And then…

Life after

Shameless Self-Promotion — March 26, 2017

Shameless Self-Promotion

DDKCover.pngAfter what seems an agonizingly long time since the first ideas of the book took root, I got the following letter from my publishers (how sweet that sounds!) last week,

“We are very pleased to inform you that your book has been published and it is available on Customers can order it […] etc.”

D D Kosambi: Selected Works in Mathematics and Statistics is finally done, and is now available in both e and paper formats. The cover on the right shows DDK at three stages of his life, at Harvard, in Aligarh, and finally, in his TIFR years.

To quote from the blurb: This book fills an important gap in studies on D. D. Kosambi. For the first time, the mathematical work of Kosambi is described, collected and presented in a manner that is accessible to non-mathematicians as well. A number of his papers that are difficult to obtain in these areas are made available here. In addition, there are essays by Kosambi that have not been published earlier as well as some of his lesser known works. Each of the twenty four papers is prefaced by a commentary on the significance of the work, and where possible, extracts from technical reviews by other mathematicians.

My personal contribution to the book, other than to edit is, is fairly minimal. Apart from a preface, I have basically tried to describe the academic milieu in which Kosambi found himself at different points in his life, and have also tried to infer what others thought of him in another prefatory essay, “A Scholar in His Time”.

Kosambi gave his academic manifesto in the essay, “Adventure into the Unknown” which also is one of the places where he wrote that Science is the cognition of necessity. (It is quite another matter that the phrase is not one that can be understood in a straightforward manner. Anyhow, as a quote its famous enough.) Reprinting that essay in its entirety seemed appropriate, as also another note “On Statistics” that gives a flavour of DDK’s interdisciplinarity, mixing statistics, erudition, Marxism, etc. The last of the non-mathematical writings is a project completion report submitted by DDK to the Tata Trust in 1945 and it permits, among other things, an inner view of a vastly gifted and somewhat frugal scholar who, in parallel, and for Rs 1800, carried out  6 research projects on issues as diverse as writing a mathematical monograph on Path Spaces, editing a concordance of Bratrihari‘s epigrams, and constructing an electromechanical computational device (the Kosmagraph),  among others.

The remainder of the book is a set of reprints. Of his 67 or so papers in mathematics and statistics, about a third are presented, starting with some of his first papers, Precessions of an Elliptical Orbit and  On a Generalization of the Second Theorem of Bourbaki, and ending with one of the papers he wrote under the peculiar alias of S. Ducray,  Probability and Prime Numbers.

An attempt was made to include all the important papers, in particular the ones that made his reputation such as Parallelism and Path-Spaces that along with two other notes by Cartan and Chern are the basic of the Kosambi-Cartan-Chern theory,  the various papers that laid the foundations of scientific numismatics, as well as the papers that he should have followed up but didn’t, such as Statistics in Function Space that foreshadowed the K-L decomposition. The Kosambi distance in genetics was elaborated in  The Estimation of Map Distances from Recombination Values, and this is also reprinted.

Kosambi’s obsession with a statistical approach to the proof of the Riemann hypothesis resulted in several papers of which An Application of Stochastic Convergence, Statistical Methods in Number Theory, and The Sampling Distribution of Primes are reprinted here.  These, as is well-known, effectively ruined his reputation as a serious mathematician.

Chinese. Japanese. French. German. English. DDK published papers in all these languages, sometimes exclusively, and twice the same article in translation. Also reprinted in this volume are three of the foreign language papers, the ones in German, French, and Chinese. The last is of particular interest since it was written during an exchange visit to China in the late 1950’s and only later published in English.

A number of people have helped me along the way and it is my pleasure to thank them all here. For the initial suggestion that the book be done, and for sustained and general encouragement, I am very grateful to Romila Thapar. I’ve written about this before.  Meera Kosambi was keen to see her father’s mathematical legacy appreciated and was very enthusiastic about bringing out this collection and helped greatly in more ways than I can describe. She passed away in January 2015, when she knew the project was afoot, but not in any way certain as to how it would all come out. Michael Berry, S. G. Dani, and Andrew Odlyzko discussed and advised on various  points of the mathematics.  Indira Chowdhury and  Oindrila Raychaudhuri helped vis-à-vis archival matters.  Rajaram Nityananda had had many of DDK’s papers digitized, a great boon, and one that made the reproduction of some material much easier! Kapilanjan Krishan,  Rahim Rajan, and Mudit Trivedi  helped me locate some of the more obscure of DDK’s papers. K. Srinivas retyped almost all the papers, and Cicilia Edwin painstakingly proofread most of them.  Toshio Yamazaki and Divyabhanusinh Chavda  told me of their interactions with DDK, helping to flesh out the personality. Finally, Aban Mukherji was gracious with permissions, as were all the journal editors who kindly permitted the several articles to be reprinted.

