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Plagiarism glare on IITs

New Delhi, Oct 10: Scientific misconduct has surfaced in five Indian Institutes of Technology in independent cases that reflect unethical practices in the pursuit of research touching even the nation's elite institutions.

Scientists familiar with these cases have said they involve plagiarism and poor supervision of young researchers, and show how senior faculty turned into coauthors of scientific papers even while oblivious to their detailed contents.

Authorities at the IIT, Kharagpur, have removed the head of its physics department who was accused of not granting a colleague credit due in a research paper — a charge upheld by an internal institutional inquiry, but denied by the professor.

Two international journals have retracted research papers coauthored by senior faculty at IIT, New Delhi, and IIT, Kanpur, on grounds of plagiarism — one paper copied text from Wikipedia. And the Society for Scientific Values, a 24-year old non-government ethics watchdog for scientists, is investigating complaints of scientific misconduct in two other IITs.

The journal, Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research, has retracted a 2009 paper coauthored by Anup Ghosh, a professor of polymer science at the IIT, New Delhi, Devesh Avasthi and Pawan Kulriya at the Inter University Accelerator Centre, Sharif Ahmad from the Jamia Milia Islamia University, and Shashi Chawla from the Amity School of Engineering.

The journal said the authors had “plagiarised parts of a paper that had already appeared” in another journal and described the work as a "severe abuse of the scientific publishing system.”

Another journal, Biotechnology Advances , has retracted two review papers coauthored by Ashok Kumar and his students at the department of biological sciences at IIT, Kanpur, for plagiarism. The journal said one paper had plagiarised text from several previously published papers, and the other had extracted text from Wikipedia without citations.

Neither Kumar nor Ghosh were available for comments. But Avasthi, a scientist at the IUAC claimed that a research scholar had plagiarised text and assigned coauthorships to senior faculty.

But scientists tracking ethics say this is no excuse.

“Many young people are unaware that plagiarism is a serious offense. But supervisors should own responsibility for content of papers — and not merely accept authorships to add to the number of papers in their resumes,” said Kasturi Lal Chopra, a former director of the IIT, Kharagpur, and president of the SSV.

An inquiry by Chopra on request from the IIT Kharagpur has observed that the head of its physics department professor R.N.P Choudhary had denied legitimate credit to a colleague A.K.Thakur in a research paper.

Choudhary has denied wrongdoing. He claimed that a student, who was the first author of the paper, had without his knowledge made him the corresponding author. He also said that he has had 29 joint papers with his accuser —Thakur — in the past, and that Thakur had not contributed to this paper.

“We need to teach ethics as part of the curriculum in MSc or at least at PhD level courses,” said Ravinder Kotnala, a physicist at the National Physical Laboratory, New Delhi, and SSV secretary.

The SSV typically gets about 10 to 12 complaints of scientific misconduct each month, most often from within the academic institutions. Many are frivolous, but we take up the serious ones for independent investigation, Kotnala said.

He requested that the identities of the two other IITs not be revealed because the investigations into the complaints are still incomplete. One complaint claims researchers fabricated data, while the other claims that the same experimental data was used unjustifiably to generate multiple research papers.

“Ideally, even school students need to be sensitised to ethics,” Kotnala said. “I've seen plenty of school science projects entirely based on material copied from the Internet.”

The SSV has long urged India's scientific departments to introduce ethics training in academic institutions and create an agency with legal teeth to monitor ethics in scientific affairs.

The SSV has itself conducted workshops on ethics, but its members have limited time for such activities. “It’s also a dirty job — no one likes to police scientists,” one member of the SSV executive committee said.

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