Update 9/3/2012: Thanks to x1 for several new instances of plagiarism pointed out in the comments below, and to other commenters for a stimulating discussion. My reaction here.
As I noted in an update to the earlier post, CNR Rao has finally spoken about the case of plagiarism that has recently hit the news: I posted on this twice previously (1, 2). When I made the first post, it felt a bit strange that I am actually defending a senior scientist, but the feeling has only lasted until Prof. Rao’s first public comments on the matter, made to PTI (link to Deccan Herald).
Specifically, Rao is quoted as saying:
“This should not be really considered as plagiarism, but an instance of copying of a few sentences in the text,” Rao, Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, said….
Objecting to the use of the word “plagiarism”, Rao said the “copying” took place “because of [the student author]”…
[The student] had copied one sentence about the advantage of using solution processed material and another on description of a well-known equation from the literature, he said.
“I myself had written to the Editor that it was best to withdraw the paper,” Rao said. He said the paper was written by Prof Krupanidhi and he did not go through it and had no control on the issue.
(Rao named the student, but I won’t, since Google has an infinite memory and I don’t think he deserves this.)
Now, first, it was not two sentences that were copied: it was four (almost an entire paragraph) in the introduction alone, plus, apparently, an isolated sentence (or sentences) elsewhere.
Second: these days, most journals in biology and the biomedical sciences require the corresponding author to state that all authors have read and approved the paper. I could not find a similar requirement on the author guidelines webpage of Advanced Materials. However, they do link to the EuCheMS Ethical Guidelines for Publishing document, and state that it is followed by their editors. That document contains the quote:
On submission of the manuscript, the corresponding author attests to the fact that those named as co-authors have agreed to its submission for publication and accepts the responsibility for having properly included all (and only) co-authors.
Rao no doubt agreed to the submission, but it is important to know how he did so without reading the manuscript. This seems, at the least, highly irresponsible.
The ethical guidelines also states that an example of scientific misconduct is:
Plagiarism: taking material from another’s work and submitting it as one’s own.
So Rao, and Krupanidhi (who made a similar claim to The Hindu), need to explain why taking several sentences from another paper is not, in their view, plagiarism.
Finally, the ethical guidelines document says on authorship:
There is no universally agreed definition of authorship. As a minimum, authors should take responsibility for a particular section of the study. The award of authorship should balance intellectual contributions to the conception, design, analysis and writing of the study against the collection of data and other routine work. If there is no task that can reasonably be attributed to a particular individual, then that individual should not be credited with authorship.
So, which task in the paper can “reasonably be attributed” to Prof C N R Rao, that he be credited with authorship? Which particular section of the study does he take responsibility for?
I would not have asked these questions a few hours ago. In fact, to my embarrassment, I actually wrote in an earlier comment that “I don’t think there is any doubt CNR was involved in this paper and deserved to be an author.” In the light of his interview to PTI, he needs to answer these questions.
(And, sad to say, many other senior scientists, if pressed, will be unable to answer such questions convincingly for their own work.)
(It is worth noting that most biomedical journals these days, in addition to asking for an explicit statement that all authors have approved the manuscript, also demand a listing of each author’s contributions in the manuscript itself. Other sciences need to follow suit.)
UPDATE 24/2/2012: An anonymous commenter “x1” has given cases of two other papers authored by Krupanidhi and Rao that contain extensive copying from previous work: see the second and third comments below. The interesting thread here is
1. Again, this happens in the introductory sections and not, it seems, in Results or Discussion.
2. The copying is extensive and from multiple places.
3. In the first example, the original documents from which the copying was done aren’t even cited
4. The first author, I am sad to note, is the same in all these cases.
It will be easy to blame the first author, but three authors are common here and they should all answer some very hard questions.
To me, an equally uncomfortable feature is their failure to discuss the work they were plagiarising. Ghosh et al were doing essentially the same experiments on very similar graphene systems, and according to this commenter, the similarity is so strong that the student may well have been trying only to verify previously published results. If the senior scientists then decided to publish, they should certainly have compared their results with the published ones. Sometimes scientists (honestly or otherwise) claim ignorance for failure to cite, but that is clearly not the case here.
Now, in the first example pointed out by x1, too, the system they are studying is very similar to the one studied by Itskos et al, and some of their results look similar too (however, I claim no expertise in this area). There may well have been enough novelty in their paper to warrant publication, but the failure to cite a relevant publication that you are plagiarising from needs, I believe, to be explained. I have not looked at the second example of x1 in detail yet: but in this case they plagiarised from a much older paper (1995), which they cite, and a textbook.