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.

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20 Comments

  1. Well said.

    A couple of points:

    1. Given that the transgression is a minor one (as determined by the editors), the news-worthiness of “the apology” is entirely because Prof. Rao is the Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister. Which is why the HT story has more about Prof. Rao’s credentials (awards, Chair of SAC-PM etc) than about the details behind the apology.

    2. Again, given Prof. Rao’s position, it’s not really surprising that the person quoted at the end of the HT story wanted to hide behind anonymity.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 20, 2012

      Abi –
      1. Yes, I guess CNR is well-known enough among scientists for his science alone, but the general public may not know him if not for his other hats. But then that raises the question: why pick on him at this point, and why two months after the apology was published?

      2. I’m not sure I agree. CNR retired as IISc director nearly two decades ago. If people there are still terrified of him, that’s not a great situation.

      Reply
      • Pramod

         /  February 21, 2012

        Saying that someone is terrified of him might be a tad harsh.

        “Why make enemies if you can avoid it?” is probably the reasoning behind anonymity.

        Reply
  2. rajesh

     /  February 20, 2012

    If you see the material of paper…
    Same synthesized material has been characterized by one with LASER and another with IR.
    Overall characterization, graph is much similar.. No big difference.. even figure of photodetector mechanism is much similar.. No novality as such.. Just want to increase number of publication..

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 21, 2012

      I’m not sure I agree with that. For one thing, the CNR paper is about RGO thin films and nanoribbons, the other is about RGO only. But in fact both use IR laser and study photocurrent, response time etc. I’m not sure what the new contribution of the CNR paper i — it may or may not be terribly novel stuff, and I feel a comparison with the Ghosh et al results would have been merited (they cite that paper only once, uninformatively and together with five others, at the end of the plagiarised section); but if you feel that the results themselves are plagiarised, perhaps you should explain in detail (I’m not an expert in this field). The editors did look at both papers, and decided that this one doesn’t need to be retracted.

      Reply
    • bhas

       /  February 22, 2012

      I agree with you, Rajesh. The student has read the paper of Ghosh et al and worked on the samples from Rao et al and demonstrated the effect. He has even made the graphs similar. It is like a project where you test what has been demonstrated. This, the senior authors have seen as an important discovery and sent to a very high impact journal (being famous helps) and published. Since the refereeing many a times is on the content of the paper, the referee’s agreed for its publication, without verifying the existance of similar papers in literature. Usually if the people refereeing are in the field, would have detected this. In the hindsight, we can see that there is no novelty in the work and didn’t deserve the journal. To Rahul’s comment: reduced graphene oxide and graphene ribbon are not different from the reduced graphene oxide thin films, also the behavior is purely due to graphene, and reduced graphene oxide and graphene ribbons (an example: produced from opening carbon nanotubes) have high graphene content and are large scale. So there is no novelty in the experiment if you know the first paper. It is the act of the ‘smart student’. Regarding the over reaction of the media, I agree with rahul and others. The moral of the story is we have to be careful of these ‘smart students’ and look at every work very carefully.

      Reply
      • Rahul Siddharthan

         /  February 22, 2012

        bhas – thanks for the comment. It is possible that, if the reviewers had compared this with the Ghosh paper in the first place, they would not have accepted the paper. But having published it, it is unusual to withdraw on the grounds of lack of novelty. I am certainly uncomfortable with the unprominent citation of the Ghosh paper. It should have been discussed properly. But this is the sort of borderline ethical issue that it is very hard to do anything about.

        Reply
    • anonymous

       /  February 27, 2012

      I think whether the paper is similar or novel it is the publisher to decide. You need not take up the issue as there are professional ways to handle it. If you have to take this issue thousands of paper can be compared including yours(if at all you have one!) whether they are worthy of publication at all. In this case, the mistake should have been avoided. You can not attach so much importance and use the brush of plagerism(the jugglery of words to make this as a big crime in science than the copying the ideas and data itself) and kill a person’s integrity in one stroke. Infact, this can happen to many Professors in India as a result of overconfidence in student’s writing skill in the introduction when you teach him to write it. How do you know whether he has taken it from some literature or not. Do you have any software to find out what the student/coworker is practicing is correct or not. It is very difficult to identify such mistakes in introduction (in your word plagiarism) in some publications appeared even before the softwares come into the market. Will you be able to judge those cases in the same way or will you give the benefit of doubt to the authors. If you focus too much on this issues, all the professors in India can not ask the student to write the introduction of the paper(How do you believe that he has taken it or written it on his own? How do you teach him? What is the guarantee that even after attending all the ethical courses he/she won’t do the same mistakes).

      I would urge the scientific community to take this as a warning and look into this kind of issues carefully in future to avoid any controversies creeping out of your manuscript. Don’t use this as a platform to judge Prof. Rao based on some news reports without understanding the person’s dedication to Science. It appears to me many of you in this blog try to fish in the troubled waters and try to pin him down using this issue (out of personal vendetta).