DDK maintained a charmingly frank notebook diary during his Harvard years. On the 19th of January 1927 he notes: A most restless day. I have forgotten to mention Monday the 17th and an important conference with Birkhoff thereon […] Problems: Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Four color map, the functional equation […] Today was unusually restless with a great deal of time spent, possibly wasted in the Widener. Looked up old issues of Outing, Shakespear’s Hindi Readers, most of Burton’s works [of him more later], Roosevelt on African and Brazilian ‘sporting’ – worthless – Stefansson’s excellent and much remembered Friendly Arctic

All this variety in a single day! To recall WordsworthBliss indeed it was in that dawn to be alive! Kosambi, just out of his teens, was just bursting with energy, both intellectual and physical (for which one must read the diaries in some detail). The earnestness that only comes at that age shines through on the pages quite unselfconsciously:


Exuberance indeed, but also some simplicity: Deep interest, well sustained, is essential in the acquisition of knowledge upon any subject. And the third realization of the day: Life is good.  Yes indeed, to be young was very heaven.

Global Responsibilities — September 14, 2016

Global Responsibilities

I was a graduate student in the mid 1970s. In those days computers were large beasts that were festooned with blinking lights, that ate punched cards and spewed out answers on large sheets of paper. The internet was in its infancy. Travel was expensive and infrequent, and communication, which was by mail, meant that answers to letters typically took a month or so. Collaborations with colleagues outside one’s own institution was rare, usually happening only during sabbaticals or extended visits…

coverThe practice of scientific research has evolved radically in the past few decades, largely due to the effects of globalization. Dramatically improved communication and significantly enhanced computation have contributed greatly to making scientific research a global enterprise. Many more scientific papers in many more areas of science today tend to involve large numbers of authors, and as the problems addressed become more complex, these different authors tend to be from different disciplines, often from different institutions, and quite often from different countries.

 Even in my own research in the past decades, things have changed quite drastically. Between 2006 and 2015, I estimate that I have written papers with colleagues from over 40 different institutions in a dozen or so different countries. The average number of authors on my papers is about 3.5, and I have not even met about 25 of my co-authors. In the ten years between 1986 and 1995 by contrast, the average number of authors on my papers was 2.5, the total number of different institutions was about 15, my coauthors were from about 7 different countries and I had not met only three of them. (Not having met one’s coauthors being a strange way to characterize the globalization of research! Or its multidisciplinarity!)

 Such numbers are probably not atypical, and reflect the changes brought about not just by globalization and enhanced communication and mobility, but also by the realization of shared scientific goals and the advantages of collaborative research. Looking at the patterns of scientific publication over the past fifteen or more years, one can conservatively estimate that between 10 and 15% of the papers that are published by Indians is in collaboration with researchers based outside India. This estimate doubles when one adds all other countries, and if one were to restrict the count to the last decade, to high-impact journals, or to authors from the better known institutes in the country, the proportion of papers which result from international collaborations is even higher.

Trust is a crucial component in carrying out such collaborative research. One has to believe in the reliability of results communicated by one’s collaborators, some of who one may not have even met. And as is becoming painfully evident there are numerous ways in which the trust can be broken. Deliberately, as in the cases of fraud, but also inadvertently, when cultural cues are misread and the work (or other) ethics of different cultures clash. In this context, having a properly articulated code of conduct that is generally accepted is very valuable. A recent book Doing Global Science: A guide to responsible conduct in the global research enterprise tries to provide just that.

Doing Global Science is timely, and merits careful consideration of all, researchers and science administrators alike. IAP, the Inter-Academy Partnership, a global network of science academies, formed a committee that has authored the book. Professor Indira Nath of the AIIMS, from India and E.-L. Winnacker, President of the German Research Foundation were the co-chairs of the Committee on Research Integrity. They have a blogpost on the Science website, and a Commentary in the latest issue of Current Science.

