At least 200 academic papers published by researchers at Annamalai University, in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, contain plagiarised text, manipulated images and fudged data – all pointing to research misconduct and, potentially, fraud. The list of offending papers includes at least 14 in which the university’s incumbent vice-chancellor, Velayutham Murugesan, is also an author.
The finding is courtesy Elisabeth Bik, a science integrity consultant who regularly scans the scientific literature for signs of misconduct and manipulation, and publishes the results on Twitter. Bik is by training a microbiologist. She wrote in a blog post, published on November 5, that she spent nearly three months examining these papers as well as that she has alerted the editors of nearly 150 journals in which these papers had appeared.
The Wire reached out to the VC for comment but received no response. K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, said in a tweet that he’d follow up (Bik had clarified in her post that its contents were only “her opinions”). VijayRaghavan elaborated on his comment to The Print, saying he’d bring the matter to the notice of the university’s “chancellor and funding agencies”.
“In this particular case at Annamalai, the research misconduct was very widespread, and also appear to have affected the current vice-chancellor, who is ultimately responsible for research conducted at his university,” Bik wrote in her post. She also said she had “little hope” vis-à-vis accountability considering the VC himself was implicated.
Text plagiarism is the easiest to spot, using comparative analysis. Image manipulation is a more labour-intensive process, as Bik’s own Twitter feed suggests: she regularly posts images containing repetitively copy-pasted elements and asks her followers if they can spot them.
In some of the papers in which the VC, Murugesan, is an author, Bik found multiple instances where the same image had been used in different papers discussing different experimental results. She also reported manipulation within a single image, where a pattern that shouldn’t have repeated was in fact repeated.
On the data front, she found researchers – i.e. the authors of the problem papers – had reached “highly unusual” conclusions. For example, in one of them that included analysis of standard deviations, she found that nearly all the deviations came to 7.5% of the (statistical) mean. “Such a narrow range of SDs is highly unusual in biological measurements,” Bik wrote.
Multiple researchers in the country, from obscure to prominent, are regularly caught plagiarising. One of the more common reasons this happens is that research institutions and universities had enforced a ‘publish or perish’ paradigm, in which academics are required to publish papers in order to qualify for promotions, etc., for a long time without excluding those who hadn’t signed up for research – but had for teaching, e.g. As a result, desperate academics resorted to publishing anything at all, aided by a crop of journals prepared to publish anything in exchange for a not insubstantial fee.
However, this can’t be an excuse for research misconduct, and many eminent scientists have expressed concern that a lack of proper sanctions against such practices has cultivated numerous mediocre scientists who pass on their lax attitude to their students as well. For example, as Pushpa Mitra Bhargava told The Wire after The Wire reported that Appa Rao Podile, the former VC of Hyderabad University, had admitted to plagiarising text in his papers:
Because of the low standard of our scientists, they are unable to produce research output of any originality. Plagiarism then becomes an easy route to be recognised. The situation is made worse by the absence of proper penalties for plagiarism. As regards the VCs, they are also derived from the same pool of mediocrity.
Indeed, apart from Appa Rao, other prominent researchers who have plagiarised in their papers include former Pondicherry University VC Chandra Krishnamurthy, former Kumaon University VC B.S. Rajput, former Delhi University VC Deepak Pental, Bharat Ratna recipient C.N.R. Rao, director of IISER Thiruvananthapuram V. Ramakrishnan, and a clutch of researchers recently appointed to Jawaharlal Nehru University. Earlier this year, the research output of some important labs around the country were called into question after journalists and investigators uncovered evidence of image manipulation in nearly 200 papers.
Pushkar, director of the International Centre Goa, wrote in The Wire in June 2015, that “plagiarism was not considered, at least until quite recently, as something wrong”. The University Grants Commission (UGC) approved the country’s first formal ruleset to fight plagiarism among researchers only in late 2018. Further, the UGC invited proposals in May this year to undertake a qualitative scrutiny of PhD theses published in India; plagiarism is expected to top the list of problems.