanks to the release of the Panama Papers, nothing else was taken into account apart from checking if The Wire had done due diligence before hitting the ‘Publish’ button. Having said all this, I ask: if Appa Rao is the first politically appointed VC at the University of Hyderabad, how can anything he does not be examined through a political lens?

Roundup of missed stories – February 14, 2016

Previous editions here.

1. Zika virus and the 2016 Olympics, Umrah and Hajj – “These mass gatherings provide an additional opportunity to undertake research on the transmission and prevention of Zika virus. Preparedness has been the key to success of recent Hajj mass gatherings held amid known risks, such as pandemic influenza A H1N1, MERS, and Ebola outbreaks. Lessons from Saudi Arabia’s success with hosting Hajj during declared pandemics can be helpful to Brazil and the Olympics organisers. The next 4 months will be a crucial period for both Brazilian and Saudi authorities to review emerging research findings on the natural history of Zika virus through expert consultations. International stakeholders can facilitate the needed advocacy and support.”

2. The incredible story of LIGO – “Dicke, a master at cutting through thorny mechanical dilemmas, also instilled in Weiss the value of solid experimental design. Returning to MIT as a professor, Weiss embraced the teachings of his mentors and became one of the world’s leading experts in high-precision measurements of gravity. The capstone of Weiss’s career is LIGO. Weiss developed the notion of using a special technique called laser interferometry to track minute movements of matter due to gravitational waves. Interferometry involves focused beams of light with well-defined frequencies (i.e., laser beams), traveling along separate paths, then coming together again. The pattern created when the beams reunite provides precise information about the difference in path length.”

3. LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves was predicated on already knowing what to look for – even though we’re finding it for the first time

3a. Cornell theorists affirm gravitational wave detection – ““You need big computers because the equations are so complicated,” explained Larry Kidder, senior research associate and a co-leader of the SXS collaboration. One calculation – with varying masses and spin rates – takes a supercomputer a full week to solve, running 24 hours a day. With different parameters, some calculations take months. SXS created a theoretical catalog of what the different possible gravitational waves would look like. Teukolsky said that the new LIGO paper shows the measured waves with an SXS wave superposed on top and in excellent agreement with the measurements. “That’s a very strong confirmation that these are gravitational waves that come from black holes – and that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct,” he said.”

3b. Gravitational waves found, black-hole models led the way – “”Even though the modeling and observations of these gravitational wave sources is difficult, requiring detailed, multi-physics models, the potential to study new realms of physics and understand new astrophysical transients is tremendous. Los Alamos is well-poised to solve these problems,” Fryer said. “Our program studying merger progenitors argued that the most-likely system would be a binary black hole system,” stated Fryer, “and it is gratifying to see that this first detection is exactly such a system. As aLIGO detects more of these mergers we will be able to probe aspects of stellar evolution.””

3c. The scale of the universe is amazing – but more astonishing still is the science that lets us understand it – “That men and women can, in a few short years, take tiny smidges of data from often ill-behaved instruments around the world and judiciously combine them with a wide range of physical theory – including the demanding mathematical subtleties of general relativity – to form an account of something not only unimagined but unimaginable to anyone without the new mental equipment this joint endeavour provided: that seems to me a source of wonder greater than the vastest of astronomical numbers.”

4. ICCR conference to explore ‘Indian origins’ of Romany people such as Elvis Presley, Pablo Picasso – “”These names such as Charlie Chaplin or Elvis Presley are not being arbitrarily thrown up but have come to be associated here with a lot of research. Prima facie, these artists are from the Roma community which have traces in India,” he said. “They migrated from here to Europe 2,500 years ago but till today they have preserved many of social and cultural traditions. We are attempting to bring out that commonality, and express our affinity towards the community.”

5. The case of the sinister buttocks – “One more observation, about definition: This case teaches us that defining plagiarism in terms of lifting someone else’s sequence of words is far too restrictive. If you will forgive me some technical notation, a sentence with words w1 … wk may also be reasonably suspected of being plagiarized if there is an unacknowledged source sentence x1 … xk such that, for most i between 1 and k, either (a) wi = xi or (b) wi is in the set of words presented in some thesaurus or synonym-dictionary as alternatives for xi or (c) wi and xi are both in the set of words presented in the entry for some third word (recall service and liturgy).”

6. High stakes as Japanese space observatory launches – “The major existing X-ray satellites are NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, which both launched in 1999. These can analyse the constituent wavelengths of X-rays — the spectra — emitted by point-like objects such as stars. But ASTRO-H will be the first to provide high-resolution spectra for much more spread-out X-ray sources such as galaxy clusters, says Norbert Schartel, project scientist for XMM-Newton at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre outside Madrid, who is also a member of ASTRO-H’s ESA team.”

