He’s back!

Remember Shiva Ayyadurai? I’m sure you do. If not, see my previous posts [1, 2, 3] and Abi’s post that attracted over 200 comments.

He’s now back, with his old claim of having invented e-mail in 1978. He even got the Washington Post and Time to do stories about him, and gave his documents to the Smithsonian.

So I suppose the people who wrote RFC 561 were five years ahead of their time — recommending standards, in 1973, for a medium that was not invented until 1978. In fact, Ayyadurai should pick his next fight with Ray Tomlinson who claims to have sent the first network email in 1971. And when Eric Allman wrote delivermail (which evolved into the ubiquitous sendmail) in 1979, he must have been ripping off Ayyadurai.

A clarification that makes it muddier

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.

How to be a shameless hypocrite

UPDATE 23/2/2012: I wrote the following before CNR Rao spoke. Now it is not clear whom the title of this post should apply to. For my reaction, see the bottom of the post.

UPDATE 9/3/2012: In the light of several other instances of plagiarism that were thrown up here, my thoughts are here.

Yesterday I linked to the Hindustan Times’ coverage of the apology for plagiarism by four authors, including C.N.R.Rao, of a paper in Advanced Materials, and explained why (based, at least, on what we know so far) the situation was correctly handled. I also took issue with the HT’s anonymous quote of an IISc scientist at the end of that news item.

Today the rest of the media have piled on: the Times of India, DNA, Deccan Herald and others. And the Hindustan Times has editorialised on the matter. Choice quote:

So why is that people who plagiarise are not bothered about the after-effects like bad press and public denouncement? After all, in the first place, they nick something because they want to be seen in a good light, be admired for their wonderful work. Our guess is that those who plagiarise are plain lazy. They are so hopelessly lazy that they don’t even want to give the stolen text some new twists and turns.

This is about four lines of literature review. Does the HT have the slightest evidence that the new results (or “wonderful work”) presented in the paper were plagiarised? And the scientists apologised in print. Has the HT ever apologised for stealing others’ work? And yes, they have done so, many times: see here, and here, for example. This person did, it seems, manage an apology — after weeks of pursuit and bad internet publicity. I’m not sure if Bryan Appleyard ever got an apology from HT, however (though he reports a private apology from the plagiarist editor).

There are several examples involving other major newspapers and other media. Here’s the Times of India. Another TOI example. Another. And another. (Note that this last link is to the HT’s LiveMint.) Even The Hindu is not immune. (In this instance, I believe the offender, film correspondent Gautaman Bhaskaran, was quietly asked to leave, but I’m not aware of any public statement. But The Hindu hasn’t — yet — moralised about the CNR case, so I absolve them of hypocrisy this time.)

One time the HT did apologise, promptly and prominently, was when they stole from the Times of India. Except that they didn’t really. They said it was “based on a mass, press handout”, and the ToI just happened to run it first. And they didn’t even name the ToI — they merely referred to a “rival publication”. If it was a press handout, it is clear that both newspapers ran it verbatim. The Times of India, back in 2003, declared that “PR agencies are no longer an anathema” in providing “news”; other newspapers do just the same, without openly saying so.

In short — physicians, heal thyselves. If the Hindustan Times really wants to draw the right conclusions from the CNR case, the newspaper can start by instituting, and enforcing, a policy of prompt investigation of every allegation of plagiarism, and prompt and prominent apology in every confirmed case.

UPDATE – The journalist who spoke to me was G S Mudur of The Telegraph, and his story appeared today too. It is a thoughtful piece but, thanks to a glitch at The Telegraph, it is not (yet?) on their main webpage. You can create a login at epaper.telegraphindia.com, log in, and then go here for the story. [Update again — main site link.]

UPDATE – The senior scientists handled the whole thing correctly — until one of them told The Hindu that this is not plagiarism. If it is not, the word needs to be redefined in the dictionaries. If they had merely said something like: “A small passage of introductory text turned out to be plagiarised. The inexperienced co-author responsible for this has learned a valuable lesson. This text had no bearing on the results presented in the paper, and the journal determined that an apology is all that is required,” then there would have been no story. The story, as it is, is media-created and I see none of the “hotting up” that The Hindu trumpets in its headline. The Hindu’s own story provides no evidence of such heat: it quotes me (correctly) as saying the apology is adequate, while the other scientist quoted, N. Raghuram, only makes the uncontroversial observation that scientists need to teach these values to their students.

UPDATE 23/2/2012: CNR Rao speaks. According to him, it was not plagiarism, but a few sentences were copied. He blames the student by name, which — as far as I have seen — Krupanidhi avoided doing, even though he made it clear who it was. And CNR essentially dissociates himself from the paper:
“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.

Thank you, Professor Rao, for (a) showing that the editors of the HT had a point and (b) demonstrating that it is possible to exceed them in hypocrisy.

I cut Krupanidhi some slack over what he said to The Hindu because he is, perhaps, not used to media attention. CNR Rao has no such excuse. We have to take what he says at face value: He must have spoken with some thought, and therefore must believe that this explanation does him credit. It does not.

