Another plagiarism case, another student blamed — but “boot is on faculty foot”

G. S. Mudur has a story in The Telegraph, and Abi has a follow-up blogpost, about another case of big-gun plagiarism.  This time the faculty member involved is Ashutosh Sharma of IIT Kanpur, an Infosys Prize winner.

Briefly, it turns out that several sentences, and two figures, in this paper are highly similar to text and figures in an IIT-K student’s M.Tech. thesis.  That student (now a Ph.D. student at IISc Bangalore) is not an author and is not acknowledged anywhere in the paper.

Some time ago Mudur contacted me about this case, to which an anonymous mail had alerted him.  He also forwarded me Sharma’s belligerent response, saying this student had worked in his lab, taken notes from Sharma’s student (the first author of the paper, now a faculty member elsewhere), and used them in her thesis without permission.  I said that it is difficult to proceed unless the student speaks up.

It turns out that it was the student who first contacted both the first author and Sharma about this plagiarism, back in December 2011.  According to Mudur (and, based on Sharma’s email that he forwarded me, I can believe it) their initial reaction was to try and browbeat her into silence, by threatening plagiarism accusations against her.  Even now they are asking for an acknowledgement in her thesis to Sharma’s lab.  But they have no proof of these plagiarism accusations, and the student maintains that it was her own work.  Her advisor at IIT-K entirely believes her.  I see no reason not to, either.

Regardless of the truth, I find the response of Ashutosh Sharma utterly despicable.  Suppose he is telling the truth and this text and these figures, in the student’s thesis, did originate in his lab (a claim that does not seem very credible, from the accounts in Mudur’s article — but never mind, suppose he is right).  He should have tried to clear it up at that point — not quietly lift the material back into his paper without acknowledgement!  And, now that he has been caught at it, this attempt to blame and browbeat the student is truly disgusting behaviour.  And his insinuation that it was wrong of her to discuss things with his students reveals a lot about him.

The bright side is the support that the student has received from the faculty member whom she actually worked with at IIT-K — as well as from Abi, on her current campus.

Update 24/3/2012: Abi clarifies that Sharma and several members of his lab, including the first author of this paper, are in fact acknowledged in the student’s thesis. That makes Sharma’s reaction even harder to understand. If you haven’t already, go read Abi’s posts (both of them) and Mudur’s article: they go into much more detail than I do.

More thoughts on the plagiarised Rao papers

The Hindu has a news item, and an article by me, about the instances of plagiarism from CNR Rao’s group and, in particular, the instances of plagiarism that were newly reported by an anonymous commenter in a previous post on this blog. Two earlier posts from me (made before I knew the extent of plagiarism) here and here.

My piece is as I wrote it (I believe) but the headline is theirs and is, I think, a little misleading. [EDIT: Or maybe not. Depends how you read it.] There is indeed “no science in cut-and-paste” but I am not alleging that the science itself was plagiarised. I am alleging a failure to cite (or adequately cite) highly relevant prior research. This has happened on at least three occasions: the Advanced Materials paper that first hit the news; the Applied Physics Express paper that I discuss in The Hindu; and the Journal of Luminiscence paper that Prasad writes about. The auhors certainly knew about that research because they plagiarised from it.

While the headline is a bit misleading, the blurb (subheading?) couldn’t have been better chosen. A mechanism to deal with such things is the biggest need today. Some years ago a scientist was found to have published papers with manipulated figures (Western blots), and a committee of top Indian biologists exonerated him because, among other things, they said these were “only control data”. (They also denied that the blots were copies of previously published and unrelated blots, though it was blatantly obvious.) This case is, even with what we know now, milder (nobody has alleged fakery), so I don’t expect that there will be any sort of investigation.

Erratum 9/3/2012: Erratum. I should not have claimed, in my article that the authors of the Applied Physics Letters paper do not cite the paper by Matheu et al. They do, but (again) inadequately in my opinion. This was a mistake on my part.

In the case of the paper plagiarised from Istkos et al, published in J.Luminiscence and reported in Prasad’s article above, they do entirely fail to cite that paper.

UPDATE 10/3/12: There are now well over 60 comments on The Hindu’s site, very few of which are critical of what I say. I think only one criticism (so far) is worth responding to: that I target only CNR Rao in this piece without looking at the larger picture.

Indeed, when I thought of writing the piece I intended to place the issue more generally (hence the various references to that workshop). But as I read the paper in Advanced Physics Express and the original by Matheu et al, it became clear to me that (a) this was a much more egregious case than the Advanced Materials example — much more extensive similarity, and much less chance of Rao’s blaming a co-author; (b) saying all I wanted to say, I was rapidly hitting the length limit and could not really do justice to other cases. Still, maybe I should have waited a day and re-read it (as I usually do) and reconsidered this question. That way I may also have avoided the error mentioned above.

Many readers of this blog know, of course, that I have previously criticised other scientists, much more strongly — including the presidents of the academies and another former director of IISc. But those criticisms were on this blog and in Current Science, not in the mass media (and also, those scientists were much less well known to the general public.) It is interesting to note that one of these cases also involved plagiarism (among many other problems) — not in a scholarly paper but in a report written by the academies and commissioned by a Union Minister; the presidents of the two major science academies were both from IISc; and their response was no better than Rao’s (INSA’s internal response was frankly appalling, while IASc seemed to decide that this problem was INSA’s baby, even though their president too had signed). My views, with a colleague, were published here. There’s more in my blog archives.