Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Thoughts on the Anna University case

My first post on the Anna University case has generated several comments, some of which verge on conspiracy theories -- but this case is so bizarre that even conspiracy theories don't seem too incredible.

The theory was, what if none of the four purported authors of the JMS paper are actually involved, and someone impersonated the corresponding author with a fake yahoo.com address?

This theory is contradicted, however, by two points: first, as Niket points out, Selladurai seems to have used that address before, so it appears to be his address. Second, there is this extraordinary email that Muthukkumaran allegedly sent one of the Swedish authors.

Let's take the Muthukkumaran email. What do we make of it? This guy says someone in Nepal sent him a manuscript, refused to be an author himself, and asked Muthukkumaran to publish it under his own name. Even if he was unaware it was plagiarised, Muthukkumaran was certainly aware that he had no contribution to it. (He was also apparently unaware that PNAS is available for free, online, to everyone in India.)

But (assuming the email is legitimate) I wouldn't be harsh on Muthukkumaran. I have met many, many students by now who seem to have absolutely no idea of propriety and ethics in writing articles. I think this is a deep-rooted failing of our educational system. We simply do not teach students to cite others' work properly, or to be conscientious in putting their names only to material that they wrote. In fact, schools actively encourage "holiday homework" that consists of cutting and pasting from various sources, without citation. Our newspapers are a cesspool of plagiarism. As a society, we seem to have forgotten the most basic things that we need to teach young children, perhaps because we don't take them seriously ourselves. (Many of you will point out, correctly, that students constantly see professors putting their names to work that their students or RAs did; nobody raises their eyebrows, until they get into trouble internationally, as in the Mashelkar case. So why should we wonder that even university students don't learn any kind of message about ethics?)

Very well then, but why did he put three other people as co-authors? Maybe he genuinely thought it would please them -- such is the culture of sycophancy in our country. Maybe, if nothing amiss had occurred, most co-authors so "honoured" would have been genuinely pleased. Maybe it happens all the time.

Which brings us to the corresponding author, Selladurai. Was he an innocent victim? (Even if the e-mail address is his, I have known many email-illiterate professors who asked their students to handle e-mail for them.) If so, one should sympathise with him, but he should learn to teach his students ethics before anything else, and also learn that his email should be his own property and not anyone else's. Was he aware of what's going on and did he willingly allow his name to appear? In that case, he has much to answer for.

All of the above is speculation based on that alleged Muthukkumaran email. Perhaps the true story is even more extraordinary.

21 comments:

Suresh said...

Rahul,

Just a brief note to say that there doesn't seem to be a "Nepal University." What we have in Nepal (according to Wikipedia) are Kathmandu University, Pokhara University, Purbanchal University, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Mahendra Sanskrit University and an unapproved Siddhartha University.

Doesn't mean anything, of course, but a non-existent university coupled with a very generic name - "Ashok Kumar" - certainly leaves me suspicious. If we take the e-mail as genuine and coming from Muthukkumaran himself, then it looks to me like the (poor) effort of someone desperately trying to cover his tracks.

Gautam said...

Rahul,

Just to record my own views on the issue. If we are to treat this case with the seriousness with which it would be approached in any genuine academic institution, the onus should be on the two "other" authors, Bokalawela and Mathews, to show that the manuscript was sent out without their knowledge or consent. If, for example, either of these authors used the publication in a CV even for internal purposes, it should be treated as their consent to the manuscript.

Regarding Muthukkumaran and Selladurai, since the manuscript was sent out from an email account used by the professor, one cannot exonerate him by the presumption that he may have got his graduate student to perform all email transactions for him. Being a corresponding author, it is most probable that the copyright transfer was signed and sent by him, which blows the "may not have known" theory out of the water. As regards Muthukkumaran's email, it is completely bizzare. Someone who could treat research responsibilities with such complete callousness and carelessness shouldn't be doing research. I really find it hard to believe a word of this incredible excuse.

Maran B T said...

To the guys who waste their time in discussing Anna and IIT-M:

Indian Universities including IISc, IIT, cannot produce a Nobel laurate or register notable patents.

