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.

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22 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  February 21, 2012

    What happened to the paid media report by the Press Council? Nothing.
    CAG’s report on the media houses in the CWG scam is damning. Did any media report it? No.

    However, we in science, are grown up and act as grown ups.

    HT is an arrow. The bow is elsewhere, I think. I have doubts about the intended target too. This issue comes too close to the Madhavan Nair news that appears to be more than a mere coincidence.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 21, 2012

      I disagree with the “grown ups” part: we in science aren’t always above reproach. My position is that, on this occasion, the senior scientists acted correctly, as far as we know.

      Someone else also suggested to me, on e-mail yesterday, that it could be payback for CNR’s outspokenness on Madhavan Nair. I was skeptical, but after reading this appalling editorial, I’m beginning to wonder.

      Reply
      • Anonymous

         /  February 21, 2012

        dear rahul,
        There are many dots; just connect them. I am just a reader of tweets & a few blogs. The activities and relationships of many of these arrows and the bow(s) are well documented.

        Leaving CT aside, the puritanical question we should ask is: Since the matter has been addressed according to the norms (lofty) prevalent in science, what is HT’s stake in it? Why did it manufacture this outrage? Would the lay public even understand anything beyond the headline? So, that appears to be the purpose. Hit and run. Besmirch. The individual. The institutions associated. Why?

        P.S.: We are grown ups, relatively speaking.

        Regards,
        ………

        Reply
  2. Anonymous

     /  February 21, 2012

    Rahul,
    Check out this from the Allahabad High Court on a HT item:

    http://www.answeringlaw.com/php/displayContent.php?linkId=1416

    It is relevant to your article

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 22, 2012

      I’m not sure how it is relevant, unless you’re saying CNR has a case for defamation.

      Reply
  3. Dear Rahul,

    Good analysis. I kinda-sorta buy the “payback” theory, but I don’t necessary believe that men who are in the business of launching rockets, would hide behind others while launching tirades. Indian media has a penchant for the hyperbole, that is how they are taught journalism in second rate colleges nowadays. Ignore them!

    However, I did miss one particular suggestion from you when you discussed the various ways of dealing with plagiarism. How about the age old maxim of not putting your name on anything that didn’t exactly originate in your “super”-cranium?!…Works like a charm, after all, if you didn’t write it, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever — that you plagiarized it.

    Peace!

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 22, 2012

      I don’t think there is any doubt CNR was involved in this paper and deserved to be an author.

      There is an issue here — there are debates on what sort of contribution deserves authorship, whether it is better to publish many minor papers or a few authoritative papers, and so on — and CNR openly falls on one side of such debates. But though people may disagree with his point of view, I don’t know that anyone has called him unethical in this respect. As I said in the earlier post, from what I have heard (I have never worked with him), he reads every word of every paper with his name on it, and he has some contribution to it. And he has enough heavyweight papers of his own to be respected no matter how you feel about his prolific publication.

      Reply
      • “I don’t think there is any doubt CNR was involved in this paper and deserved to be an author.”

        Rahul, you should read what CNR said about the paper on Prof. Abi’s blog…

        “He said the paper was written by Prof Krupanidhi and he did not go through it and had no control on the issue. “I did not directly produce the manuscript which I normally do… The paper seemed perfectly alright except that later we found that in the introduction and in the description of an equation, a few sentences had been taken from a paper published already,” he added.”

        My friend, you should learn to doubt, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust, but verify”. But of course, you can be less suspicious in your “hora” of “cubitus” — it always results in a good night’s sleep.

        Peace!

        Reply
        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  February 23, 2012

          Indeed, CNR has made me rethink the whole thing. I have updated my post.

          Reply
  4. Plagiarism Dept

     /  February 22, 2012

    The professors escaped blaming poor student, see the news in Deccan Herald!

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 22, 2012

      I see no reason to doubt it. See Abi’s post yesterday, his mention of Rohini Muthuswami’s talk in particular.

      I wrote the following to a journalist, and will reproduce it here:

      We do have a serious issue with our educational system: students are
      trained from an early age to repeat answers from memory in
      examinations, not to use their own words, and definitely not to use
      original ideas and thoughts. I was told to recite Newton’s laws in
      the same language as the textbook, without altering a single word: the
      question of whether I understood those laws was secondary. It is
      therefore a challenge for students who have been trained in this way
      until their 20s to suddenly express their original research in their
      own words. Moreover, many students simply don’t appreciate that it is
      wrong to reproduce text from other sources without acknowledgement.
      Therefore, scientists need to educate their students on these matters,
      and other issues of research ethics. I think, at our more prestigious
      scientific institutions, such incidents are rare and therefore there
      is sufficient awareness of these matters.

      Reply
      • Two points:

        1. The problem of plagiarism is there throughout Indian academia; it is not particular to the natural sciences.

        2. In addition to poor training and language skills, I think that another problem is that our filtering mechanism for incoming PhD students is not good. The problem of plagiarism can be reduced, if not eliminated, if we can ensure that only motivated students go on to pursue doctoral studies. I don’t think that a truly motivated scholar will resort to plagiarism.

