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.

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24 Comments

  1. anonymous

     /  March 23, 2012

    Student has used the lab facilities, discussed with the Sharma’s group and has not acknowledged it in her M. Tech thesis. Is that true? Then this shows something wrong with the student’s part too! Why didn’t she acknowledge them in her thesis? Given the Prof. Ghatak’s words,“If a student does not need guidance from her own adviser, I have difficulty in believing that she needed it from another student in another laboratory,” It is hard to believe that the student would have done everything on her own(Prof. Ghatak says she does not need guidance from him but, that does not mean that she did not get the guidance/advise from other group or lab). Many student’s will get such advise from other groups or lab. It is not uncommon) It is possible that she would have utilized the Asthosh’s lab for her work. Given the student’s limited experimentals skills at M.Tech level to do this high tech experiments( I guess so), it is probable that she would have used Asthosh group’s help(atleast to some extent) to complete her M.Tech thesis. In that case, She should have acknowledged them in her thesis(I don’t know whether she has done it or not). If not, then who lift the idea/data from whom?

    What kind of misunderstanding happened between these people. It could have been handled in a better way by both parties. Another news for Media!

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  March 23, 2012

      Perhaps she should have acknowledged the Sharma lab, perhaps not. By her account (and Ghatak’s) the help she got from them was quite minimal, and by Sharma’s account their research owed nothing to this student and Sharma wasn’t even aware of the interaction. So I don’t see why the lack of acknowledgement matters. Discussing experimental techniques with a colleague is not “lifting idea/data” by any stretch of the imagination. If Sharma wants to make that accusation, he needs to back it up.

      Reply
    • @Anonymous: Just to clear things up (and this point doesn’t come through all that clearly in Mudur’s report): The student’s thesis does indeed have an “Acknowledgements” section wherein Prof. Ashutosh Sharma is thanked (along with her adviser, Prof. Animangsu Ghatak) for a bunch of things (I don’t have the document with me, since I am traveling). Some members of his group (including the first author) are also thanked for their help, innovative suggestions, etc. What Prof. Sharma seems to be asking for is a more specific set of “thank you” notes.

      Reply
      • anonymous

         /  March 25, 2012

        In that case, I have to withdraw my arguments based on the speculation that the student did not acknowledge them in her thesis. I don’t have any motivation to spoil the student’s name in this case. sorry. Hope they will sort it out this issue for better.

        Reply
  2. anonymous

     /  March 23, 2012

    If she has used their lab to do her experiments and has not given the acknowledgement
    it sounds bad. The idea itself, I think is not her’s. Patterning the superhydrophobic surfaces is not a new one and people used to mimic the lotus surface by PDMS kind of polymers and silica. Here in this paper, the authors focus was to create the super hydrophobic carbon surface(people also tried with carbon nanotube methods) mainly from simple Resorcinol-Formaldehyde(RF) polymeric gel which can be converted to carbon surface. As per Prof. Ghatak’s statement that the student has learnt this (probably, how to make RF gel) from Asthosh lab. What the paper plagiarized is few lines from the experimental section(this again I guess related to RF, I may be wrong) and two figures(which i believe the two Schemes(againi may be wrong! ) which would be the same and you can find such schemes plenty in the lithographic related works!

    The following statements in that paper and the references would suggest what is the focus of the paper,(the numbers in brackets are ref. numbers)

    “However, there are only few reports(13-23) on fabrication of carbon superhydrophobic surfaces although carbon superhydrophobic surfaces have potential applications in carbon based microfluidics(13,18) and bio-MEMS(22). Additionally, since carbon is electrically conductive and possesses high surface area,(15,24,25) the carbon superhydrophobic surfaces may be useful as electrode material in high-performance fuel cells, as capacitors, and in sensing devices(15,16,23),

    The following references they have quoted related to the plant surface architecture.

    Nosonovsky, M.; Bhushan, B. Biologically inspired surfaces: broadening the scope of roughness. Adv. Funct. Mater. 2008, 18, 843.
    (36) Feng, L.; Zhang, Y.; Xi, J.; Zhu, Y.; Wang, N.; Xia, F.; Jiang, L. Petal effect: a superhydrophobic state with high adhesive force. Langmuir 2008, 24, 4114.
    (37) Hsu, S.; Sigmund, W. M. Artificial hairy surfaces with a nearly perfect hydrophobic response. Langmuir 2010, 26, 1504.
    (38) Neinhuis,C.;Barthlott,W.Characterizationanddistributionof water-repellant, self-cleaning plant surfaces. Ann. Botany 1997, 79, 667. (39) Otten,A.;Herminghaus,S.Howplantskeepdry?Aphysicist’s point of view. Langmuir 2004, 20, 2405.

