The art of “distancing” in science

I am never forget the day my first book is published.
Every chapter I stole from somewhere else.
Index I copy from old Vladivostok telephone directory.
This book, this book was sensational!

— Tom Lehrer, in Lobachevsky (mp3).

A couple of researchers from Anna University (where, I was once a student) are also becoming sensational for their plagiarism (see the proof by example of the infinite monkey theorem at Improbable research, for example); Abi (here and here) and Rahul have more details.

The issue reminded me of an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on plagiarism, titled How dumb do they think we are?:

Do they think we’re stupid? If they’re going to plagiarize, why can’t they at least do it in a way that acknowledges that their audience is intelligent?

In any case, as much as I would like to write a rant, this post is not that. This is about the responsibilities that the authors of a plagiarised paper have to share.

Sometime back, ArunN, in his blog wrote about the retraction of a paper in the Journal of Microphorous and Mesophorous Materials (of course, for plagiarism); what surprised me about the editorial note of retraction is the mention of the first author by name and affiliation, and the statement that papers from him will not be accepted even for review in future; it was never clear to me as to why the second author was not given the same punishment, or, as to how the editors decided to blame only the first author for the fiasco.

This time around, in the Anna University case too, I understand that two of the co-authors of the paper have distanced themselves from the paper:

Tom Mathews, doctor at the Indira Gandhi center for nuclear research in India and one of the four researchers named as authors, distances himself from the article in an email to DN. So does Roshan Bokalawela, graduate student at the University of Oklahoma in the USA.

DN has not been able to reach the other two authors. One of them claims in an email to the Swedish researchers that he received a draft from a researcher in Nepal.

Further, the editor of the journal is quoted as having said the following:

Barry Carter considers it likely that one or more of the so-called authors of the plagiary are innocent.

I do not know what Dr. Tom Mathews and Roshan Bokalawela mean when they say they “distance” themselves from the paper: are they agreeing that it was plagiarised and that they did not know about it when it was published? If so, what was their contribution to the paper when they agreed to be the co-authors? Did they read the paper before it was submitted? If so, did they realise that none of what they contributed is in the paper? Further, if they are working in the same area, aren’t they aware of other results in the area along similar lines? Can they produce any evidence outlining their contribution to the work (which is probably missing in the paper)? Unless Muthukkumaran and Selladurai used the names of these two researchers without their knowledge, why and on what grounds should they be allowed to “distance” themselves from the paper?

And, how does the editor come to the conclusion that some of the authors are innocent? I know that not many collaborations are run according to the axioms laid out by Hardy and Littlewood; however, anybody who has any familiarity with collaborations knows that all the authors have to take the responsibility for the end product. As Mark notes in his post in Cosmic Variance, if you are doing theory, that means

… one thing that one needs to do in any collaboration is to check all the equations independently. Much of this checking is ongoing as the project progresses, but sometimes you take something complicated that a collaborator has done on faith in order to push ahead and see where an idea is going, coming back later to double check the details. This has been the process in many of my collaborations, and it is a perfectly enjoyable and rigorous way to work. One checks everything, of course, but not in order, and not in one continuous sitting.

I do understand that that might not be possible if you are doing experiments or simulations; however, in these cases, I am sure sincere workers will probably have many more and lengthier discussions while analysing the data, which would automatically rule out such an almost exact reproduction of another paper. Thus, there is no way the editor can relieve some authors of the responsibility for their paper while only punishing the others. Otherwise, the responsibility for any plagiarised work cannot be pinned on to anybody, except for the corresponding author may be, since all the other authors can always elect to “distance” themselves from the paper.

It may be a fine art to “distance” onself from a published paper when it becomes public knowledge that the work is plagiarised; however, in the interest of science, such distancing should be justified by a transparent investigation process; that, and only that, will deter the occurrence of such events in future.

A couple of footnotes:

(1) Some commentators in Abi’s and Rahul’s blog have faulted the reviewer(s) of the paper; while it indeed is surprising that the reviewer(s) did not catch the plagiarism, the responsibility cannot be pinned on them (as Abi also notes in his blog); the primary job of reviewers is only to evaluate the contents of the submission (and, not to run a google search, unless, of course, they suspect something to be wrong in the first place). Having said that, I am curious to know what the referee(s) comments were on the paper; this is where making the peer reviewing process more open might be useful.

(2) Rahul, in his post, complains about there being no note about the plagiarism in the online version of the paper; however, that seems to be the norm than exception. For example, the Journal of Microphorous and Mesophorous Materials paper that I mention above, is still available online (and, there is no mention of its retraction).

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5 Responses to “The art of “distancing” in science”

  1. Niket Says:

    The only way the two co-authors can distance themselves is if their names were included without their knowledge or consent.

    Its quite common that names of department head or people in places of power are included as authors even if they don’t have any part to play in the paper. If such people find it acceptable to reap benefits of having themselves as co-authors, they should also accept brickbats. They cannot just distance themselves from the paper.

    Another thing that needs to be pointed with regards to “one thing that one needs to do in any collaboration is to check all the equations independently.”
    While appropriate in principle, its not always practical. I am co-author on a paper published in J. Process Control. Of the three “features” of our approach, I worked on one and my colleague (first author) did the other two. I should, in theory, check his results (and he, mine). But I was a post-doc by the time he wrote the manuscript; while I carefully checked my part of the paper, I did not have time to check my colleague’s part as carefully as the Cosmic Varience comment notes. Likewise, my colleague also trusted me on the part I wrote.

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Niket,

    Thanks for stopping by and your comments. I agree with you on accepting the responsibility for papers that are published under one’s name.

    As for trusting colleagues and checking the parts, I guess it is personal preference. While I am checking my colleagues work, it is not because I do not trust him/her, but because mistakes are easier to catch that way. And, I would go with Mark of Cosmic Variance in that in any paper that is published with me as co-author, I would want to make sure that I understand all of the paper, however difficult the process be. By the way, same thing hold for the papers that I refer to in my papers — I would like to have read all of them and understood when I refer to them (Otherwise, it leads to what is known as citation plagiarism). But, as I said, these are personal preferences. Everyone works out what works best for him/her.

  3. Unruled Notebook » Blog Archive » Followup on the Anna university plagiarism issue Says:

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  5. Followup on the Anna university plagiarism issue « Unruled Notebook Says:

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