IISER Thiruvananthapuram Director: There’s more to it than meets the eye

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In response to the Faulty IISER-Tvm Facebook post that I shared about the lack of action against Prof. V. Ramakrishnan, the Director of IISER Thiruvananthapuram, despite my article pointing out the “copy and paste” content in his papers, Harsh Jog from IISER Pune asked: Can’t the IISER Tvm faculty issue a statement? Why wait for outsiders to clean your home?

Just a few minutes ago Faculty IISER-Tvm  replied saying: “The kind of targeting of individual faculty members that takes place in IISER-TVM under the ‘copycat’ director is enormous. We have had innumerable instances against several faculty members here. In fact, a huge paperwork of fabricated materials was created by this ‘copycat’ director against two of our eminent researchers to remove them from their jobs. The ‘copycat’ director brings his own breed (read: good-for-nothing fellows) from all random places (read: places where research never happens) and takes such decisions as committee-recommended decisions. Research-related purchases are put on hold for several people. Natural pay raises that one should get are denied. The board of governors is aware of certain things. But we don’t know if the board of governors is aware of everything that takes place here.”

It’s sad if it is indeed true.

Prof. A. Jayakrishnan from IIT Madras had cried foul last year right after Prof. Ramakrishnan was appointed as the Director. He said his appointment was “patently wrong”. The faulty members of IISER Thiruvananthapuram had even written a letter to the Prime Minister. 

My experience

But let me share some details that I did not reveal earlier. In an email sent to me on December 4, 2016 he tried persuading me that I was wrong in my assessment saying: “…Your basis of conclusion [of plagiarism] is scientifically baseless and ridiculous.  In view of the same, it is evident that you have deliberately adopted the quantification contrary to the research methodology adopted by the scientific community.

It was then followed by a warning: “If you still persists with your alleged observation of plagiarism being committed by our group on the basis of your own conclusion and publish the so called article of insinuation and defamatory statements which is calculated to injure the reputation of our group or you are acting at the behest of those persons who want to bring disrepute to us and to the institution.

“If you still  write and publish,  it will constitute as a libel and if spoken a slander without any justification, nor a fair comment, nor an absolute privilege, quantified privilege [sic] to justify your illegal acts and  the same will be presumed  to lower our estimation [sic] among the right thinking people generally. It is evident from your conduct that you have deliberately chosen to publish an article not only to defame the institution where I work but also those students who have published the articles.

“If you still publish the article based on your own conclusion which is not all in line with any of the research methodology adopted by the scientific community, you alone will be liable and responsible for all the damages we may suffer on account of your wilful and malicious act and conduct.”

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‘Copy and paste’ content spotted in IISER Thiruvananthapuram director’s papers

‘Copy and paste’ content spotted in IISER Thiruvananthapuram director’s papers

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There is 68% similarity in content between this 2014 paper of Prof. Ramakrishnan and other papers.

Over 50 papers published between 1984 and 2014 by Prof. V. Ramakrishnan, formerly with the School of Physics, Madurai Kamaraj University and currently the Director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Thiruvananthapuram have varying degrees of content taken verbatim from or have very close similarity with other previously published papers. Large chunks of text have been reproduced verbatim from other papers and the sources have not been cited. In many instances where the sources have been cited, the content has been reproduced verbatim without paraphrasing.

In nearly 15 papers, where Prof. Ramakrishnan is the corresponding author, the extent of text similarity with earlier published papers (technically called similarity index) is as high as 60% and greater. At 68%, a paper published online in May 2014 in the journal Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy has the highest similarity index.

An anonymous person has posted this paper on Pubpeer.com and highlighted the content that has been taken verbatim from other papers.

Most of the papers which have portions that are very similar to other papers have been published in the journal Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy and the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy. Most of the papers have been published from Madurai Kamaraj University, where he was a Professor in Physics before joining IISER Thiruvananthapuram.

The Turnitin software that was used indicates text similarity by stating the percentage of similarity index. For several reasons, the “similarity index cannot be used as an indicator of whether plagiarism has occurred or not” when Turnitin software is used.

Five papers scrutinised 

So to ascertain if the similarity in content amounts to plagiarism, five papers, where Prof. Ramakrishnan is the corresponding author, were randomly chosen for closer scrutiny. These papers were published between 2003 and 2015. Three of these papers (here, here and here) were published in the journal Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy and the other two (here and here) were published in the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy.

According to a scientist very familiar with scientific ethics and who cross-checked the five papers for plagiarism, one paper contains substantial verbatim use of material from papers by other authors without citing the sources. And where the sources of have been cited, the content has been reproduced verbatim without paraphrasing. The other papers have substantial verbatim use of material from their earlier published papers, technically called self-plagiarism.

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Comment in Pubpeer

Responding to the paper posted in Pubpeer.com, an anonymous person says: “I am based in the U.S. and usually look at Pubpeer once a month or so. Out of curiosity had a look at this one, and tried to look at both original papers and found exactly what the submitter has claimed, at least with one section. My comparison is pasted below. There are many highlighted sections, obvious from the rainbow colours. I don’t have time to verify this. May be the ctrl-copy, ctrl-paste business has gone into the results too, then the question is are the experiments really carried out or everything is fake?

The possible way forward are the following:

  1. Notify the sponsoring agency of this research
  2. Notify the University where this work was done
  3. Notify both journals and the senior author of Bilge et al 2009 paper
  4. Put other papers under scrutiny, if this is done once it must be a mistake done by the first author, but if it has happened across many papers, then the corresponding author has to take the responsibility.

Seems to be a major case of scientific fraud, maybe this person is in some obscure university in India, still one has to behave responsibly.”

