Editorial: Fatal attraction of plagiarism

Published in The Hindu on March 2, 2012

Plagiarism is a curse that afflicts every endeavour where pen is put to paper — journalism, literature and academic research — but when it shows up in the world of science, the consequences can be far more damaging. At stake are not just individual reputations but the robustness of scholarly findings. That is why every effort must be made to stamp out the rot. It has emerged recently that a paper published in the July 2011 issue of Advanced Materials by eminent scientist and Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister C.N.R. Rao, S.B. Krupanidhi, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, and two students, contained about a dozen lines, including some references, lifted almost verbatim from an April 22, 2010 paper by Surajit Ghosh et al., in Applied Physics Letters. Fortunately, the scale of the infraction did not warrant rejection or retraction, as the plagiarised portions form only a part of the introduction, and description of an equation and do not in any way reduce the significance of the research work. But the scientists’ subsequent justification that the verbatim reproduction does not amount to plagiarism but is only an instance of “copying of a few sentences in the text,” and text “overlap” amounts to a disservice to science. The very fact that the journal took cognisance and published their apology is proof enough of the gravity of the transgression.

The U.S. Office of Research Integrity defines plagiarism as “the unattributed verbatim or nearly verbatim copying of sentences and paragraphs which materially mislead the ordinary reader regarding the contributions of the author.” Copying is by far one of the most common forms of academic deception. Students are often the worst offenders, especially in India, due to gross ignorance of what constitutes plagiarism. Hence there is a strong case to teach students the basics of research misconduct, including the correct use of citations, at an early stage of college education, as a comment published recently in Nature points out. In the present case, the lack of such training has unwittingly got senior researchers with a hitherto unblemished publishing record embroiled in controversy. Last year, a magazine editor got into trouble when he used plagiarised inputs provided by a junior colleague for a signed column. One of the ironies of our times is that the computer makes both plagiarism and its detection easier than ever: The internet provides easy and instant access to work from all over the world, but concordance software easily red-flags copying. The end result is that those who cut and paste will be caught.