The Public Face of Science

440px-E._M._S._Namboodiripad I was recently invited to Thrissur to speak at EMS-Smrithi,  the annual meeting that commemorates EMS Namboodiripad. The CPM leader Prakash Karat has said of EMS that he “straddled the history of twentieth century Kerala and the Indian Communist movement in a manner which invokes awe. The word ‘history’ is what recurs in the Malayalam media while paying tributes to him. History maker, history’s man, epochal figure: these are some of the terms which underline the recognition that EMS was something bigger than a political leader.”

It was an unusual invitation, but one that I gladly accepted, in part because of the unusual setting, and the chance to rub shoulders with a very different group of people. Not all unfamiliar, but still. I had been asked to speak on “Critical thinking, scientific temper, and the role of the scientific community“, and while the essay will appear in print elsewhere, I thought I would share some of it in this blogpost, although given that these are ongoing concerns of mine,  bits and pieces of what follows  have appeared in other posts.

Investment in research or in scientific activity is ultimately a community decision –  and given our political system, it is reflected in the way in which the budget for science is decided. Which in turn is determined by the party (or parties) we vote into power. The bulk of research in the country is therefore publicly supported, and one of the issues at hand is whether the results of publicly funded research need to be shared with the public that funded it.

Scientists therefore have the responsibility – even the moral obligation or duty – of accurately communicating their ideas and results. Of necessity, some of this will be restricted to an audience of peers, but increasingly, it is necessary to communicate the results of publicly funded research to a wider audience. In addition, there are fallacious and misleading statements on issues pertaining to science that are made by persons holding public office (mainly politicians, but also others that play a prominent role in society). Scientists and communicators of science share the additional responsibility of responding to such statements, regardless of how uncomfortable this might be.

India’s share in the world’s scientific enterprise has been steadily increasing over the years. It is well known that the scientific output of a country correlates strongly with the nominal GDP, but recent data suggests also that India’s contribution to the scientific literature (ranked sixth today) has been increasing at an even sharper rate, in contrast to the US, Japan or the EU. At the same time, India’s share of citations – a proxy for the quality of the research in terms of how useful it is considered by peers – is only ranked twelfth. Our role as consumers overtakes our role as contributors to the global knowledge pool.

There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from inadequate and subcritical funding of scientific research to a lack of a sufficiently large or competent body of scientists, namely the lack of a critical mass in most disciplines. It has even been suggested that Indians, either innately or due to our educational system, lack a truly innovative spirit, and thus our research tends to be derivative and incremental rather than being innovative and path-breaking.

One reason why this assumes particular significance is that the practice of scientific research has evolved radically in the past few decades, largely due to the effects of globalization. The combined effects of a vastly improved communication network and enhanced computational power 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 also often from different countries.

These changes have been 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. 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. 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. But there are many other ways in which this trust can be broken, and that is through public voices that speak of or for science.

The Science Academies of India, namely the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences of India are bodies that have some national responsibility for the maintenance of standards. From the mid 1930’s when they were all formed, they have tried to represent the best of Indian science, both in the practice of science as well as in its presentation, through publications, through engagement with the public, and by creating an independent and autonomous forum for the promotion of science. But in addition, there is also the Indian Science Congress, a body that has been in existence prior to Independence. The Prime Minister has traditionally attended at least the inaugural session of the Annual meeting of the Congress, and many national policies have been announced at these meetings.

F1.largeOver the years, though, the participation of politicians in what should be mainly a meeting of scientists has been unfortunate. On the one hand, the quality of the science at these meetings has been quite poor – JBS Haldane wrote a desperate essay, “Scandal of the Science Congress” describing his participation in the 1957 Congress, where he says, “I was privileged to hear the Prime Minister’s speech to the Association of Scientific Workers at the Science Congress recently held in Bombay. I did not hear his address to the Congress as a whole, since my ticket for this event had been thoughtfully removed from the booklet issued to me on arrival in Bombay.  The Prime Minister made some rather bitter remarks about Indian Scientists who worked abroad because pay and facilities were better. […]  It is time that responsible persons in India realised that the invitation of foreigners to such Congresses lowers the prestige of Indian science considerably.  […] But the object of the Science Congress should be to advance science in India, and this, in my opinion, it failed to do.  There would be little difficulty in making it useful. This would involve discourtesy to some influential people. But in science efficiency is more important than courtesy.”

