The physics of plagiarism

Print edition : November 08, 2002

The Vice-Chancellor of Kumaun University and a research group led by him stand accused of having indulged in various forms of misconduct in research, including plagiarism.

THIS case of scientific misconduct may not impact on international science as dramatically as the recent instances in the United States of the super-heavy element at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory or the molecular transistor at Bell Labs or India's own gigantic fossil fraud at Punjab University. But, from the perspective of Indian science, it is pretty much serious .

A research group in high-energy physics at Kumaun University, Nainital, headed by the university's Vice-Chancellor, B.S. Rajput, has been accused of having indulged in various forms of misconduct in research, including plagiarism, for several years, the high point of which seems to have been reached in March. A paper by Rajput and his student Suresh Chandra Joshi, published in the journal Europhysics Letters (Vol. 57, p. 639, 2002) has been found to be a total plagiarisation including the language used of a paper published six years ago in Physics Review D (Vol. 54, p. 4,709, 1996) by a well known physicist from Stanford University, Renata Kallosh. Made public in June (see box) by the head of Kumaun University's Physics Department, Kavita Pandey, an astrophysicist, it has led to the discovery of a series of plagiarised works by Rajput and his collaborators over the years.

Apparently, Kallosh had got wind of it in May itself when some research scholars of the university had alerted her.

The revelations of plagiarism have provided fresh ammunition to an ongoing student agitation against the Vice-Chancellor over a host of allegations and charges that include financial irregularities and nepotism. According to local media reports, his proximity to the Sangh Parivar was instrumental in ensuring an extension of his second term in 1999.

Rajput is the author of over 300 papers and claims to have guided over 30 Ph.D. students. Earlier instances reveal plagiarism in part or cut and paste jobs on more than one research paper of others or other kinds of research misconduct, but those had gone undetected mainly because Rajput and company got them published in lesser known journals. For example, as Pandey points out, a paper published originally in 1990 (titled `Supersymmetry at Finite Temperature') was published twice again years later (under the titles `Supersymmetry Breaking at Finite Temperature' and `Supersymmetry Restoration at Finite Temperature'). But this time around, the act is most blatant. Rajput and Joshi seem to have gone the whole hog and copied a paper in toto. However, subsequent to the expose, Rajput has suspended Pandey "for several very serious charges". Dismissing the charges made in the suspension order as frivolous, Pandey says: "From the timing of the suspension there can be no other reason but retaliation for exposing him and his group."

Besides, physicists from various institutes have written separately to all the authorities concerned, including the Chancellor of Kumaun University and Uttaranchal Governor, S.S. Barnala, Minister for Human Resource Development, Murli Manohar Joshi (who incidentally hails from Uttaranchal), University Grants Commission Chairman (UGC) Arun Nigavekar (who is a physicist) and the presidents of the three scientific academies. "It is a source of shame for the Indian scientific community that a senior member amidst us has plagiarised consistently, and has used his influence to suspend the person who has exposed him. After all this, he continues to hold the distinguished position of Vice-Chancellor of a University. We urge you to take the strongest possible action against Prof. Rajput and immediately investigate the suspension order against Prof. Pandey," says the letter from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Most significantly, seven professors of physics from Stanford University, including Kallosh and three physics Nobel laureates, have written on October 17 to President A.P. J. Abdul Kalam, the Minister, the Governor of Uttaranchal and the presidents of the three academies saying: "Since B.S. Rajput holds a high official position, this case can be resolved and justice re-established only if it is investigated by the highest authorities in India.''

Responding to a query from Frontline, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Heiner Mueller-Krumbhaar, apologising for the failure of the journal's refereeing system to spot the instance of plagiarism, stated: "Clearly this plagiarism endangers the credibility of the scientific community and Europhysics Letters has taken further steps to reduce the probability of re-occurrence of such an incident. Ultimately we have to rely on the vigilance of the community to safely eliminate such behaviour... there are still some questions open, which hopefully will be dealt with in the foreseeable future."

The journal's former co-editor for high-energy physics, Wojtek Zakrzewski, who dealt with the Joshi-Rajput paper, told Frontline by e-mail: "It is, in practice, very difficult to spot such cases of plagiarism the referees who we send the papers to assess them for publication do their job very well but it is difficult for them to spot that a particular paper has or has not been copied from another journal. In the case in question the article by Prof. Kallosh was published six years earlier and in a very different journal."