 The book is short, but covers a range of issues that touch upon ethical matters that have surely confronted anyone who does research. The titles of some of the ten basic chapters are indicative: “Planning and Preparing for Research”, “Preventing the Misuse of Research and Technology”, “The Researcher’s Responsibilities to Society”, “Preventing and Addressing Irresponsible Practice”, “Aligning Incentives with Responsible Research” and  “Reporting Research Results”. What is most culturally sensitive is the presentation of case studies and scenarios (that seem all too familiar!) where the reader is encouraged to provide analysis and resolution.

As the blurb on the Princeton University Press website says, “The book places special emphasis on the international and highly networked environment in which modern research is done, presenting science as an enterprise that is being transformed by globalization, interdisciplinary research projects, team science, and information technologies.”

The book is not ponderous, nor is it particularly verbose, covering all that it has to say in something like 110 pages, give or take a few. The difficulty of finding a universally acceptable code of conduct that can be encapsulated in something like a scientist’s Hippocratic Oath is a very real one. Until such a code comes into being,  reading this book and internalizing the message will have to be a (not so poor) substitute.

Academic Ghosts — July 7, 2015

Academic Ghosts

indexA type of academic fraud that is widespread and strangely enough, not strictly illegal is that of ghostwriting or (as Wikipedia informs) ghosting, where articles and even complete theses (at the M. Tech., M. Phil. and Ph. D. levels) can be written by one person for another, usually for monetary considerations.

Academic ghosters can cite many famous precedents: Mozart is known to have written pieces in the name of wealthy patrons, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was written by Gertrude Stein (although probably not just for money)  and speeches (or tweets) of most of our public figures are written by others, but in their names (usually as part of their jobs). Nevertheless,  when it comes to academics, there is something repulsive about the practice which is essentially fraudulent and which, when detected,  should invite punitive action.

This post has the following genesis. Last month I was invited to Bangalore to talk about publication ethics to a group of science students, all spending the summer in various laboratories, and who were mostly pre-publishers (namely they had not yet written their first scientific papers but very likely will do so soon). In my presentation, I touched upon the standard types of unethical behaviour- data fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, conflicts of interest, etc., but the editor of one of our leading journals happened to be in the audience, and he pointed out to me later that I had not talked about fraudulent practices such as “complimentary authorship, surrogate authorship, writing of papers/theses for monetary considerations, publishing against payments” all of which fall in a moral twilight zone.

screen2Upon reflection, I agree I could have talked about these in the context of publishing ethics, and in the future I probably shall. The problems are many, but there are also many shades of gray here and as it happens, the inhabitants of this twilight zone are of various sorts (but all have gone across to the dark side in one way or another).

The issue of what constitutes authorship of a paper is getting to be difficult to discern in these times when some academic papers can have over two thousand authors. Within each discipline/community though, there is broad agreement as to what entitles you to have your name on a paper in the field, but more importantly, what does not.

The most common form of complimentary authorship is when names are added on to a paper for their having (a) headed a laboratory (quite routine in some of our big laboratories!), (b) supported the other authors financially through public grants, say as head of the research group, but made no intellectual contribution to the work, or (c) value (real or perceived) in getting papers accepted for publication. (Sometimes, but rarely, this gets done without the knowledge or consent of the person being given the complimentary authorship; a colleague bitterly recounts the difficulty he had in getting his name removed from such a paper after it was published… How does one even begin to explain this to journal editors?!) Quite correctly, this is a practice that cannot be supported, but it is also difficult to detect, even when the journal asks (as many increasingly do) of the role of each of the authors in the paper: much can be hidden in lists. And then there is the apocryphal story of a well known academic who – for a price – agreed to add as coauthor an acquaintance who needed the paper for his own professional advancement.

Sold-Hammer-280x173Direct ghosting gives rise to surrogate authorship – one person does the work and writes the paper in another’s name. This practice is probably going to increase with time, especially when regulatory bodies like the UGC insist on a minimum number of papers in journals to compute the API (or Academic Performance Index) Score for employment or promotion. Not that asking for academic performance is a bad thing – on the contrary, it is difficult to imagine what else one would ask for. But since ghosting is not quite illegal, there are any number of agencies that provide this service, some of which advertise themselves very openly. As an article in The Telegraph reports, the job can be quite lucrative: many of these companies have their own websites, and others list themselves on websites (like Quikr!, eBay or Olx) and offer to do everything from A to Z.