 Haldane’s advice has not been heeded, and in recent years we have seen that the prestige of Indian science has been lowered considerably with very public and very irresponsible statements being made by responsible people on ancient Indian contributions to aerospace technology or reconstructive surgery or whatever. Especially when they are widely reported, such statements give a very negative image of the state of Indian science.

It is not just the lack of critical thinking that such statements betray, but they also indicate an intellectual laziness: there is no appeal to new evidence, no original or new research that uncovers any new data, and indeed the attempt is very much to create a fiction that suits a political narrative. In addition to a lack of data, there is also a deliberate attempt to ignore evidence – as for example regarding the migration of humans into the subcontinent, or more recently, the bizarre statements by the Minister of State for Human Resource Development who was  quoted as saying that “Nobody, including our ancestors, in writing or orally, have said they saw an ape turning into a man. Darwin’s theory (of evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curricula.”

In reaction, the three Science Academies of India issued a joint statement, “to state that there is no scientific basis for the Minister’s statements. Evolutionary theory, to which Darwin made seminal contributions, is well established. There is no scientific dispute about the basic facts of evolution. This is a scientific theory, and one that has made many predictions that have been repeatedly confirmed by experiments and observation. An important insight from evolutionary theory is that all life forms on this planet, including humans and the other apes have evolved from one or a few common ancestral progenitors.

It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths.

The theory of evolution by natural selection as propounded by Charles Darwin and developed and extended subsequently has had a major influence on modern biology and medicine, and indeed all of modern science. It is widely supported across the world.”

UntitledThis incident points to an appalling lack of scientific temper in the public sphere. Scientific temper is a much abused term, and although it has been inserted in our Constitution, there is little real public understanding of what Nehru had in mind when he defined scientific temper in his Discovery of India as “a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellow men“, namely that this was a characteristic general quality that we should absorb.

In January 2012, the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources publicised the Palampur Statement, a resolution adopted at the International Conference on Science Communication for Scientific Temper. The Palampur Statement is a fairly long and comprehensive document that delves into, among other things, the changing world order, the current state of science and technology, the spread of fundamentalism, and so on. It has to be read- even cursorily would be enough- to get a true sense of its potential impact in our lives. One fragment that summarizes the main gist of it goes: the thought structure of a common citizen is constituted by scientific as well as extra-scientific spaces. These two mutually exclusive spaces co-exist peacefully. Act of invocation of one or the other is a function of social, political or cultural calling. Those who consider spreading Scientific Temper as their fundamental duty must aim at enlarging the scientific spaces. And it concludes: We call upon the people of India to be the vanguard of the scientific temper.

In vain. There is no noticeable increase in an appreciation of science in the public sphere. The suppression, or assassination, of rationalists – Kalburgi, Pansare, Dabholkar, Lankesh – point also to a persistence in public intolerance that education has done little to dispel. Many of the peoples’ science movements have noticeably decelerated, and paradoxically, the growth of the internet and social media have also seen an increase in fake news and misinformation, to the extent that another minister can assert, also at this year’s Science Congress, as it happens, that the late Stephen Hawking  “said on record that our Vedas might have a theory which is superior to Einstein’s theory of E=mc2.”

So what role should the scientific community play in such matters? It is exhausting to counter every bullet of misinformation or false propaganda with public statements, but the fact that reactions are otherwise so slow in coming indicate that there is a lack of effective science communicators or more accurately, the lack of a critical mass of science communicators in the country. The West has had a long tradition of scientists themselves communicating their theories or discoveries with the public, be it Faraday and the Royal Society Lectures, or Eddington, Darwin, Huxley, Humboldt, and more recently, Sagan, Dawkins, Crick and Watson, and the like.  The importance of communicating one’s ideas to whatever audience that shows an interest cannot be overstated. I’m not sure I want to get into whether it is a scientist’s moral obligation or duty to do so, but it does seem to me that the value of most things we do is enhanced when the communal nature of our activities is explicitly recognized. And the effectiveness of the work is directly related to the size and width of the community that is aware of or is made aware of it.