Zakrzewski, however, provided a piece of additional information. "Incidentally, the same two authors (plus two more) have since then tried to publish another article in Europhysics Letters... This time the referee spotted the similarity to another article and the paper was rejected... [M]ost of us do not expect such things to happen. In fact, this is the first time that I have encountered such an issue... The only way to avoid such problems is to make the whole scientific community aware of the problem and I am very impressed by the action of the Indian scientific community in exposing the culprits."

"The cases of plagiarism by Rajput and his collaborators are outrageous," said Kallosh in an e-mail communication to Frontline. "Apparently they have started in 1999 when they have used the papers by Ferrari and Bilal from 1996 and published some parts of them in (the Japanese journal) Progress in Theoretical Physics. They did a lot of work to hide their plagiarism at this stage. In an ideal world the peer review process ought to have picked up the plagiarism immediately. However, it did not happen because in the beginning their plagiarism was cleverly hidden, and got away with it. Later they took some parts of some other good papers from 1985 and published them as their results in 2000 in Progress in Theoretical Physics, and again they got away with it, unpunished."

Kallosh added: "In 2002, they have decided to spend much less time on hiding their shameful actions. They took parts of papers by Rubakov, some parts of Seiberg-Witten papers etc. and published and it was not noticed by peer review process. So finally they have decided not to waste any time and practically copied my paper. Rajput and his collaborators used a particular strategy to publish their "stolen" papers in journals that are not particularly specified in this field of theoretical physics."

In response to Frontline's query, Rajput, however, declined to comment on the charges made on the web-site. The reason: some of these allegations formed part of Pandey's submission to the Uttaranchal High Court along with her writ petition regarding her disputed seniority in the department, and since the case was sub-judice it would not be proper for him to comment on them. He has also said that he would be taking legal action against the ``mischievous web-site''. With regard to the specific charge against the Joshi-Rajput paper in Europhysics Letters, however, he said that he had clarified his position to the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Heiner Mueller-Krumbhaar, and forwarded his correspondence with him. The Editor seems to have sought his explanation on September 9 after having been alerted to the allegation.

In this correspondence, Rajput has completely disowned his authorship of the paper and blames it all on his student Joshi, saying that he was not aware of its publication and that his name had been included without his knowledge and consent. He has substantiated this claim through a letter, purportedly written by Joshi, in which there is an admission that he was solely responsible for the paper without any contribution from his superviser and the latter's name had been included "as a formality followed by a research scholar" without a formal consent. To clear himself of the charge, Rajput seems to have written (on June 29) to the staff editor of Europhysics Letters as well, asking for his name to be withdrawn from the authorship of the paper. "Why did he have to wait till June-end when it was published in March itself?" asks Pandey. Rajput also denied any knowledge of the other paper that, according to Zakrzewski, was rejected by Europhysics Letters on the grounds of apparent plagiarism.

Joshi, on the other hand, has come up with this explanation in an e-mail response to Frontline. Admitting that the paper, as published in Europhysics Letters, appears to be a copy of Kallosh's paper, he stated that the full paper as submitted to the journal was an extension of Kallosh's work. But since the length was not acceptable to the journal, it had to be cut. "During reduction, which was done by one of our most junior researcher, the main part of the paper, which was our actual work, got cut out," explains Joshi. This, according to him, happened as he himself could not attend to the revision because of personal preoccupations. "The second version of the paper, which has the main part, has been communicated to another journal," Joshi adds. Interestingly, in this response Joshi uses "we", "our" among other things, and nowhere mentions that Rajput was not responsible for the paper.

"Even if this is to be believed, it surely does not excuse their lifting almost verbatim a whole published paper," points out Ashoke Sen. "Nor is it easy to understand why, if they wanted to take the Kallosh work further, the authors would first quote the entire paper. In any case the story is not believable. If you look at the paper, it looks like a self-contained paper with a `Discussion' section. So, clearly it was not the case of a junior colleague who arbitrarily removed the second half of the text and sent it to the journal. Even if they meant to review the work of Kallosh at the beginning, there is no mention of this. All the results are presented as their own and there is no reference to Kallosh's paper." But more interesting is the following comment by Rajput clearly made to distance himself from all other plagiarised works that involve co-authors. "Since last eight years I have been working as Vice-Chancellor and several research groups of high energy physics working under my guidance in various universities of the country are including my name (most of the time without my knowledge and without my consent) in their publications. In view of all my academic achievements, at this stage, it does not matter at all for me if some research papers are published or not published with me as a co-author and there is no reason, whatsoever, for me to follow any unethical practice after attaining all academic heights."