Infrastructure, Intellectual capital, curriculum,etc are not good here.Above all, there is no drive from the research fellows to get a Nobel Prize. We should appreciate film guys like Kamal Hasan, Amir Khan,etc for their efforts to get the top award in their field, the Oscar.

Here, the institutions produce hi-tech coolies. Institutions should do World Class research and produce entrepreneurs.

Most of the scientists in Govt organisations like ISRO are not from IITs. IITs swallow good amout of money from Govt. But the IITians' contribution to the country is not much to say.

Other Indian Universities like Anna, thambi, appatha(grandmother) are run by politicians. We cannot expect anything from these Universities w r t World Class research.Corrupt Vice Chancelors always think about looting money and think about giving Dr to politicians and cini actors.

The gentleman who exposed Anna University can dig many such things from IISc, IITs and other Univ. He will get lot of such things.

murasoli said...

i agree with maran totally...i wish even our hon CM kalaignar karunanidhi had strived to win oscar award for his superb and emotion filled screenplays...atleast anna univ is publishing in international journal on springer...how many univs can boast of such honour?

Rahul said...

Gautam -- if we can take the Muthukkumaran letter at face value, I totally agree that Selladurai has some explaining to do. How did his student submit such a manuscript with him as corresponding author?

But as for Mathews and Bokalavela -- I'm not sure they need to explain. If some idiot put your name on a paper and sent it, why should you have to prove that it wasn't you who sent it? I think the journal has been extremely sloppy here, and next to the authors, it is the journal that must come clean on what happened.

Murasoli and Maran -- keep it going.

Guru said...

Dear Rahul,

It is true that in a generic case, one can argue that Tom Mathews and Roshan Bokalawela do not have to explain anything; however, in the case of Mathews at least, there are indications that this is not the first time that Mathews is publishing with Muthukkumaran and Selladurai (on Ceria). In fact, I find that Muthukkumaran and Selladurai have several papers with several researchers from IGCAR. However, I do agree with you that the burden of proving that Bokalawela and Mathews were aware of the paper rests with Muthukkumaran and Selladurai. But Guatam's point about either Mathews or Bokalawela using the publication in a CV or for internal purposes could be damning is true.

Sunil said...

I hope "maran" and "murasoli" were writing in irony.

Rahul......you very correctly point out how schools encourage "holiday homework" as copy-paste attempts. But the malaise doesn't end there. It extends right into college (in the occasional "research" assignment), and everyone gleefully plagarizes work from anywhere they please. I've read class reports written without a single citation......something extremely hard for a biochemist to comprehend.

But we all know the problem...which you and Abi and many others have clearly articulated.....the question is...how can this be improved without any support from the top (or perhaps even tacit encouragement from the top).

Anonymous said...

Here comes that email from Dr. Tom Mathews to Prof. Carter:

From
Dr. Tom Mathews
Surface Science Section
Materials Science Division
Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research
Kalpakkam, India


To
The Editor
Journal of Materials Science


Sir,
It came as a rude shock to find my name in the paper entitled “Determination of Dopant of Ceria System by density Functional Theory” which appeared in J Mater Sci (2007) 42: 7461-7466 and had attracted strong comments regarding plagiarism. I have nothing to do with this work.
Mr. K. Muthukkumaran was a student of Anna University who used to visit Materials Characterization Group, IGCAR to carry out some experimental work. During that period I have helped him in synthesis of doped ceria thin films by pulsed laser deposition and this work led to submission of the paper to Mater Sci-Poland and titled “Atomic force microscopy (AFM) investigations of gadolinia doped ceria thin films prepared by pulsed laser deposition technique”.
Regarding the paper cited above in subject and titled “Determination of Dopant of Ceria System by Density Functional Theory”, I have not been a party to these investigations. I am a hard core experimentalist whereas the above paper deals with density functional theoretical approach. This paper was submitted by Mr. Muthukkumaran to the J. Mater. Sci. without my concurrence. Mr. Muthukkumaran has included me in the list of authors without my consent. To substantiate my claim, I am enclosing the copy of the letters from Mr. Muthukkumaran.
In the light of the above facts, I would request that my name be delinked from the whole episode and a statement to that effect be published in J Mater Sci. It is also important for the reputation of the Journal of Materials Science. Being a scientist with over fifteen years of research experience and working in a very reputed research institution, I am very keen to redeem my image and that of my organization.