7. Hail, Clooney! – “… everyone was resigned to the fact that this was more or less a Clooney show. The actor was asked if he’d make a sequel to Syriana, the Oscar-winning film on petroleum politics that he produced. He said, “There is a lot wrong with the world, as we all know. But we are in a political period in our country today, and we’re not talking enough about the world. As filmmakers, we react to events. We don’t lead the way. The film happens years after the news story breaks. And you need a good story, good characters.” He spoke of his humanitarian work in Darfur (“it’s very close to me”) and how he’d like to make a film around the conflict. “But we haven’t found the proper script yet.” He said he was meeting Angela Merkel the next day.”

8. Measurements of the gravitational constant continue to fail to converge – “Who needs a more accurate numerical value of G (the current recommended value6 is 6.67408 ± 0.00031 × 10−11 kg−1 m3 s−2)? The short answer is, nobody, for the moment, but being apparently unable to converge on a value for G undermines our confidence in the metrology of small forces. Although it is true that the orbits of the planets depend on the product of G and the mass of the Sun — the structures of all astrophysical objects are determined by the balance of gravity and other forces produced by, for example, gas, photon or degeneracy pressure — ab initio models of the Sun are still an order of magnitude away from predicting a value of G at a level comparable with laboratory determinations. We do not need a value of G to test for departures from the inverse square law or the equivalence principle. There is as yet no prospect of a theory of quantum gravity that would predict a value for G that could be tested by experiment. Could these unresolved discrepancies in G hide some new physics?”

9. Retraction Watch interviews Jeffrey Drazen, coauthor of controversial NEJM editorial – “We knew this is a sensitive area, and the editorial brought into the open what had been simmering under the surface. What we now have is an opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about data sharing. This is all about the patients. This is all about disease. We can’t let it be about anything else.”

10. Extending an alternative to Feynman diagrams – “The problem with effective field theories that the authors address is that higher-dimension terms give rise to contributions that cannot be determined by factorization. In some effective field theories, however, these higher-dimension terms are connected to lower-dimension ones by symmetries. This is the case, for example, for nonlinear sigma models, which describe pion interactions at low energies. In this case, and in others, the symmetries are reflected in the behavior of the scattering amplitudes: they approach zero more rapidly as we take some of the external momenta to zero. Cheung et al. take advantage of this behavior to extend the applicability of Cauchy’s theorem to cases where the infinite-momentum condition fails to hold. Their work allows us to extend the idea of defining quantum field theories via physical principles, instead of via a Lagrangian, to an important class of effective field theories.”

11. Cosmologist Janna Levin on the vitalising power of obsessiveness, from Newton to Einstein – “The history of innovation offers plenty of testaments — most of the people we celebrate as geniuses, whose breakthroughs forever changed our understanding of the world and our experience of life, labored under David Foster Wallace’s definition of true heroism — “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Marie Curie toiled in her lab until excessive exposure to radiation begot the finitude of her flesh, wholly unprotected by her two Nobel Prizes. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” And then there was light.”

12. Stephen Hawking v. Paul Rudd for the fate of humanity

13. India needs home-grown GM food to stop starvation – “India should stop trying to build the Taj Mahal with borrowed bricks. We need a concerted effort at home to discover and manipulate relevant genes in indigenous organisms and crops (such as chickpea and rice). Indian microbial institutes should take up projects in this direction, because most of the currently used genes for transgenic generation are of microbial origin. That requires a change in direction from an Indian GM-food strategy that has traditionally aimed at quick product development instead of careful assessment of the underlying science. Such home-grown GM crops would also reduce reliance on transgenic technology produced by multinational companies, which is expensive and rarely optimized for the conditions of specific regions. Some GM crops designed abroad need more water than is usually available in some parts of India, for example, putting great stress on farmers. Indian scientists need better training in IP issues, especially when our researchers join foreign collaborations to examine and exploit the molecular biology of our natural resources. Otherwise, Indian researchers may get the scientific credit for discoveries but fail to claim the right to commercialize the products developed.”

14. Watch the destruction of Pompeii by Mt. Vesuvius, recreated with computer animation – “The ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii, more than any other source, have provided historians with a window into just what life in that time and place was like. A Day in Pompeii, an exhibition held at the Melbourne Museum in 2009, gave its more than 330,000 visitors a chance to experience Pompeii’s life even more vividly. The exhibition included a 3D theater installation that featured the animation above. Watch it, and you can see Pompeii brought back to life with computer-generated imagery — and then, in snapshots over the course of 48 hours, entombed by Vesuvius again.”

