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 I should not have claimed, in my article that the authors of the Applied Physics Letters paper do not cite the paper by Matheu et al.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.

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  1. While much of the early discussion in the media (including Nature) focused on students and their (in)ability to write, your article does two important things: (a) it tips the balance back to the role and responsibilities of the senior authors, and (b) it goes beyond the issues of plagiarism and enters the grey zone where papers by “et al and Rao” appear to have a strong technical overlap with those that they have plagiarized from. Thanks for writing this piece, Rahul.

  2. Nicely done, Rahul. It was a well-written and balanced piece.

  3. Anonymous

     /  March 9, 2012

    Forget about the title, your article is very relevant and timely!

  4. Anonymous

     /  March 9, 2012

    Hi, Did you notice another case of sentences borrowed verbatim in the article by Chitara et al 2011?

    “Current lithographic techniques cannot deliver such performance. Furthermore, problems with ribbon width reproducibility, edge roughness control, and production scale limit the usability of the existing techniques in technology.”

    These sentences are from Nano Lett., 2010, 10 (11), pp 4285–4294, DOI:10.1021/nl102824h by Avouris.

    This is certainly of concern. Whether this is an accidental case of words being the same or a case of plagiarism needs to be investigated.

  5. Read with interest your story in Hindu.
    I can not imagine that Prof. Rao intentionally do this or ask the student to do this. But if this type of errors are getting repeated, I am not sure what to say.

  6. blorean

     /  March 10, 2012

    How about having a open online forum for academic ethics pertaining to India ? A digital rooftop, so to speak, for people to discuss such issues while at the same time also to keep the discussions in public record. Sure, as seen here, it would also open the gates for wild accusations and so on. But the benefits of systematic discussion/revelation might outweigh the drawbacks of wild accusations etc. because an online platform which is widely known can even serve as a deterrent and also bring other kinds of problems in colleges/universities/research institutes to the fore.

    Given the limitations (space/expertise/access to scientific literature) of print/online news media/word of mouth/individual blogs ( this blog is a notable exception though !), with the online forum interested people could discuss and address important issues. It could be done with anonymity if they choose so – as long as evidence/reasoning is involved thats all that should matter. Constructive criticism/debate is at the heart of science and so it is only appropriate that an open forum do the same vis-a-vis academic ethics. Discussions on this blog have shed much light. Why not have a scaled up version of the same ?

  7. Agent Graphene

     /  March 10, 2012

    Never realized that slander was the a good form to disseminate some important science. i see all the arm-chair theorists picking up some experimental knowledge in the process and are talking about thin-films, devices, graphene ……!
    Incidentally, I have heard of reports based on calculations and wild speculations that graphene is a superconductor (with Tc > 1000 K !!) from the blogger’s institute. I am sure that content will definitely not be plagiarized..

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  March 10, 2012

      You realise, of course, that you discredit only yourself with such comments. Which is why you don’t use your real name, or a reference to the paper about 1000K superconductivity.

      (Your IP address reveals your institute, but I won’t.)

    • Roba

       /  March 11, 2012

      I disagree with Agent Graphene. If someone does some calculations and find out the possibility of using graphene for high temp. superconductivity what is wrong with that? To judge the importance of a work there are mechanisms already in place that will take care of it. Here, the crux of the matter is how to circumvent the plagiarism mistakes(i use ‘mistake’ when it is not intentional) which surfaces on and off in the academics. Do not obfuscate the real issues by attaching motivation to some other’s research work. The journals/publishers/and the reviewers are there to decide the quality of a work to be considered for publication or not.