"By saying this Rajput has not denied that the papers are plagiarised. He only claims that this was not his responsibility," points out Sunil Mukhi of the TIFR. "It seems quite implausible that a scientist has people working under his guidance and yet does not know their output and that this happens repeatedly over years." Sen observes: "While guiding a student, the adviser has some additional responsibility, namely that even in the case where a paper is written by the student himself/herself without the adviser being a co-author, the adviser must be aware of the contents of the paper before it is sent for publication."

"Conventions demand that the specific approvals of the immediate head and head of the institution are obtained before a paper is sent out for publication. It is at this stage that the senior scientific community uses its power to have their names included as co-authors," points out S.R. Valluri, former director of the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), who has consistently voiced in various fora concern about scientific misconduct.

Where Rajput's explanation for his ignorance about the use of his name in plagiarised works stands in relation to the truth is clear from the material presented on the web site. Posted on the web site is a list of papers presented at a special symposium on `Supersymmetry Breaking' held at Kumaun University in March 1999, which formed part of a special issue of the Indian Journal of Pure and Applied Physics (Vol. 38, No. 6, 2000). Of the 17 papers presented, Rajput is a co-author of 10 for which he is also the `corresponding author '. A corresponding author is one who communicates the paper to the journal and with whom all further communication regarding the paper in maintained.

Three of the 10 are relevant to this discussion: the one with M.P. Singh as co-author, the second with V. P. Pandey as co-author, and the third with R. Pandey as co-author. According to the analysis presented on the web site, the first one is no different from the co-authors' paper in the journal Progress in Theoretical Physics published in 1999. The latter in turn is shown to be plagiarised from two papers of F. Ferrari and A. Bilal published in 1996. Similarly, the second is shown to consist of material plagiarised from a paper of E. D'Hoker and L. Vinet in 1985. The third is shown to be plagiarised from a paper of R. Dutt, A. Khare and U. P. Sukhatme in 1988. As the co-author for these, Rajput must be aware of the contents of the papers and must take responsibility for the plagiarism therein, the web site points out. "In any case, our web site restricts itself to providing evidence of plagiarism, and it is for the appropriate authorities to launch an investigation, find out who is responsible, and decide what action should be taken against them," points out Mukhi.

The UGC Chairman Nigavekar told Frontline that he had written to the Chancellor to investigate and take immediate action. The Governor has said that an enquiry has been ordered and "the guilty will be punished". Nigavekar further said that he had written to the Secretary-General of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) seeking appropriate action in this matter. As regards the UGC itself, if the research was funded by the UGC it would take action and the matter was being looked into, he said. Indeed, most of the research work by Rajput's group has been funded under the COSIST programme of the UGC. Whether any of this results in any punitive action remains to be seen.

As the Editor of Current Science is reported to have admitted recently, plagiarism in Indian science is much more common than one would imagine. Indeed, some prominent scientists have indulged in acts of scientific misconduct and got away with it. The apex scientific bodies have more often than not chosen to ignore such instances. In a strongly-worded editorial in the December 10, 2001 issue of Current Science, the Editor wrote: "Senior scientists... are protected by institutional armour, powerful colleagues and the general reluctance to wage a prolonged battle to establish facts." M. S. Valiathan, president of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), says: "I do not doubt that the falsification of data and plagiarism are more prevalent in India than in the West. INSA has condemned scientific misconduct of various kinds in the past. But beyond condemnation, the Academy has no powers to punish an erring scientist, other than barring the publication of his/her papers in the Academy journals for a certain period."

The Society for Scientific Values (SSV), founded by the medical scientist A.S. Paintal, is one body that has succeeded to some extent in drawing attention to instances of scientific misconduct. "The difficulty in the Indian context is that the employing authority of the scientist may not take disciplinary action against an erring scientist no matter what an Academy or Society may bring out." Valiathan calls attention to the case of a palaeontologist as an example of "the near impossibility of taking disciplinary action for scientific misconduct in India." Incidentally, the palaeonthologist, after having retired without any punitive action against him, has recently been appointed to set the Union Public Service Commission's papers in the relevant discipline!

In the United States, for example, following initiatives made in 1996, a Federal Policy on Research Misconduct was formulated in December 2000 by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), applicable uniformly to all federally funded research programmes. In March, the National Science Foundation (NSF) revised its existing regulations governing research misconduct in conformity with the policy. In addition, there is a piece of legislation called the Whistle Blower Protection Act of 1989, which ensures protection of the complainant or informant against any retaliation

In the absence of any mechanism to deal with scientific misconduct even within individual institutions, let alone at the national level, only vigilance and initiative on the part of the scientific community can uphold integrity in scientific research.

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