15. ‘I’ll take the radiant, radioactive half-life of love over half-love’ – “The span of a woman’s twenties—not just in urban India, but elsewhere too—is a period in which she can go from being an ingénue playing at power with older men to becoming, herself, a station of strength. “It is astonishing how strong you become, when you’ve spent a lot of time being other people’s weaknesses,” I write in one story, ‘Corvus’. A weakness—a flaw, a temptation, a mistake. Strength takes shape, invariably, through failure, including the failures of others. It happens, ultimately, through unrequited love, love at the wrong time, love afraid of the sound of its own name. And so, left to yourself in the absence of other scaffolding, you teach yourself how to build an Ark that you fill one by one by one by one with memory that petrifies into treasure, risk that alchemises into beauty, rupture that raptures into meaning. And then, by yourself, you pull its door closed.”

16. A gradual decline of nuclear power is in the offing – “… energy demand is growing rapidly, leading to construction of just about every form of electricity generation known. The two most populous of these economies — China and India — have great ambitions for nuclear power, and everything else. During 2014, China brought online 5.3 GW of nuclear power, 20.3 GW of wind turbine power, 21.8 GW of hydropower and 53.3 GW of power from thermal plants (mostly coal). Between September 2014 and September 2015, India commissioned a 1 GW nuclear reactor, coal plants generating 16 GW and wind and solar plants generating nearly 5 GW. In recent years, these two, and several other countries, have generated more energy from non-hydro renewables than nuclear energy25. In short, China, India and other developing countries are following an all-of-the-above strategy. As a result, although the overall capacity of nuclear energy might grow, globally the share of nuclear power in electricity generation will continue to drop (Fig. 4). Although costs may currently take a back seat to meeting demand, in the long run the same economic forces shaping the nuclear future in the developed world will limit nuclear growth in the developing world too.”

Plagiarism is plagiarism

In a Nature article, Praveen Chaddah argues that textual plagiarism entails that the offending paper only carry a correction and not be retracted because that makes the useful ideas and results in the paper unavailable. On the face of it, this is an argument that draws a distinction between the writing of a paper and the production of its technical contents.

Chaddah proposes to preserve the distinction for the benefit of science by punishing plagiarists only for what they plagiarized. If they pinched text, then issue a correction and apology but let the results stay. If they pinched the hypothesis or results, then retract the paper. He thinks this line of thought is justifiable because, this way, one does not retard the introduction of new ideas into the pool of knowledge, because it does not harm the notion of “research as a creative enterprise” for as long as the hypothesis, method and/or results are original.

I disagree. Textual plagiarism is also the violation of an important creative enterprise that, in fact, has become increasingly relevant to science today: communication. Scientists have to use communication effectively to convince people that their research deserves tax-money. Scientists have to use communication effectively to make their jargon understandable to others. Plagiarizing the ‘descriptive’ part of papers, in this context, is to disregard the importance of communication, and copying the communicative bits should be tantamount to copying the results, too.

He goes on to argue that if textual plagiarism has been detected but if the hypothesis/results are original, the latter must be allowed to stand. His hypothesis appears to assume that scientific journals are the same as specialist forums that prioritize results over a full package: introduction, formulation, description, results, discussion, conclusion, etc. Scientific journals are not just the “guarantors of the citizen’s trust in science” (The Guardian) but also resources that people like journalists, analysts and policy-makers use to understand the extent of the guarantee.

What journalist doesn’t appreciate a scientist who’s able to articulate his/her research well, much less patronizing the publicity it will bring him/her?

In September 2013, the journal PLoS ONE retracted a paper by a group of Indian authors for textual plagiarism. This incident exemplifies a disturbing attitude toward plagiarism. One of the authors of the paper, Ram Dhaked, complained that it was the duty of PLoS ONE to detect their plagiarism before publishing it, glibly abdicating his guilt.

Like Chaddah argues, authors of a paper could be plagiarizing text for a variety of reasons – but somehow they believe lifting chunks of text from other papers during the paper-production process is allowable or will go unchecked. As an alternative to this, publishers could consider – or might already be considering – the ethics of ghost-writing.

He finally posits that papers with plagiarized text should be made available along with the correction, too. That would increase the visibility of the offense and over time, presumably, shame scientists into not plagiarizing – but that’s not the point. The point is to get scientists to understand why it is important to think about what they’ve done and communicate their thoughts. That journals retract both the text and the results if only the text was plagiarized is an important way to reinforce that point. If anything, Chaddah’s contention could have been to reduce the implications of having a retraction against one’s bio.

R&D in China and India

“A great deal of the debate over globalization of knowledge economies has focused on China and India. One reason has been their rapid, sustained economic growth. The Chinese economy has averaged a growth rate of 9-10 percent for nearly two decades, and now ranks among the world’s largest economies. India, too, has grown steadily. After years of plodding along at an average annual increase in its gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.5 percent, India has expanded by 6 percent per annum since 1980, and more than 7 percent since 1994 (Wilson and Purushothaman, 2003). Both countries are expected to maintain their dynamism, at least for the near future.”