Investment in research or in scientific activity is ultimately a  community decision –  and given our political system, it is reflected in the way in which the budget for science is decided. Which in turn is determined by the party (or parties) we vote into power. The bulk of research in the country is therefore publicly supported, and one of the issues at hand is whether the results of publicly funded research need to be shared with the public that funded it. [The argument has been made very forcefully in the West, where research is funded both publicly and privately. When private companies fund research, the results are guarded zealously for possible patents, but many have argued for full public access to publicly funded research – and this has formed the vanguard of the Open Access movement.] One can take the point of view that the public in question do not have the required sophistication to appreciate the nuances, the finer details of most areas of research, and there is some truth in that. But the same argument would hold for, say, music, or cuisine, or poetry or any number of things that we enjoy as a community and appreciate as individuals. Each of us may hear the notes we wish to hear – or can hear, for that matter – and make of it what we will. There will be those among us for whom even this vague sense will provide the catalyst for other avenues of exploration and discovery.

Hearing about a subject from someone who has contributed greatly to it can be much more than just inspirational: the authenticity of experience transmits itself in a very unique manner. It is quite another thing to have someone else talk about it, though there are exceptions, of course- some science journalists are very effective communicators of the big picture, in a way that a practitioner who is focused on some small portion of the puzzle may not be. And of course, this is their forte, putting together a narrative that can grip a reader in a way in which an individual’s very personal story might not. But authenticity has a separate value and cannot be substituted. Which is why it might be good to occasionally worry about communicating just what it is that one does – science, poetry, or philosophy – to a wider and larger audience. The process might well be beneficial to the quality of what one does in the first place!

There is a sense in which the privilege of being invested in to pursue publicly funded research is very much an expression of the trust of a society. By acknowledging this as part of a social contract, almost the very least one can do is to pay back to society by talking openly (and clearly) about what one does and the results one has obtained.

Almost all the research that is typically done at the University is publicly funded, through the Government of India via various ministries, or by other public funds. Should the results of such research not be made available to as many as possible? Willinsky’s Access Principle states that ‘a commitment to scholarly work carries with it the responsibility to circulate that work as widely as possible’. This is in part so that knowledge that is created can be disseminated in a manner that the largest numbers of people have unfettered access to it. Who ‘owns’ knowledge? The scholar who creates it through research, or the funding agency that funded it directly or indirectly, or the commercial publishing house who owns the journal where the research was reported?    Should scholarly publications be absolutely freely available, or should they only reach those who have the funds to pay for subscriptions to the journals where these articles are published? There are as many nuanced opinions on this question as there are scholars, but with the ubiquity of the internet and the rising costs of journals, the issue is one that merits some thought and discussion.

The digital revolution is upon us all in a way that demands that such issues be thought about afresh since the modes of preservation of information and the modes of dissemination of knowledge have changed radically in our lifetime. For one thing, most journals of any quality are now online. Furthermore, many of them are ‘open access’, namely the articles they carry can be viewed without a subscription. However, the majority of academic journals have been in existence for a long time now and date back to the pre- digital era. The digitization of this legacy is a related issue, and the manner of the digitization and its consequent costs is relevant.

Openness is ‘better’ in an abstract way – at the end of the day it is not clear from which quarter the fundamental advances are going to come, and so it is best not to deny anyone the requisite opportunities. The more people who have access to knowledge, the more one can maximize the probability of any one of them using some part of it in a fundamental and future altering manner.

Willinsky proposes that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right, one that is closely related to the ability to defend other rights. The argument is tenuous but offers an interesting perspective on the ability of increased access to knowledge to have an impact beyond the areas envisioned by the creators of that knowledge. To some extent, the Right to Information Act in India has had a very similar effect – information on one aspect of public life can have consequences on other aspects.

kosambiScholars should see that their work reaches the largest number of people and should make all efforts to ensure this. This is their dharma. Academic administrators should see that scholarly work is supported in a manner so as to have this wide reach. And this is their karma. In the long run, inclusivity is clearly more in the public interest than exclusion in any form, especially in a globalized world, and the Open Access movement can help us along this path.

bernalIn closing, I would like to recall DD Kosambi’s essay, Science and Freedom, wherein he says “There is an intimate connection between science and freedom, the individual freedom of the scientist being only a small corollary. Freedom is the recognition of necessity; science is the cognition of necessity. The first is the classical Marxist definition of freedom, to which I have added my own definition of science.” Science, in Kosambi’s felicitous turn of phrase, is the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding – through thought and experience – of what is required, what is needed.

There is, as JD Bernal said so many years ago, hardly any country in the world that needs the application of science more than India. What is called for, therefore, is increased public investment, both intellectual and economic, in this necessary science and the cognition of this necessity.

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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 http://tinyurl.com/jgn2djj. 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:

jan19

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

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

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.

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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.