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Credit where credit is due

A top scientist now finds his reputation battered by plagiarism charges,but such ethical breaches mar much of India’s scientific research

Written by Saritha Rai |
March 5, 2012 3:59:38 am

A top scientist now finds his reputation battered by plagiarism charges,but such ethical breaches mar much of India’s scientific research

A celebrity Indian scientist’s reputation has been felled by a clumsy cut-and-paste job in a research paper published in an international journal. The scientist,none other than Prof. C.N.R. Rao who heads the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India,supplied a written apology to the publication and then attempted to explain away the embarrassment by blaming it on the carelessness of one of his co-authors,a student.

Prof. Rao,another scientist S.B. Krupanidhi and two students published a research paper on the subject of infrared photo detectors in Applied Materials last year. But the editors of that publication were alerted by a team of Indian and Chinese scientists to their earlier work in Applied Physics Letters,from which several introductory sentences had been lifted verbatim by Prof. Rao and co-authors.

A scientific paper explains the intent of conducting a particular original experiment,its method and the meaning of results. It serves to inform others in the fraternity of some specific advancement and its implications. Needless to say,the research as well as the writing is required to be original,and any borrowing mandates a citation (or credit) to the author.

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In science circles in India,Chintamani Nagesha Ramachandra Rao,77,has been something of a star. He has a Ph.D from Purdue University,taught at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and went on to become the director of the premier Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Prof. Rao,currently the honorary president of another important institution,the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research,is considered a leading light globally in materials science and solid state chemistry. Therefore,the incident has come as a shock to the fraternity. Since then,anonymous whistleblowers have uncovered other cases of plagiarism involving Prof. Rao’s earlier research publications.

The word “prolific” may be an understated way of describing Prof. Rao’s publishing record. He has authored or co-authored 1,500 scientific papers in international publications. Further,he is the author or editor of over 40 scientific books.

In the five decades of Prof. Rao’s research career,the abundance of his authorship averages out to 30 papers and a book for each year. The question is,even leaving aside the books,could Prof. Rao have written papers year after year,at the rate of two publications per month? Most scientists could not even average a thorough read of two scientific papers each month,let alone writing at that speed.

The C.N.R. Rao episode puts the spotlight on scientific misconduct in India,particularly involving research publications and books. As research and development accelerate in a variety of fields in India,plagiarism is on the rise,says Prof. K.L. Chopra,who heads the Society for Scientific Values,an independent New Delhi-based watchdog which works towards upholding ethics in Indian science. Since the case involving Prof. Rao became public,there has been a spurt of complaints of plagiarism to the society,said Prof. Chopra,a former director of IIT Kharagpur.

Seven fresh cases have been reported to the Society in the last 10 days and most of the cases involve prominent Indian scientists. Prof. Chopra,who says the Society offers a service to the public,is bollixed and challenged by the gush of recent complaints. The Society’s findings only serve to bring moral pressure on the culprits and have no legal bearing but that has not deterred complainants.

Plagiarism is easily detected by software but many other ethical aberrations and frauds in Indian science are more challenging to unravel,says Prof. Chopra. In research publications,scientists frequently appropriate the entire credit for their students’ and subordinates’ research work. Many scientists publish dozens of papers every year,and often juniors are forced to or voluntarily pre-fix their boss’s name to the publications to curry favour. Many research papers contain fabricated findings and falsified data. Self-plagiarism,where the same research is re-cycled as original material to different publications,is increasing too.

In India,where government institutions and laboratories account for the bulk of the R&D,the pressure to produce “research output” has increased. There is a rush to publish,and papers in international journals are often equated to performance,and linked to promotions and pay raises. Plagiarism is rampant at universities,Prof. Chopra says. In the private sector,plagiarism is trending in newer fields like biosciences and pharmacy.

In 2007,plagiarism knocked out illustrious scientist Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar as head of a government committee when it was discovered that a book he co-authored contained plagiarised material. Post the Applied Materials incident,Prof. Rao took refuge in the explanation that the plagiarism in his paper involved non-technical material and did not take away from the intellectual substance of the research. Coming from a scientist idol,that sounds like an irrational excuse.

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