Thanking you
Sincerely


Tom Mathews
Encls. 1) Scanned copy of the email from Muthukumaran to Editor in Chief, J Mater Sci.
2) Scanned copy of the letter from Muthukumaran to Director, IGCAR






********^******************^******************^******************^******************^******************^******************^******************^**********
From
K. Muthukkumaran,
Research Student, Physics Department,
Anna University, Chennai-600025


To
Prof. C. Barry Carter,
Editor-in-Chief,
Journal of Materials Science,


Sir,


During the course of experimental work, I have taken help from Dr. Tom Mathews for fabrication of thin films of doped ceria by pulsed laser ablation technique. I have communicated two papers in the above topic with Dr. Mathews as one of the co-authors.


In a recent paper (cited above) titled :Determination of Dopant of Ceria System by Density Functional Theory" I communicated the paper without Dr. Mathews' concurrence, by mistake as he was out of station. I also went on leave for sometime. I could inform Dr.Mathews only after the paper was in print. He advised me to remove his name from the list of authors as he has not contributed anything for the above paper. I request you to kindly remove his name in an appropriate manner. I apologize for this mistake and beg your pardon. I am not aware of the seriousness of the mistake, as I am a student. I am sending this mail on his advice.
Sorry for the inconvenience caused and thanking you for your help in setting the records straight


Your Truly
K. Muthukkumaran

Gautam said...

The letters by Mathews and Muthukkumaran - if they are truly the letters they sent to J. Mater. Sci - for me at least raise a few additional questions. First, it is very rare that one cannot communicate with ones colleagues by email, even if one is out of station and the other is on leave. The time between the submission of an article and it appearing in print is usually long enough that there is ample time for such information to be conveyed.

The response of Mathews seems to be triggered by the plagiarism controversy as he indicates in his email. Here is where it would be useful to have some idea of the dates on which these letters - if, indeed they are accurate - were sent. If Muthukkumaran's letter to J. Mater. Sci. clarifying authorship predated the beginning of the controversy, that would exonerate Mathews completely, in my opinion. If these authors felt the need to clarify issues of authorship only after the controversy broke, that, to me at least, weakens the rest of the argument.

As has been mentioned earlier, it is fully possible that Muthukkumaran sent off the paper on his own, without consulting or informing Mathews that he was doing so. If the chain of events was such that Mathews, immediately on being informed that his name had been tagged to a paper to which he had not contributed, immediately wrote to the journal to withdraw authorship, supported by Muthukkumarans's letter, that would be consistent with this possibility. If Mathews found it necessary to do this only after the controversy broke - even if he knew earlier that such a manuscript had been submitted/had appeared - that would be reason for disbelieving him. As mentioned earlier in this post, a lot seems to hang on the chronology.

Rahul said...

Gautam - yes, if Mathews knew earlier but spoke up only after the controversy, that is against him. But what if he really didn't know until the controversy? (I don't know the field, maybe every materials scientist reads J Mater Sci, or maybe it's one of the lesser journals.)

There are lots of journals I don't read -- all I do is subscribe to content alerts from PubMed, I don't know if a similar service exists in material science.

I'd want proof that he knew about the publication for a while before the controversy broke. It has been published online for about 2 months, the Swedish authors have noticed it immediately and the journal instituted an investigation at that time I believe. So it may be difficult to pin timeframes based on his response time.

Another question is whether his letter to the journal was unsolicited or in reply to a letter from them. But the difficulty is similar. There was no "public" controversy until the Swedish DN article, and nobody not in the know seemed to be talking about it in India until my blogpost. Maybe, when the editors wrote to him two months ago, he genuinely had no idea.

priya said...

