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Publish, perish or pilfer?
No studies have been done to quantify the problem, because it is difficult to do so, but experts say that research misconduct certainly seems to be on the rise in India.
"There is definitely more pressure to publish now because publications have increasingly become the only measurable index for promotions and recruitments," says N. Raghuram, a member of the Society for Scientific Values, an NGO created by Indian scientists in 1986. "As the pressure has increased, so has plagiarism."
Of the 36 cases of plagiarism and other scientific misconduct the society has investigated, seven have involved high-level academics, including university heads and directors of top professional colleges. Membership in the society is voluntary, however, and the organization has no powers to punish wrongdoers.
Current Science, India's leading science journal edited by P. Balaram, head of the Indian Institute of Science, detected more than 80 cases of plagiarism or misconduct in articles submitted for publication over the two-year period from 2006 through 2008. "Many articles came from authors who had a poor understanding of what they should or shouldn't do with citations," said Balaram. "Things to be put in quotes weren't, and references were not put in the right places. There are a lot of gray areas where authors' intentions are not to violate any code of conduct."
Most research in India is conducted in public higher-education institutions, or at public research institutes. Members of the Society for Scientific Values say that because these are public entities, the government should have the ability to monitor and correct plagiarism problems, but that it has a vested interest in ignoring the problem.
Take, for example, the case of Gopal Kundu, a biochemist at the National Centre for Cell Science, in Pune, who won a prestigious science award from the government. He was later discredited when his institute, acting on an anonymous tip, conducted an investigation into his work in 2006-7 and established that he had misrepresented and manipulated data in an article published in 2005 in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, says Raghuram. The journal withdrew the paper in February 2007. Confronted with the investigation's findings, Kundu provided his institute with a written confession. But he later retracted his admission of guilt, and the government formed its own investigative committee and exonerated him, says Raghuram.
Many Indian researchers wish the federal government would set up an independent body, with teeth to punish the guilty, to investigate research misconduct. Nicholas Steneck, a consultant with the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which monitors institutional investigations of research misconduct in certain federal research projects, says that more must be done at the institutional level rather than at the federal level to combat misconduct. "It is not easy to investigate misconduct, and it requires a lot of skill," says Steneck. "We barely have it in the U.S. for so many instances, and we've been at it for 20 years."
Although India's inattention to misconduct is "certainly not unique," Steneck says it endangers a country with aspirations to be a leader in research.