Posts Tagged ‘plagiarism’

Responsibilities of co-authors

November 3, 2007

Nature has an editorial as to

How the responsibilities of co-authors for a scientific paper’s integrity could be made more explicit.

It has several interesting things to say about co-authorship, the responsibilities of all the co-authors as to the contents and correctness of what is reported in the paper and so on. Finally, they also make a suggestion:

We suggest that journals should require that every manuscript has at least one author per collaborating research group who will go on record in a way that collectively vouches for the paper’s standards.

They go on to indicate who should sign such an undertaking:

Principal investigators traditionally bask in the glory of a well-received paper. We are proposing now that they willingly open themselves to sanctions that could be brought to bear should the paper turn out to have major problems.

I think the key word here is “principal investigator”; if it is not made mandatory for the PIs to sign such a declaration, I can think of one particular form of abuse that this system is prone to, keeping in mind some of the recent incidents that I have come across. For example, in the Anna University plagiarism scandal, one of the co-authors, who happens to be a student is reported to have said that

… he believes he was made a scapegoat in the entire affair and added that his mouth was sealed because he was a student.

Or, in other words, if one of the co-authors is forced to sign such a declaration, and, if the hierarchy in the University/Institution where she/he works is such that she/he has no choice but to sign such a declaration, then it makes it much more easier for the senior co-author to exploit the same to pin the blame on a junior colleague, should something go wrong. One way to overcome this problem is to make it mandatory that the senior-most person in the hierarchy sign such a declaration. Pinning the responsibility on the senior co-author also makes sense when we remember scandals like this, involving researchers who are at the pinnacle of the scientific administration pyramid.

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An irreverent take on the plagiarism fiasco

October 13, 2007

I just don’t seem to get the Anna University plagiarism fiasco out of my mind. What is more, anonymous commentor(s) on Rahul‘s and Abi‘s blogs seem to have some insider information — about the mails sent by the persons involved to various agencies and people (as well as their chronology). I do not know about the veracity of these mails. But, in case they are true, they in turn raise many uncomfortable questions: if Muthukkumaran did send the paper without Selladurai’s consent, how come his email is listed in the paper? Who received the referee’s comments, page proofs and copyright forms? Who filled them up? And, if Muthukkumaran’s letters are any indication, who wrote the cover letter? Similarly, if Tom Mathews was unaware of the paper’s publication till he came back from vacation, are we to understand that that is usual — one of his co-authors would submit a paper without consulting him? Further, according to the Springer page, the paper was communicated on 6 September 2006, accepted on 26 December 2006 (Yeah! can you believe it — somebody was working at the J Mat Sci office during the vacation time too) , and is available online from 18th May 2007; so, are we to understand that Dr. Mathews and Muthukkumaran never met and/or exchanged mails for this entire (nearly nine months) period? And the mystery of all mysteries, how come Roshan Bokalawela’s name is added to this strange paper?

Having thought through all this, here is my irreverent thought: what if all or some of the authors write a mail to the Editor of J. Mat. Sci (with a copy marked to the Swedish authors) that this entire episode is nothing but a hoax played by these authors (along the lines of the hoax played by Alan Sokal on Social Text) to show that (a) the review process as well as paper acceptance process at J Mat Sci need improvement, and, (b) that they had no intention of plagiarising the fine work of the Swedish authors but are sorry for the inadvertent inconveniences they have caused, and go public with the letter? Not only does this save lots of trouble for these authors, but given the nature of the blatant copy pasting, does even look like an honourable enterprise. May be they can even try a paper on scientific publication enterprise in Social Text!

As an aside, in literary circles such “cheeky experiments” are not uncommon: you take a chapter from say, Jane Austen, just change the names, and submit it to a book house; the editors in the book house, probably seeing that the stuff is an obviously plagiarised piece, put a standard rejection slip and mail it back; then, you go ahead and write an article about the falling publication standards.

The art of “distancing” in science

October 9, 2007

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).