Indeed, the services offered are comprehensive. I quote from one such vendor; the originally execrable text of the advertisement has been edited to be more readable. They say “By opting for our service, over 90% of our clients have reported grades that were better than what they expected.  Our service will increase the chances of approval of your academic documents. We have experience, having completed 2000 Ph Ds  from 15 countries like USA, UK, Iran, China, Korea, Brazil, Russia, Africa,  etc.” Companies like this are willing to give a Ph D candidate help with  “Topic Selection, Synopsis, Thesis, Research Proposal, Research Paper, Research Paper Published in Reputed International Journal, Software Based Project implementation, PhD Presentation”.

Isn’t this what should be done at one’s home university along with one’s Ph D mentor? One might argue that companies like this exist in order to fill a niche, the vacuum of academic guidance and mentorship at our existing universities, but that is neither here nor there. The surrogacy of authorship goes well into the realm of academic fraud, especially when they assure you that “the work” is “delivered with Plagiarism Report checked on License Based Software”.

Some months ago there was a sting operation at Ber Serai, the market that lies midway between JNU and the IIT Delhi. Theses can be purchased there pretty much for the asking, and come in two flavours. In Model A, existing theses (that have earlier been submitted to some other university) are available, and all that the customer has to do is to “change the initial credits and the name of the university”. In Model B, one can get “original content written […] It will cost you two rupees per word for the original content. For a 10,000 word thesis you will have to pay 20,000 rupees. It won’t be detected in any plagiarism software, that is our guarantee.”

The existence of such “thesis shops” in the neighborhood of many universities has been an open secret for a long time, and the resistance of some universities to openness in sharing their scholarship through digital academic repositories has been partly driven by the fear of having their theses copied (or discovered to have been copied!).

One can even go a step further and dispense with being a bonafide student altogether. Some years ago, another exposé revealed that “educational consultancies can help you to get certificates for Class 10 and 12, degrees in Ph D, B Tech, LLB, MBA, MA, MD and MBBS from a range of universities, irrespective of whether it is a regular or distance learning programme. The cost depends on the degree one is keen to acquire. If needed they can even organise mark sheets for several examinations at the same time.”

But if one were to just purchase a degree, one can go online and get a degree purportedly from universities in the US (or elsewhere) for your “life and work experience” so far and, of course, a substantial sum of money. One such site declares, “Being called a doctor even if you are not a medical doctor by degree is such music in the ears.  To buy a doctorate degree gives a level of competency.  Since it is the highest possible academic degree, you can explore a lot of opportunities if you have credentials that would prove a doctorate degree. If you buy a PhD you will achieve promotions at your workplace without having to write complex projects and attending classes that will ruin your family or work life. If you buy a PhD from our company you will get unlimited career opportunities and you will gain the respect of your employers and co workers.”

Let me leave it there for now.

There are two versions of publishing against payment.  In one, the journal that accepts a paper may, after the peer-review process is over, require a fee for publication, usually to make the paper open access or for other processing charges. (The journals are quite legitimate and of quality, it is the publication model that requires that the cost of publication be borne by someone, and in this case, it is the author.) In the second case, which is the fraudulent one, the journals do no peer-review and merely publish articles based on the fees charged. Such journals – and there are many of them out there – will publish literally anything if the price is right, and some persons (one hesitates to call them academics) gravitate to such journals since they have an ISSN number, and anything printed therein can be claimed as a publication when computing API scores.


In the end, it is usually all about the money. Academic advancement comes about with publications, and a ghosted thesis or papers usually results in a job or in promotions and higher salaries. Complimentary authorship is typically a quid pro quo for favours granted earlier. To be sure the fraction of academics who indulge in these practices is small, but the numbers are not negligible (especially at the M. Tech. and M. Phil. stages).

But, as recent events on the national stage demonstrate, fake degrees have a way of being found out, as do fake theses or fake publications – it often is just a matter of time. In the process, though, more is lost than merely the illusion of  scholarship. Time and effort, indeed.  But also trust, and the belief in shared values of an academic ethos.