Sunday, April 29, 2012

Public Discussions of Problematic Publications

Oh! Indian Intellectualism is the blog of GnaanaMaargi (GM) who appears to be an academic at an Indian institution. Please go and say hi to him (or is it her? I don't know; I'll go with 'he' until I'm corrected).

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In his second post, GM urges Indian academics to boldly enter the public sphere: "speak up and speak out, in public". But he follows it up by taking a curious turn in his latest post in which he seems to argue that there was something illegitimate about the recent newspaper revelations of problematic publications from high profile scientists -- specifically, Prof. C.N.R. Rao and Prof. Ashutosh Sharma.

Here's what I think is the main reason for his complaint:

Going to the media if one does not get due justice in the appropriate scientific fora may be understandable, but doing so otherwise is simply not appropriate. And, it does a dis-service not just to the accused but to the entire scientific community, whose image is tarnished.

This concern for procedural correctness is misplaced. Consider the Rao case. After being alerted about the problems in his paper, Prof. Rao even offered to retract the paper, but eventually settled the issue by publishing an apology. The news stories appeared over two months later (without interfering with GM's preferred sequence), primarily because of who he is. Or, take the Sharma case; in what I consider a very brave act, The Student confronted Prof. Sharma about the problems in his paper. The news story (which appeared over 100 days after The Student's first e-mail) has this to say about Sharma's response:

[The Student] ... noticed the similarities in December 2011 and sent an email query to the paper’s first author ... and senior author Ashutosh Sharma ...

... scientists say that emails exchanged between the student and the IIT faculty members suggest that the faculty members tried to badger her into silence in December 2011 and offered to issue an erratum only after an anonymous email raked up the issue earlier this month.

In other words, The Student did all she could, before backing off (or, was forced to back off). The situation stayed there until "an anonymous email raked up the issue" last month; it was only the (threat of) news coverage that eventually forced Sharma into doing the right thing [see Footnote 2, below]. If this is not an argument for public discussions of problematic papers, I don't know what is.

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Another reason for GM's disgust with the news stories appears to be his concern about the cost to personal reputations of the scientists concerned. Here's how he frames the issue about CNR's apology:

Whoever ... took that resolution of an independent scientific journal to the media had very little business doing so -- it seems like an obvious case of vendetta or one-up-man-ship.

Leaving aside GM's evidence-free speculation about the whistleblower's motives, he is still barking up the wrong tree here: the primary cause of the scientists's PR problems is not the whistlblowing, but their own prior acts of omission and commission. More importantly, this sort of personality-oriented analysis obscures the real issue, which is this: "When shit happens, how does one deal with it?" [see Footnote 3] In other words, among the many ways of reacting to adverse news, which one did these top scientists choose? (And, is that newsworthy?)

Consider just for a minute a what-if scenario in which Prof. Rao, on being alerted about the plagiarism in his Advanced Materials paper (sometime in late 2011), took the help of someone to investigate and identify the source of the problem. This step might have made him aware of other papers that were similarly tainted (instead of seeing them revealed in blog comments), and allowed him to take corrective steps on all the problematic papers -- well before presspersons started mobbing him in February of 2012. In this scenario, there might still have been some news stories, but they would have sounded a lot more positive than they did -- some might even have praised him for his actions.

In real life, though, that's not how Prof. Rao responded [see Footnote 1] -- and that made the story even more newsworthy.

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In his focus on procedural correctness, reputational consequences, or whistleblowers' motives, GM misses what I think is the most important question: have the news stories been good for science? The answer is, "Yes, absolutely." Consider:

  1. The news stories allowed a discussion of students' writing skills as a source of weakness in the chain that connects an interesting research question to the eventual publication of its answer. This could lead to creating and implementing remedial measures at our academic institutions.

  2. A lot of people (including scientists) now have an enhanced awareness about ethics in science. The news stories, and the subsequent discussions in blogs, offer some guidance on how (not) to deal with problematic papers especially when the problems are not of one's own making, as well as on how to avoid them in the first place.

  3. Only the possibility of newspaper coverage spurred Prof. Sharma into thinking about issuing an erratum [see Footnote 2].

IMHO, these are all good, positive things.

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Footnote 1: Prof. Rao's initial response included disowning his coauthors after underplaying the problem by saying, "This should not be really considered as plagiarism, but an instance of copying of a few sentences in the text." [By the way, does this gel with other reports that said he offered to withdraw the paper?] When problems in a few other papers came to light, his response was revealing: "... I don’t know who is trying to do this damage to me."

Footnote 2: Rahul has the most apt comment:

Somehow [the news of Prof. Sharma issuing an erratum] reminds me of Churchill’s comment about Americans, that they “can always be counted on to do the right thing, after exhausting all other possibilities.”

Footnote 3: This is a variation of a formulation was articulated by Prof. N. Raghuram at the Workshop on Academic Ethics last July:

That research misconduct happens (every once in a while) should not be shocking. What is truly shocking is the lack of a coherent, fair response to the discovery of misconduct [perhaps not his exact words; I'm quoting from memory].


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    This person seems to have an axe to grind against the media -- this is explicit in the first and third of the three blogposts, and implicit in the second. There are a few good points, but not terribly convincing to me. It would be more interesting if we knew the real name. I don't object to anonymous blogging in general, but isn't there a cognitive dissonance in urging Indian scientists to be more vocal in various things ("occupy the public intellectual space") while choosing to hide oneself in pseudonymity?

  2. gaddeswarup said...

    Keeping with in the family seem to be a bit like caste laws. I wonder whether that is possible when the number of people in the profession is large coming from different backgrounds, security money and power are involved and no clear cut formats being followed. Possibly efforts bu Rahul and others to formulate and popularize some norms would help. It seems to me that people who go public often have trouble later in the profession in most countries and probably do only as a sort of last resort strategy. I am out of professional life now and am just wondering aloud.