    So, the student, I can argue that (based on the assumption that she has not acknowledged Asthosh group -having done some substantial work in his lab related to RF) the student interacted with Asthosh’ group which was working on RF and may be collaborated partly with his group on some other related overlapping problems. The First author would have helped her to do some experiments and even helped her to write the experiments related to RF. Since it was an M.Tech thesis he would not have bothered to help finishing some experiments. When she completed her work, she did not give her thesis to that first author(probably, she was including some of his work is also thesis), rather she gave it to two other students to correct it! so, I can doubt in this way too.

    When the First author completed his whole work(which could take few more years) and published it, She goes to the news paper saying plagiarism. May or May not!. I am just playing the devil’s advocate!!

    I can understand if Ghatak claims that it is his idea and Asthosh group published it without acknowledging him. I doubt a bit the student’s claim(only on the basis that she did her work with that group but did not acknowledge them!) at this stage.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  March 23, 2012

      This is all speculation, and rather unconvincing. If someone “helped her write” he would not write the same verbatim sentences four years later. If he gave her written material from which she copied, he should say what it was (and, if possible, produce it — surely a copy exists since presumably he used the same material for the paper). Anyway, I doubt any student would fake a complaint of this kind, against a powerful scientist, in this country. Those who suggest conspiracy theories should provide evidence. Occam’s razor suggests she is telling the truth. Moreover, Abi brings out the contradictions in Sharma’s version very nicely. Why don’t you go and read it, and perhaps comment there? And why are you not using the same name (pseudonym) you used for your previous comments on my blog?

      Reply
  3. Most Indian Professors are insensitive to their students’ needs. They are hypocrite, greedy, characterless and corrupted. They should be self-critical instead of blaming students. They are shameless. They should realize that the same Indian (and chinese) students are highly appreciated and respected everywhere in the abroad. Overseas universities and institutes are more than happy to pick up Indian students. On contrast, in India, students do not get any respect, rather they are treated as slaves by Indian professors, bastards in disguise.
    They desperately search for helpless postdocs or PhD students to make their workhorses and to plunder ideas from. They are dirty in nature and seethe from jealousy out of every pore. They cannot do research themselves because they are narrow-minded, rigid-brained, and petty. Therefore, they have to recruit innocent students and then force them into submission. The smarter you are relative to them, the more they will hate you. If you complain, you will be threatened by their gang of goons – faculty and administration are all allied with them in order to achieve thier clan’s goal of world domination which has eluded them for the last century or so. The reward for taking up this Faustian bargain with them is good renumeration – but if you are honest and you start to complain or expose the secret of their incompetence to others, especially outsiders, then you will be let go. ALL credit for your work will go to professors and their gang of inbred dullards, not to students. They are ruthless gangsters who recruit innocent students to do thier work because they cannot do any of it themselves – due to severe brain rigidity brought about by centuries of inbreeding the traits of blind obedience, robotization, and general dullness. The techniques which they employ to keep these students productive is constant nagging, threats and psychological abuse, facilitated by the university’s administration. Eventually, the victims give up all credit for their research to Indian professors. Indian professors have no conscience since they are psychopath. They are entitled to steal all the credits because supremacy is their birthright. In this way, one day some of Indian professors become Mahatmas (fake) and force India to remain as one of the most corrupted, poor, and underdeveloped countries in the world. Shame on you, Indian Professors.

    Reply
  4. Dr.D.K.Samuel

     /  March 24, 2012

    Tiwariji, I am not like this, maybe I am a mutant, I also know many who are not like your description, But I value your comments and will take care not to become like the one you describe (the points you have raised are valid, and definitely I need to be careful that I dont slip), with regards Samuel, IIHR, Bangalore

    Reply
  5. anonymous

     /  March 24, 2012

    Tiwariji,
    “….rather they are treated as slaves by Indian professors, bastards in disguise”. I am sure you are not on the Professor’s side. If you have to use such a foul language in a forum, I am frightened to think the kind of language you would use with your respected colleagues/students.