– Gereffi et al, ‘Getting the Numbers Right: International Engineering Education in the United States, China and India’, Journal of Engineering Education, January 2008

A June 16 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, titled ‘China’s Rise as a Major Contributor to Science and Technology’, analyses the academic and research environment in China over the last decade or so, and discusses the factors involved in the country’s increasing fecundity in recent years. It concludes that four factors have played an important role in this process:

  1. Large human capital base
  2. A labor market favoring academic meritocracy
  3. A large diaspora of Chinese-origin scientists
  4. A centralized government willing to invest in science

A simple metric they cite to make their point is the publication trends by country. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the number of science and engineering papers published by China has increased by 470%. The next highest climb was for India, by 234%.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.
Click on the image for an interactive chart.

“The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.”

This is a quantitative result. A common criticism of the rising volume of Chinese scientific literature in the last three decades is the quality of research coming out of it. Dramatic increases in research output are often accompanied by a publish-or-perish mindset that fosters a desperation among scientists to get published, leading to padded CVs, falsified data and plagiarism. Moreover, it’s plausible that since R&D funding in China is still controlled by a highly centralized government, flow of money is restricted and access to it is highly competitive. And when it is government officials that are evaluating science, quantitative results are favored over qualitative ones, reliance on misleading performance metrics increases, and funds are often awarded for areas of research that favor political agendas.

The PNAS paper cites the work of Shi-min Fang, a science writer who won the inaugural John Maddox prize in 2012 for exposing scientific fraud in Chinese research circles, for this. In an interview to NewScientist in November of that year, he explains the source of widespread misconduct:

It is the result of interactions between totalitarianism, the lack of freedom of speech, press and academic research, extreme capitalism that tries to commercialise everything including science and education, traditional culture, the lack of scientific spirit, the culture of saving face and so on. It’s also because there is not a credible official channel to report, investigate and punish academic misconduct. The cheaters don’t have to worry they will someday be caught and punished.

At this point, it’s tempting to draw parallels with India. While China has seen increased funding for R&D…

Click on the chart for an interactive view.
Click on the chart for an interactive view.

… India has been less fortunate.

Click on the chart for an interactive view.
Click on the chart for an interactive view.

The issue of funding is slightly different in India, in fact. While Chinese science is obstinately centralized and publicly funded, India is centralized in some parts and decentralized in others, public funding is not high enough because presumably we lack the meritocratic academic environment, and private funding is not as high as it needs to be.

Click on the image for an interactive chart.
Click on the image for an interactive chart.

Even though the PNAS paper’s authors say their breakdown of what has driven scientific output from China could inspire changes in other countries, India is faced with different issues as the charts above have shown. Indeed, the very first chart shows how, despite the number of published papers having double in the last decade, we have only jumped from one small number to another small number.

“Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology.”

There is also a definite lack of visibility: when little scientific output of any kind is accessible to 1) the common man, and 2) the world outside. Apart from minimal media coverage, there is a paucity of scientific journals, or they exist but are not well known, accessible or both. This Jamia Milia collection lists a paltry 226 journals – including those in regional languages – but it’s likelier that there are hundreds more, both credible and dubious. A journal serves as an aggregation of reliable scientific knowledge not just for scientists but also for journalists and other reliant decision-makers. It is one place to find the latest developments.

In this context, Current Science appears to be the most favored in the country, not to mention the loneliest. Then again, a couple fingers can be pointed at years of reliance on quantitative performance metrics, which drives many Indian researchers to publish in journals with very high impact factors such as Nature or Science, which are often based outside the country.

In the absence of lists of Indian and Chinese journals, let’s turn to a table used in the PNAS paper showing average number of citations per article compared with the USA, in percent. It shows both India and China close to 40% in 2010-2011.

The poor showing may not be a direct consequence of low quality. For example, a paper may have detailed research conducted to resolve a niche issue in Indian defense technology. In such a case, the quality of the article may be high but the citability of the research itself will be low. Don’t be surprised if this is common in India given our devotion to the space and nuclear sciences. And perhaps this is what a friend of mine referred to when he said “Scientific research in India has become the handmaiden of defense technology”.

To sum up, although India and China both lag the USA and the EU for productivity and value of research (albeit through quantitative metrics), China is facing problems associated with the maturity of a voluminous scientific workforce, whereas India is quite far from that maturity. The PNAS paper is available here. If you’re interested in an analysis of engineering education in the two countries, see this paper (from which the opening lines of this post were borrowed).