New Guidelines on Plagiarism Released as Research Misconduct Burgeons in India

"The matter of research integrity seems to be a problem of world-wide dimensions."

Amidst rising cases of plagiarism in scientific papers coming to light in India, partly due to newer software to detect copied text, come the latest guidelines on research integrity from the Inter Academy Panel (IAP), which could serve as a useful guide to researcher working in multi-disciplinary, global teams with varying science research cultures.

The IAP, an international network of science and medical academies, on February 11, 2016, released a document titled Doing Global Science: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in the Global Research Enterprise. It was also discussed on February 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), and identifies both best research practices that should be adopted as well as practices that should be avoided by scientists in the course of their work.

An IAP release on the occasion cited Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the noted geneticist and emeritus professor, University of Munich, as commenting: “The matter of research integrity seems to be a problem of world-wide dimensions. We hope that the booklet thus will find a broad distribution throughout the entire research community.”

“We aimed to bring out a useful guide for young researchers,” Indira Nath, co-chair of the IAP committee that published the report and former head of biotechnology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, told The Wire.

The release of the document could not have been better-timed as far as India is concerned. To cite some recent examples, the year 2016 already began with the Indian Journal of Psychiatry retracting an article ‘The mystery of reincarnation’, published in early 2013 by researchers from the department of psychiatry, Mysore Medical College and Research Institute. The retraction notice published by editor of the journal, T.S. Sathyanarayana Rao, reads, “It has been reported and found that the article contains overlapping text sections from Wikipedia. Therefore, on the grounds of duplicity of text, the article in concern is being retracted.”

Rao clarified to The Wire that the journal has a rigorous peer-reviewing process, and that all submissions to it are peer reviewed by “two to four reviewers” for the content as well as their authenticity. “The article appeared in a supplement. Somehow the supplement did not go through the rigorous process adopted for regular publications and we have realised the issues involved and the mechanism to monitor has being put in place,” Rao clarified. “We do watch for plagiarism issues and around 5-10% is usually the limit which is standard for any journal, in view of language and other aspects.” 

In 2015, in an ironic case, guidelines on plagiarism published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology were copied from a questionnaire used for a dissertation. The article, titled Development of a guideline to approach plagiarism in Indian scenario, was later retractedIn 2014, a paper on hawk moths by researchers from India, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and published in the journal Bionotes, was found to have copied text from a Dehra Dun-based moth specialist named Peter Smatacek.

Sometimes, even top scientists are not spared when one of their junior team members copies text. In 2012, C.N.R Rao, science advisor to the then-PM Manmohan Singh, and a senior researcher from the Indian Institute of Science, S.B. Krupanidhi, found themselves in a soup when a paper published by them along with two junior scientists in Advanced Materials in 2011 was found to have three sentences in the introductory paragraphs copied from a paper published in 2010 in Applied Physics.

Plagiarism is not restricted to scientific disciplines alone. The Vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University was accused of copying text in a paper on legal education and the legal profession in India in September 2015. And neither is  the scourge restricted to India, as several cases abound worldwide.

“The IAP document essentially reiterates the fundamental good practices in research,” a biologist at a premier basic science institute in India observed on the condition of anonymity. “It appears to start from responsible design, i.e., you do not want to create a Frankenstein knowing that the risk of doing so is very high; being honest; and being fair in acknowledging contributions and sources which is very important in the specific context of global, inter-disciplinary science.” The biologist also came across several instances of plagiarism even in the grant proposals he reviewed, he says.

The document also lays emphasis on being open, responsible dissemination of information, including releasing “half-baked” information that could easily mislead people; and being skeptical of one’s own results. “It is not clear that these are non-obvious, but it does help to put these out in simple language,” he adds.

For the document to work well with Indian research institutes, he suggests that it has to be publicised, and a condensed a two-to-three page version for use by institutes that do not have regular guidelines of their own. “A condensed version of the new document will be of educational use to those whose employers do not provide such counselling, i.e. of definite use to many in India. But again, it will be of use only as a precis and not in its present book form.”

“The Indian situation is particularly complicated in that allegations of research misconduct have been laid against some prominent scientists of national visibility… Nothing came of it. In our present state, unless institutions come up with their own methods of dealing with misconduct, we are unlikely to see much change.”

The document “is premised on the principle that prevention is better than cure,” says Nandula Raghuram, former secretary of the Delhi-based Society for Scientific Values and dean at the school of biotechnology, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastah University, New Delhi. “Overall, it provides an overview of how to avoid doing sloppy, unreliable science and emphasises the need for robust and reliable science in an increasingly interdependent world.”

While such guides are necessary, they may not be “sufficient to deal with the problem of growing misconduct within and between countries and the uneven attention and redressal they get,” observes Raghuram. “Some cases and situations have been mentioned but more focus on deterrence would help the administrators, managers and policy makers.

“For example, the guide could have highlighted the increasing pressure on governments to bring in regulatory oversight or laws on misconduct, define the procedures of complaint and investigation and consequences of indictment, the role of whistle blowers and the importance of encouraging and protecting them.”