UGC’s half-hearted attempt to teach research ethics

UGC compressed

Finally, UGC is set to introduce a course for PhD students on research and publication ethics. Ironically, the course will not be teaching even the basics of preparing images for publication. India has the highest probability of containing problematic images in published papers.

After years of ignoring the elephant in the room, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has finally made it compulsory for all PhD scholars to take up a course on research and publication ethics as part of the pre-registration course work. It will be effective from the forthcoming academic session.

The course carries two credits and entails 30 teaching hours. The course covers several aspects of research conduct, publication ethics and misconduct, open access publishing and databases, and research metrics. But on closer scrutiny, it becomes abundantly clear that the course will not do justice. The course will at best create “awareness about publication ethics and misconduct” but not equip them to steer clear of unethical research practices.

For instance, the topic on scientific conduct deals with a range of vital issues that research students might face during the course of research. This includes plagiarism, falsification and fabrication, misrepresentation of data, selective reporting, duplicate publication, and segregation of data and publishing as multiple papers. Ironically, these important issues will be covered in just five hours.

Wholesale and substantial copying of text from previously published papers and even paraphrasing without due citation are quite common in papers published from India, particularly from State universities. But the introduction of plagiarism-checking software in most Indian universities and compulsory checking for plagiarism prior to paper publication by most journals has largely addressed the problem.

Image duplication, manipulation ignored

While the course does cover data falsification and fabrication, there is not a single mention of teaching the young researchers with the basics of preparing images for publication. While certain changes to images are indeed acceptable, hundreds of papers are being corrected or retracted each year for image duplication and manipulation. Unlike plagiarism, journals have woken up to inappropriately altered images and outright manipulation only since the early 2000s.

As Dr. Elisabeth M. Bik and others had noted in a June 2016 paper in the journal mBio, the instances of “inappropriately duplicated images” suddenly peaked in 2003 and has been about 4-5% since then. The over 8,100 papers screened from just one journal (PLOS ONE) for a 16-month period from 2013 to 2014 revealed that papers published from India had 1.93-fold higher probability of containing “problematic images”, the highest in the world; in comparison, China had 1.89-fold while the U.S. had 0.60-fold higher probability.

PubPeer proof

Unlike in the case of data falsification and fabrication, duplication and manipulation of images is relatively easy to identify post-publication. That PubPeer, a website that allows independent scientists to publish post-publication review of scientific papers, is flooded with reviews of papers with questionable images is proof that the scientific community has become alert to a malice that has so far been largely overlooked.

Magnitude of the problem

In India, dozens of papers with questionable images have been published by researchers from a few Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) labs, and reputed institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Dhanbad, Indian Institute of Science, and Bose Institute. It is far worse in the case of State universities. Recently, Dr. Bik had identified problematic images and plagiarised text in over 200 papers from Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu. Several papers from Periyar University in Tamil Nadu and Banaras Hindu University too can be found on PubPeer.

Magnitude of the problem with papers published from India can be judged can scanning the largest database of retracted papers maintained by Retraction Watch blog. The searchable database reveals that of the about 1,050 papers from India retracted since 1970s, 330 have been for plagiarism and nearly 200 for image duplication and/or manipulation. There is no ballpark figure for papers corrected for problematic images.

According to an article in Science, though the U.S. and China have the most number of journal papers retracted, India has a higher rate of retractions per 10,000 papers published — 7.5 per 10,000 papers in the case of India vis-à-vis 5 per 10,000 papers for China.

Therefore, if UGC is serious about teaching research and publication ethics, it should make scientific conduct and publication ethics into two separate courses with sufficient teaching hours or devote more time to teach research ethics and necessarily include image preparation as part of the course.

Published in The Hindu on January 10, 2020