How to correctly handle a plagiarism situation

UPDATE 23/2/2012: I wrote the following before Prof CNR Rao spoke, and some of what I write below is contradicted by what he said; however, I am leaving it unchanged. For my reaction to his, and his co-author Prof Krupanidhi’s, public statements, go here.

UPDATE 9/3/2012: Latest thoughts, in the light of many other cases of plagiarism, here

Today’s Hindustan Times carries a story with the blaring headline “PM’s top adviser in plagiarism row”. The article begins:

CNR Rao, the Prime Minister’s top scientific adviser and one of India’s best known scientists, has apologised to an international journal along with three other scientists for plagiarising the work of others, sending shockwaves through the country’s scientific community.

The apology note in question appeared in the December issue of “Advanced Materials” and reads:

The corresponding authors regret the reproduction of text from an article that appeared in Applied Physics Letters (S. Ghosh, B. K. Sarker, A. Chunder, Lei Zhai, S. I. Khondaker, Appl. Phys. Lett.2010, 96, 163109) in their paper.

The corresponding authors sincerely apologize to the readers, reviewers, and editors for this oversight and for any miscommunication.

The paper by Chitara et al is here, and the paper by Ghosh et al is here (subscription required). I was alerted about this on Saturday, by an IISc scientist and by a journalist, and had a look at the papers. Four sentences in the second paragraph of the introduction, including citations therein, are undeniably lifted from the first paragraph of the Ghosh et al paper. These are rather generic, “literature review” sentences and have nothing to do with the actual content of either of the paper. It is a very short part of both papers. It is certainly wrong to do it — one of the authors of the paper by Ghosh et al did put some effort into those sentences and into assembling those references, and it is not right to simply lift that work. But it seems to me that the apology has adequately addressed this transgression. Moreover, I am told that it was one of the senior authors of the Chitara et al paper (S. B. Krupanidhi of IISc, Bangalore) who first noticed this duplication, and wrote both to the authors of the Ghosh et al paper, and to the editors of “Advanced Materials”; he offered to retract the paper, but the editors said that an apology is enough. If this is true, it does the authors great credit. [EDIT 21/2/12: According to DNA, it was the journal who contacted the authors. Thanks Abi for pointing this out.]

It seems to me that the editors were right. Punishment must fit the crime, and in this case the copied sentences had no relevance to the findings of the paper. I’d go so far as to say that very little intellectual content was lifted. The language was lifted, but the language described work that was already published and available in the literature. A retraction would be uncalled for.

The Hindustan Times article goes on to say:

Senior scientists at these Bangalore-based research institutions [IISc and JNCASR] pointed to a larger malaise in Indian science.

“These things will repeatedly happen as long as top scientists don’t take responsibility for the actual writing of the research paper,” a head of department at IISc said, requesting anonymity.

I have two things to say to that.

First, why the heck do you need to request anonymity? Say it with your real name, please. Or is it possible that the quote was fabricated? This sort of thing damages journalism. Anonymous quotes are sometimes needed, but not in these cases: you can easily find any number of reputable scientists willing to speak their minds.

Second, in what sense did these scientists not take responsibility for the writing? “Taking responsibility” is a different thing from “writing every word of the paper”. It is normal, and preferable, for graduate students to write substantial parts of the paper. All authors should read and approve the final manuscript, and the advisors have a responsibility to read it particularly carefully. From everything I have heard of CNR Rao, he does read every word of every manuscript that has his name on it. But it is too much to expect him, or anyone, to spot every minor piece of plagiarism that may have occurred. I made the point to the journalist who spoke to me that our educational system has totally failed in educating students on the seriousness of plagiarism — indeed, school students are encouraged to repeat “model” answers verbatim rather than to use their own words. So lab heads need to educate their students on such issues. At places like IISc and JNCASR, the rarity of such events suggests that students, in general, are aware of such matters. A lapse occurred in this case, though the author responsible hasn’t been named, to my knowledge. It was promptly addressed by the senior authors.

In short, everything happened exactly as it should, and the quick action does credit to the authors of the paper. (I do have a quibble with the word “oversight”: the copying could not have been accidental. But that’s a minor matter.) Unless there are further problems that we don’t know about, I think the event should be treated as closed, and hope that the careers of the junior authors will not suffer in any way, and whoever was responsible for the plagiarism has learned his lesson. An error at this level could occur in any multi-author paper, and any of us, as co-author, could be the victim. What is important is responding promptly and appropriately, and the authors of this paper, including one of the country’s best known living scientists, have shown us how to do that.

Which brings me to my final question: This apology appeared two months ago. Why is it hitting the news now? CNR Rao is a very successful scientist but — for reasons justified and unjustified — not a universally popular one. I very much suspect that the media are being used by someone with a grudge.

UPDATE: The media piles on, forgetting to clean their own hands first. However, G S Mudur (the journalist who spoke to me) is worth reading. See the bottom of the new post.