Hi Rahul,

This is Priya @ S.N.Bose, Kolkata. I am not sure if I could consider myself a person in the know, but I just thought that since I belong to the electronic structure community in India I could be in this specific case. I did hear about this case sometime around 20th August when another member of the Swedish group (not one of the authors) had written asking if I knew any of the Indian authors. I confessed that I knew the name of only Tom Mathews from our alma-mater, but had no idea what he had worked on and whether it was the same person or somebody else. I found it strange that someone should plagiarize to the extent that they did! It doesn't make sense! I have seen papers where one group has copied the ideas of another with no modifications as far as scientific content goes, but they have changed the language of the paper they wrote!

Anonymous said...

The chronology is the following. The Swedes discovered the plagiarism around Aug. 15 and reported it to the journal on Aug. 18. The email from Tom Mathews to editor came on August 21. Does it explain anything? Probably not.

Rahul said...

Priya -- if we are to take Muthukkumaran's mail at face value, it seems to be the work of an extremely naive student who was greedy for publications and allowed himself to be fooled by somebody in Nepal. for whatever reasons. Certainly no sane plagiarist would knowingly lift a paper word for word from a PNAS paper published that same year.

Anonymous - as you say, it's hard to say what the dates mean.

Generally -- I think as far as Matthews and Bokalavela go, it's hard to pin anything on them unless there is hard evidence that they knew about it earlier and did not speak up. In particular (as Gautam says) if they have listed the publication, in their CV or internal evaluation report or such things, at any point in the past, they must be hauled up.

Selladurai has some much harder explaining to do.

Finally, it is a mystery why the journal has still not withdrawn the paper or made any note of its fraudulence on their webpage. Anyone who reaches that webpage must be made aware of the true authors of that work -- otherwise I would view the journal as complicit in the fraud. Also, as Abi notes, it is important that this paper is not indexed by search engines. But, in my opinion, that doesn't matter so much if the journal puts a prominent disclaimer on the paper's webpage.

Revathi said...

I think it is the professor that plagiarised- he should know the research that is being done in his lab -I dont think Anna university has professors with mega groups- they dont have students working via the intermediary of a post doc for example. Now the student dare not go against the prof for fear of not being able to get his PhD.

Gautam said...

The case finally seems to have emerged from the blogosphere. There
is coverage today on Yahoo News.

http://in.news.yahoo.com/071020/43/6m6ks.html

Interestingly, all the three "other" authors are, according to the report, distancing themselves from the paper. However, the report also says that - these are Muthukkumaran's words.

"He says he committed the 'mistake' of sending to JMS the manuscript written by a ghost writer without realising that the writer had simply copied the PNAS paper. But he believes he was made a scapegoat in the entire affair and added that his mouth was sealed because he was a student."

Weirder and weirder ...

Rahul said...

Selladurai needs to say how he became a corresponding author without his knowledge. The journal needs to say who they have been corresponding with, and whether they used the yahoo.com address that is listed on the paper to write to him.

park said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
park said...

Selladurai's official e-mail ID is ssdurai@annauniv.edu. This is given in Anna University website: http://www.annauniv.edu/research/super.htm. It is indeed strange that he is not using his official ID for publication purposes.

Anonymous said...

For sure this is not the first skeleton from Anna University Cupboard. Many more will follow but no action will be taken. If a student indulges in malpractice, he is thrown out of the university for unfair means usage. When a faculty from this Anna university enters the hall of fame of plagarists, what a shame, his punishment is that he will not guide any more PhDs. When Shri Arjun Singh Human Resource Development Minister recently said that 'Higher Education is a SICK Child of education either by design or default' he forgot to add 'due to universities like Anna University run by BIG Brothers who are good at you know doing what. Shame on you, Anna university, what cheek you have to talk about recognition of degrees by a top ranking university like BITS Pilani? Do some soul searching

Anonymous said...

hi this is digbhushan. I followed the BS Rajput case very closely in past ( www.geocities.com/physics_plagiarism ). The second author at that time made the same excuse that the paper was send without his knowledge. However, the judicial commission established concluded otherwise and Rajput resigned. A similar, though larger controversy recently has also erupted in NERIST, in North East India, where in the Director, K.Kumar is being accused of multiple instances of plagiarism ( NERIST Controversy

samir thukral Ali said...

Hai i agree with suresh