    Reply
  6. @anonymous : Please do not waste your valuable time on judging me. Your holier-than-thou attitude is good for nothing. Rather please try to be a self-critical as much as you can. This must help to make India a developed nation. A very few Mahatmas like you can not do much for whole India unless all Indians are inspired enough to make India a corruption free, honest, developed and happy country. For this, we all together (each and every individual himself or herself) need to first see how much corruptions and hypocrasy are there in our own mind. I am not blaming you but I would like to know these from you – Are not you aware of the cases where Indian professors use foul language in a public place during lunch or dinner or drink time ? Are not you aware of the cases where Indian professors use foul langauge to their own students ? Are not you aware of the cases where students are taught to use foul language during ragging session in the universities or colleges? Please stop blaming others, and rather learn to see the true picture of the whole India and try to realize why India is considered as one of the most corrupted, poor, and under-developed countries in the world. Why ? Please note that I am not here to blame anybody. I am simply trying to share a few of my concerns regarding India’s pathetic conditions. And I shall be very happy if you can prove that my concerns were absolutely baseless. The things what I write here are not paranoid imagination but are totally based on the true facts and incidents.

    Reply
  7. anonymous

     /  March 24, 2012

    Tiwariji,
    Don’t lose hope in our system. Just because we are having so many criminals (You can verify it by going to any jail or courts) can you stamp every one in india is criminal? Just because some prostitution happened in some place the whole women community in that city can be stamped with that name? This kind of issues will come and go. Don’t be emotional to make sweeping remarks based on few incidents. Here in this case we are not sure who is right and who is wrong completely. Don’t pass judgements based on few media reports. If that is the case, the whole country does not need courts and judges. The newspapers can do that job. Infact, they are doing that already and are creating many wrong opinions by flashing some sensational news .

    Reply
    • @anonymous: Nourishing an empty hope does not help either. I hope, you have enough knowledge regarding the systems in well-developed countries. I am sure Rahul Siddharthan knows much about how the system works in India, even in a reputed research institute like IMSc. Professors are busy in gentleman’s fight (which includes email fight also) during meeting and discussions over many issues, for instance, from institute rules and regulations, to open faculty applications and to possible politics involved in bhatnagar and nobel awards. But how many of them genuinely think and help student to get a decent Ph.D. and a decent job in a decent period of time ? Most of them are stuck with their enormous ego which make them one of the most insensitive creatures on the earth. In India, even in a prestigious institute under a reputed adviser, a student struggles for years (sometime more than 10 years) to get a PhD degree or sometimes fails to get a degree (what a big waste of Indian talents !!!!!).
      On contrast, the same student get an amazing PhD degree from a reputed foriegn Lab within 3-4 years and get an amazing job. As an example, a Nobel Laureate from abroad takes the same Indian student as his student who finishes an wonderful PhD work there in abroad, whereas the same student was once forced to fail to continue his Ph.D. in India.
      This is an example of an extreme case. However, in India, similar kind of cases keeps on happening quite often. The Indian Government once tried to make a rule so that one can finish PhD within the 4/5 years of scheduled time. But still professors in India, being irresponsible and insensitive, are quite happy to break this rule for their own interest.
      On the other hand, in a well-developed country such incident is extremely rare becuase there the professors themselves feel responsible and obligation for such an inhuman incidence. This is not only a waste of talent but also a kind of slavery. This is considered as an unethical issue in a well-developed nation.
      I am surprised to see your understanding and sensitivity regarding some issues.
      Why are you mentioning to stamp women community here ? This is totally insensible to stamp woman community here. No woman is happy being a prostitute. It is the man community who is responsible here. It is man community’s uncontrollable greed which make a woman prostitute and I am sure that that kind of person will be very proud to stamp whole woman community in the world (forget about only in that city) as prostitute. Please do not commit another blunder when judging my understanding about media reports. Before commenting on something, I always keep sufficient true informations and proofs with me. I do have sufficient experiences regarding Indian system and media.

      Reply
      • Rahul Siddharthan

         /  March 24, 2012

        Tiwary – please do not generalise. The bad things you refer to are common in the west, and the good things you refer to are common in India. In this particular case, the student has received ample support from Indian scientists.

        Reply
  8. anonymous

     /  March 24, 2012

    Tiwariji,
    I don’t know what kind of statics you have to support this. will you be able to tell me how many students completing their Ph.D from India every year. How many of them are having this extreme complaints? Do you have any statistics to support? I can’t take your handweaving arguments just based on few reports and then stamp the professors generously as ‘bastards in disguise’. I am not condoning whatever wrong approach adopted by Professors towards their students. At the same time, I can not agree with your generalised statements. If you don’t have any solid statistics to support, I can take the view that you are writing more like an unfortunate victim and I feel sad for that. I have to stop here and no point in argue with you anymore, unless you come with facts.See in a family, every son/daughter will have disagreement with his/her parents at some point of time. That does not mean that all the parents hate their sons/daughters. In research also many times disagreement and arguments can arise between the guide and students (in 4-5 years time) and I don’t think that you will take everything as extreme cases..

    Reply
  9. kabir

     /  March 24, 2012

    A fair way to check correctness of claims in this case is to go through records. Would be interesting to know who was involved with the thesis in formal ways such as exam committee etc!