      Reply
  3. blorean

     /  February 21, 2012

    I wonder how the senior authors discovered the four copied sentences in the first place. Maybe tipped off by someone else ? Or perhaps they knew where exactly to look for similarities which, if true, would be even more disturbing ! While reading a paper its hard to notice a few sentences as being part of another paper published 2 months back (and submitted even earlier).

    Reply
  4. About the discovery of the plagiarized sentences, Aishhwariya Subramanian has a quote from Prof. Krupanidhi: “We received indication from the editorial office (of Advanced Materials) stating that a couple of lines of text exactly matched with an earlier published work in Applied Physics Letters.”

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 21, 2012

      That’s interesting, and different from what I heard earlier. Will update the post.

      Reply
  5. Gautam Menon

     /  February 21, 2012

    Also about the discovery of the plagiarized sentences, several journals (as well as the physics archive) run automated checks, using specialized software, for overlap of text with prior papers. These are equivalent, although perhaps more advanced than, the ones used by teachers in the US to check for originality of work submitted as a project. I don’t think this will protect against plagiarism from journals which are ‘under the radar’ but should certainly work for most standard ones. I imagine that was what was done here. However, the only thing that puzzles me is that these checks are usually done earlier rather than later, and certainly not post-publication. So why didn’t the journal advise the authors that there was evidence that some lines had been copied? Not clear to me.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

     /  February 21, 2012

    imho, the science part of the matter was settled by the parties involved (the journal, the APL authors, the AM authors) through the normal, robust mechanisms operative in science in November/December 2011.

    So, what is being raked up now is a political “controversy” and a manufactured outrage.

    It is important for all science practitioners (incl. myself) to tell in one voice to the dumbo media: Stay off.

    Reply
  7. blorean

     /  February 21, 2012

    If it was the journal that informed the author, then its very likely that someone tipped off the journal. Its hard to imagine journals doing plagiarism detection on their own and after publication. On the other hand there are numerous instances ( as documented by blogs such as retractionwatch) where it was individuals that tipped off the journals concerned, which then followed up with their own investigation. Expect more fallout from this as other papers of the authors can end up being looked at with suspicion and investigated. Given the noise in the press I’d be surprised if it doesn’t.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 21, 2012

      Yes; and if more examples are found, and the same junior author is the lead author of all those papers, while there no problems in other papers of the senior authors, then I expect the junior author to be in trouble. I very much hope that is not the case, however, and this is an isolated incident. If so, I hope the guy has learned his lesson and his career won’t suffer. I also don’t really expect more examples to show up, because as Gautam pointed out, most journals have automatic plagiarism detectors these days. Abi observed a few months ago that the number of retractions of papers by Indian authors has fallen steeply since 2007, and he suspected that wide use of detection software at the pre-publication stage may be responsible.

      Reply
  8. “Shame On Indian Scientists” – full of corruption, inner-breeding, boss-flattering, and lack of transparency in job selection procedure. Indian professors are corrupted hypocrites, lazy morons, shameless flatterers.
    Except for a few places, it is very difficult to get a University or an Institute job in India even after a good number of years spent on Research in US or anywhere abroad (and with good publication record). First of all, your application will not be considered at all because of one or the other reason, or you will have to be prepared to pay something. Or else, you have to have powerful bastards behind you. This is the situation even in remote Universities in India. These are both my personal experience and the experience of my friends. When quality is compromised, no scope for improvement. Government doesn’t do anything as scientists do not form a large vote bank and people do not understand the true potential of scientists as great educators. Neither science improves nor our educational standards increase. It is a vicious circle. We neither can help ourselves, nor help others. Indians lack morality and ethics.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

     /  February 21, 2012

    this will keep happening if we do not impress the importance of the ethical issues on the students mind. And if a supervisor fails to address this issue then he/she should be ready for making apologies in future…

    Reply
  10. Anuj Menon

     /  February 21, 2012

    Wow, my thoughts on paper… i was arguing about the same stuff with friends of mine today… WHY make a fuss AFTER an apology has been publicly issued? Even before any fingers were pointed? Seems very arbitrary in nature…. and who’s the one with any issues? The journal certainly hasn’t any… and nobody’s redacting or forcing anyone to redact the paper. Very strange, to make a fuss now.

    On a more serious note, plagiarism is plagiarism. The degree of intellectualism behind the text copied or its contribution to your story, is not an excuse any self respecting author will make… it very much a career suicide in this field. But copying passages to make your introduction look prettier is a crime many authors are guilty of and they do get off easy, specially if English is not their first language… a passage of elegant text a foreign author reads somewhere becomes an enticing addition to your paper… maybe people justify it as being not more important than the results, which have mores scientific merit? But it’s still cheating… it’s also cheating if you copy a block of text and then cite the original paper where it appeared. Make your own paragraph dammit!

    The whole scenario, when seen in context has a definite political edge. I hope the PhD involved doesn’t suffer any unnecessary hardship for it. On the other hand if he/she does it again, there really is NO sympathy for them.

    Reply
  11. Arvind

     /  February 22, 2012

    Turnitin is widely used software to prevent plagiarism even for freshman writing assignments. This is a powerful tool and should be used more often prior to manuscript submission.

    Reply
  1. How to be a shameless hypocrite « E's flat, ah's flat too

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