“Even with citing (attribution), the source text must be used with quotes. Doing otherwise is misconduct as it is not clear that the entire text comes from the cited source. Even paraphrasing extensively even with references is not good practice,” another senior scientist from Delhi says in an email.

Self-plagiarism

Plagiarised content is found in the introduction section in the first paper. Unfortunately, it does not stop here — plagiarism extends to the experimental section and even to the results and discussion sections. The same trend is seen in the papers where self-plagiarism is rampant.

“There are two issues here — plagiarism from other authors’ work and self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism in the introductory section is somewhat acceptable because scientific background underlying any author’s work is going to be largely similar. However, self-plagiarism in the results and discussion section is not acceptable at all because it is tantamount to cloning one’s own paper again and again ad nauseum so that it appears that the person has authored a very large number of papers. This is exactly what is prevailing in the present case,” a senior chemist from a reputed institute in India, who cross-checked all the five papers against the original papers, says in an email.

Modus operandi

“It is cleverly done and different sections from different papers are stitched together. All the chemical systems in all the papers are very similar. It seems they just repeated the same kind of experiments with another sample, so the story goes the same way. The way in which the problem is formulated, the experimental details, the results, the discussion and the conclusions are identical,” says the chemist.

“Simple ‘copy and paste’ actually worked very well for him because he did not have to write anything new for his paper as his results had nothing new compared to the literature. You can generally expect this when the work in question is of the lowest standard and all the results would give the same conclusions (similar to the literature or his earlier papers). So I think he just had to change the names of the compounds and some other details, but rest is mostly the same from one paper to other of his own or that of literature work,” the senior chemist adds.

Denies wrongdoing

In a couple of emails to me, Prof. Ramakrishnan says: “Most of our experimental research publications include an amount of history and review of earlier research findings in the same area. All our supporting data are duly acknowledged and the source cited in the reference. Therefore, the question of plagiarism does not arise. As you have pointed out that from 1984 they have been in the public domain and so far no reviewer has pointed out that either our group has copied or stolen from others scientific data.”

On his request, two of the five papers (including the paper published online in May 2014 (see slide show) in the journal Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy) and the original papers from where he had plagiarised were sent to him; the plagiarised portions were highlighted in his papers and the original papers. In response, he denies any wrongdoing saying: “The highlighted portion of the attached documents sent by you (markings on reprint of our works) shows the name of journal, author, affiliation, mobile number, email [address] etc as plagiarised one.” He then goes on to say: “Your basis of conclusion is scientifically baseless and ridiculous. In view of the same, it is evident that you have deliberately adopted the quantification contrary to the research methodology adopted by the scientific community.”

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IISER Thiruvananthapuram Director: There’s more to it than meets the eye

IISER Thiruvananthapuram researchers can scoop out marine oil-spills

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Dr. Kana Sureshan (left) and Amol Vibhute have developed a gelator than can efficiently and selectively congeal oil.

Recovering marine oil-spills may soon become simple, efficient and cost-effective thanks to a compound (gelator) developed by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Thiruvananthapuram.

A team led by Dr. Kana M. Sureshan from the School of Chemistry used glucose as a starting material and through several chemical reactions produced compounds (gelators) that selectively congeals oil, including crude oil, from an oil-water mixture. Unlike other alternatives, the gelators, which are in a powder form, can be easily applied over oil-water mixture and does not cause any environmental damage. The results based on laboratory studies were published recently in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Currently, oil spillage is either burnt or confined using booms so that with time the oil slowly disintegrates into tiny oil droplets and gets degraded by bacteria. “But our gelator can recover oil from oil-water mixture. Through simple distillation the oil can then be separated from the gelator and the gelator can be reused several times (refined oil),” says Dr. Sureshan. “But in the case of crude oil the gelator can’t be recycled as the gelator is a solid and cannot be separated from tar and other solid remains that form after distillation. So our aim is to make the gelator cheaper and more efficient.”

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Crude oil gel after the addition of gelator powder.

The gelator molecule is partly hydrophobic and partly hydrophilic. While the hydrophilic part helps in self-assembling to form gelator fibres, the hydrophobic part is responsible for its diffusion into the oil layer. The better the self-assembly (which is primarily through hydrogen bonding) the better the fibre strength and gelation.

“To achieve better diffusion of the molecule into the oil phase and enhance the oil recovery we increased the hydrophobicity. This was done by adding an aromatic/alkyl group at some part (anomeric position) of the molecule,” says Dr. Sureshan.

“Adding the aromatic/alkyl group also makes the self-assembly stronger. The compound where the aromatic group was introduced had a stronger self-assembly and better ability to congeal more crude oil even when lesser amount of the compound was used,” says Amol M. Vibhute from the School of Chemistry, IISER Thiruvananthapuram and the first author of the paper.

Since the outer part of the fibre is hydrophobic, oil tends to gets into the spongy network made of fibres. Once inside the fibre network, oil loses fluidity and becomes a gel. As the self-assembly is strong, the gel maintains its structure and rigidity even under pressure.

When the researchers applied the compound on a benzene-water mixture and diesel-water mixture, it was able to congeal all the benzene and diesel within a short span of time. “The gel was strong enough to be scooped with a spatula,” says Dr. Sureshan. In the case crude oil it took a longer time for the compound to form a gel that was strong enough to be scooped off. “The crude oil is a mixture of several low- and high-boiling and polar and non-polar fractions. So the efficiency to form a gel is less in the case of crude oil,” Dr. Sureshan explains.

“We are trying to improve the efficiency of the compound in terms of better absorption capacity and use in real marine oil-spill situations. We will be testing the compound’s ability to form oil gels applied on ocean surface by artificially creating a marine oil-spill,” Dr. Sureshan says.

Published in The Hindu on November 2, 2016