        Of course, no mechanism can be perfect but ours seem truly weak. We rely on things like the UGC conducted NET. It is my opinion that a completely random selection will do better than NET; it is that bad.

        Not surprisingly, only a few Indian institutions — which for the most part, have their own independent filtering mechanisms — maintain their standards and turn out good PhD students.

        Reply
      • suresh

         /  February 23, 2012

        I see no reason to doubt it.

        This might be true but what Professor Krupanidhi said still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For one, once you put your name to a paper, you are as responsible for its contents as any other author. Secondly, the student is hardly in a position to defend himself in public even if he were innocent. (I am not saying he is innocent.)

        You can disagree, but in my opinion, the right thing for Professor Krupanidhi (and all authors) to have done was to apologize and leave it at that. If the student needed to be reprimanded, that should have been done in private.

        Reply
        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  February 23, 2012

          I agree with you. But, compared to some other such cases, they are trying to protect the student, though rather ham-handedly. They are trying to take the tack that it is not plagiarism, but nobody will be convinced by that. They should have prepared a press statement and redirected further questions to the journal.

          Reply
          • suresh

             /  February 23, 2012

            Rahul, check out Abi’s latest post. I can’t tell you how disheartened I felt reading it. I don’t know whether Chitara is guilty of plagiarism or not, but even if he were, I would not wish what he is being subjected to on my worst enemy.

          • Rahul Siddharthan

             /  February 23, 2012

            Suresh: Indeed. Post updated.

  5. blorean

     /  February 22, 2012

    Gathering from Advanced Materials and The Hindu ( “IISc plagiarism row hots up”),

    22 Jul 2011 paper published in online edition
    28 Jul 2011 journal contacts author about the plagiarism
    1 Dec 2011 paper published in print edition

    Is it the followed practice at that journal to check the manuscript AFTER publication online ? (many sources mention software as the means through which this was found out). The same check during the editorial/refereeing process would have been much better for all the parties concerned. I wonder if anyone has taken this up with the journal.

    One possible explanation for the sequence of events is that the journal was not the one that detected the plagiarism first, but followed up on information provided by someone from outside. The fact that it was very shortly after online publication that the matter was (discovered and) communicated to the author suggests that its someone outside the journal. Unless the journal has a policy to check AFTER online publication, its hard to see why it should not have detected the same earlier and informed the authors.

    Given that the authors knew in advance that an apology would be published, wouldn’t it have been better if they had called a press conference/issued a press release immediately, rather than leaving it to the media (and behind-the-scenes entities) to find out and interpret according to their abilities/biases. An exhaustive clarification in the form of an immediate press conference and release would not have left any room for interpretation/distortion. On the contrary they are, post-facto, using euphemisms ( “overlap by oversight”) which will show them in worse light.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 22, 2012

      It could be anyone in the field who spotted the duplicated text: eg, one of the authors of the original; someone who had just read the other paper before reading this one; etc. If I spotted something like that I would inform the editors. There need not be any conspiracy theory here. I don’t think it called for a press conference, either.

      I would like someone in the field, however, to read both papers and say whether the authors were right to give a single insignificant reference to the Ghosh paper, or should they have discussed it in more detail; and to what extent is their own work novel, and not just a verification of Ghosh et al’s and others’ previous results. See this comment on my previous post, and replies to it (particularly the one from bhas).

      Reply
  6. rajkamal

     /  February 24, 2012

    last i heard, aroon purie, rajesh roshan and ra mashelkar were all merrily plying their respective trades. in india, powerful people are god

    Reply
  7. Hard working experimentalist ;)

     /  March 13, 2012

    Plagiarism asides, the equally bigger problem is with the system of honorary authorship. In most case the honorary authors had nothing to contribute to the paper it self. The infamous Schon Bell lab scandal has none other than Bertram Batlogg as an co-author in several of the retracted papers. I still remember the “precious” response from Batlogg when the issue came out “Can you blame the passengers in a car if the driver hits someone” (or something in that line).
    It would be an insult to everyones intelligence if CNR expects them to believe that he is actively involved in the 30+ publication he churns out every year and the one in question (Adv. Mater) just merely slipped his thorough scrutiny.
    I remember my first post doctoral stint where I was given 20% time to pursue my own research. Incidentally I had included my post doc advisor name in a publication that came out of that work. He stopped by my office and politely asked me to have his name removed since he had nothing to do with the work.

    PS: As someone who read both the papers and who is actually working in similar field I am rather surprised that AM has not retracted the paper. A quick glance at the editorial board can offer some explanation :). It is not just the few lines of introduction the entire AM paper is based on the APL paper plus some new measurement. The insignificant reference to Ghosh’s APL paper is willful and done so to keep the reviewers from knowing that the work presented is not something novel. That being said CNR fault might be lending his name to a work that he had absolutely no contributions whatsoever. (But again I am guessing this is not the only one of the 1000+)

    Reply
  8. Bindu Kapoor

     /  November 20, 2013

    The Hindustan Times sacked their editor the day plagiarism was reported. V.N. Narayanan was never seen or heard again. But our scientists continued to be hallowed persons.

    Reply
  1. How to correctly handle a plagiarism situation « E's flat, ah's flat too

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