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.