    Reply
  10. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  March 24, 2012

    All: note the clarification about acknowledgements, in the update to the main post (link to Abi’s update).

    Reply
    • Sorry, I should have seen your update before posting a comment about the “Acknowledgements” section (it appears upthread, immediately below your response to the first comment).

      Reply
      • Rahul Siddharthan

         /  March 25, 2012

        I assume you started typing before my update. No problem.

        Reply
    • anonymous

       /  March 25, 2012

      If the student already acknowledged them in her thesis then I don’t find any mistake on her part.

      Reply
  11. @anonymous : As I mentioned before, I am surprised seeing your sensitivity to realize and understand the depth of social problems. It is not you, it is me who was wasting time in order to implant some minimal sensitivity inside a stone like you. You know better how do you respect Indian PhD when you recruit them in jobs. Are not you among the people who are obssessed by a degree from abroad ? Are not you among the people who first send their sons or daughters to a foreign univesity (most of them even do not have the capability to struggle, survive, and obtain a PhD degree in the Indian system) ? I was not generalizing the things. I just used the schock-therapy to desolve a stone which
    is frozen due to severe brain rigidity brought about by centuries of inbreeding the traits of blind obedience, robotization, and general dullness. Dr.D.K.Samuel understood my points. And I did not waste my time to say him thanks, because I know a responsible person perform his/her duties without any awards or compliments. I am wasting so much of my time with you, because I know it is because of your insensitvity and lack of kindness India is now in such a pathetic condition. Do not misunderstand me. I am not blaming you. I am just describing a schoking and true fact associated to India. I am also not shocked when I see that you feel sad after seeing an unfortunate victim. You have given me a lots of proof about your kindness and senitivity. Please keep in your mind that your crocodile tears has no power to make India a developed nation as long as you do not open your heart and become a self-critical person.
    @ Rahul Siddharthan : My main goal was not to generalize the things.
    I just used the schock-therapy to desolve a stone which
    is frozen due to severe brain rigidity brought about by centuries of inbreeding the traits of blind obedience, robotization, and general dullness. Nevertheless, I beg to differ with your following understanding :
    “Tiwary – please do not generalise. The bad things you refer to are common in the west, and the good things you refer to are common in India. In this particular case, the student has received ample support from Indian scientists.”
    If this is true, then India will be one of the most developed nations (in particular, in science and technology) like west or japan or china, instead of being one of the most corrupted, poor and under-developed nations in the world. And please do not insult a student by giving your support, do not treat them as weak and helpless. Do not treat them as a beggar or patient. Do not treat them as a slave-clan in your lab. Do not misuse your power as a professor. Rather try to improve the whole Indian system so that all the Professors atleast know to respect students as human, appreciate their talent and honesty, and give them what they really deserve. These will make them strong, honest, fearless, confident, and will give them freedom to think something new and novel.

    Reply
  12. Ajit R. Jadhav

     /  March 25, 2012

    Rahul,

    I will not comment! …Ask me why!!

    Ajit
    [E&OE]

    Reply
  13. anonymous

     /  March 25, 2012

    Tiwariji, you wrote
    “You know better how do you respect Indian PhD when you recruit them in jobs. Are not you among the people who are obssessed by a degree from abroad ? Are not you among the people who first send their sons or daughters to a foreign univesity (most of them even do not have the capability to struggle, survive, and obtain a PhD degree in the Indian system) ?”
    Again you are wrong. You are not having any facts/statistics to support your generalized statement of “bastards in disguise”.
    Everyone gives due respect to a good Indian Ph.D. If you look at many institutes you will find most of the faculty(more than 80%) hired have done Ph.D in India. I have seen cases where Ph.D from Oxford did not get the job rather a Ph.D from a good indian university/institute has got the job on merit. So don’t trivialize the system by showing some bad examples. Please think about it.

    Reply
  14. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  March 25, 2012

    Tiwary, and all others arguing with him: Please stop it. Right now. Take it to your own blog. I do not want to have to impose comment moderation (or close comments altogether) because of a few people.

    In general, even if you choose to stay anonymous/pseudonymous, please do not write anything that you would not say to someone face to face.

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

     /  April 16, 2012

    @anonymous : Many professors incuding IISc director are reluctant to sign the petition against the arrest of Prof. Partha Sarathi Ray. Like you, they must be now busy to collect statistics of such an incident instead of doing something effective to improve the system. They must be busy in dirty politics just by calling this incident isolated and by passing their duties and responsibilites for India, which certainly helps India to remain as one of the most corrupted, poor and under-developed countries.

    Reply

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