  8. gaddeswarup

     /  March 10, 2012

    Itmay not be bad idea to coach new people on the intricacies and proprities of publishing, It may also help to bring about credit when it is due. There is this story of C.R. Rao(
    “In an ET Interview (p. 346) Rao shares some reminiscences about getting his name attached to the result, which may reflect more generally on the practice of EPONYMY. When Rao objected to Berkson’s use of Blackwellization Berkson replied that Raoization by itself “does not sound nice.” The other memory was of an exchange with D. V. Lindley who had attributed the result to Blackwell. When Rao wrote to Lindley pointing out his priority, Lindley replied, “Yes, I read your paper. Although the result was in your paper, you did not realize its importance because you did not mention it in the introduction to your paper.” Rao replied, saying that it was his first full-length paper and that he did not know that the introduction is written for the benefit of those who read only the introduction and do not go through the paper!”
    Sometimes seniors seem to be ignorant of the formalities. I remember an instance when the senior after reproducing some passages said that the reason was he did not want to waste his time when good expositions were available. The only problem was whether by intent or otherwise, the sources were not acknowledged.

  9. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  March 10, 2012

    anonymous 2, march 9 above: thanks for the information. A verbatim sentence of that length cannot be accidental. I suspect if there is a proper investigation, this will not be the end of the story.

    blorean: It is a good idea, and I encourage someone else to take it up :) (Actually, Abi’s blog already performs this role de facto, in my opinion.)

    Swarup: Yes, appropriate assignment of credit is important and in fact seems relevant here. I did not know this about C R Rao, though I did wonder why joint credit is assigned though Rao published two papers earlier (but there are many examples of this and I probably assumed Blackwell had extended them in some way).

    It can work both ways, as my undergraduate stat mech teacher pointed out, “Bose-Einstein Condensation” is a misnomer: Bose’s paper was about photons, which do not condense, and it was Einstein alone who generalised it to massive bosons and predicted the condensation. Since my teacher said this, however, BEC has been experimentally observed and the usage of that term has exploded: there’s now no chance of rolling it back.

    Similarly, what we call Bayes’ Theorem is in fact due to Laplace. Bayes had a limited version (equivalent to assuming uniform prior probabilities). And two and a half of the 4 Maxwell equations were well-known previously (due to Coulomb, Faraday and Ampere). Maxwell added a new term to one equation (Ampere’s law) and added an equation essentially stating that magnetic monopoles do not exist.This had the effect of unifying the four in a nice, symmetrical way and predicting entirely new phenomena (EM waves), so we now name all the equations after him…

    • Anonymous

       /  March 11, 2012

      Rahul, I agree that the verbatim sentence reproduction may not be accidental. I guess this is another case of forgetting to modify a sentence after a copy paste (acknowledged by the first author as mentioned in the Nature News article by K. S. Jayaraman on this matter). It is worrisome that this paper is not even cited by the authors and not mentioned in the official apology.

      A number of questions come to my mind after this:

      1) If I am a coauthor, should I be checking for evidences of text repetition for all of my papers? Are there softwares which can do this? I have seen papers tagged by arXiv admins ( for text overlaps, a simple google search for “arxiv substantial text overlaps” will show some cases.

      2) Do advisors have the responsibility to do these checks? I do not think my former advisor did such checks and I am not aware of advisors doing this.

      3) The copy-paste-modify culture has certainly to be stopped even if this is in the introductory/literature review portion, especially if it is from some one else’s paper. I have seen many authors repeating introductory texts in their own papers (self-plagiarism). Is this acceptable, in particular if the main idea of the paper is fairly different? This also happens many times for proceedings.

      4) Finally, can the reviewer be alerted about such cases? In case softwares to check for plagiarism are fairly expensive, the journals may be willing to do this. I wonder what percentage of text overlap is required before the software is able to flag a paper.

  10. I have not read most of the material published on this topic, but my very first thought echoed that of the anonymous commenter above: when it comes to “linguistic plagiarism”, one has to rely on the scientific integrity of the student/collaborator who wrote it (after appropriate training). I do not think that advisorial responsibilities extend to micro-checking and verifying every single aspect of the work. To be honest, my preference is for PhD students to be given as much responsibility as they can handle. After appropriate training is given, I think lab heads or senior authors (or other collaborators) can institute a certain level of verification for each paper to protect against instances of intentional malpractice (or even honest error),but eventually some “errors” will escape the lab’s internal monitoring system and be picked up by the general readers (as for the case of genuine scientific mistakes).


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