In India, plagiarism is on the rise

NEW DELHI, India — Two years ago, Raghunath Mashelkar, a leading science-policy expert, shocked Indian academia when he admitted that a book he co-authored in 2004 — about intellectual property — contained plagiarized text.

"I was working on so many things at the time that I took the help of researchers to add new information to what I had written," he told Science magazine. "Unfortunately, they copied verbatim from somebody else's writings. I know it is a sin. But I was so pressed for time that this skipped my attention."

Mashelkar later resigned as head of a government committee looking into Indian patent law after accusations surfaced that a section of a committee report he wrote was also plagiarized.

That one of India's top scientists is guilty of plagiarism points to a complex problem in Indian research, say academics, scientists and members of India's only watchdog group focused on research misconduct, the Society for Scientific Values.

Increasing pressure to publish, combined with a lack of oversight — and in some cases a lack of proper training for scientists — has created conditions ripe for plagiarism and other research misconduct, those experts say. That is particularly troubling at a time when India is expanding its higher-education system and hopes to engage further with academics outside the country to expand its research capabilities.

The Indian government has been worried about India's low research output for some time. In February, Kapil Sibal, who was then India's minister of science and technology, told Parliament that the number of scientific research papers published in India stood at just 22,215 in 2007, up from 11,067 a decade earlier. Sibal, now the minister in charge of higher education, noted that while Chinese academics published a similar number of papers in 1997 — 12,632 — that figure leapt to 67,433 by 2007. As a result, China contributes 8.6 percent of the world's scientific papers, a British study found, while India lags behind with a mere 2.4 percent.

To help close the research gap, last December Prime Minister Manmohan Singh doubled financing for science and technology research, to 2 percent of the gross domestic product, saying that newly industrializing nations like China and South Korea have "leapfrogged ahead of us by their mastery of science and technology."

In addition, revised rules for promotion and pay increases, which went into effect about a decade ago and were toughened when new pay scales were announced this year, link the number of published papers to promotions.

The resulting push to publish, combined with ignorance about what exactly constitutes plagiarism and research misconduct, has led to a rise in such incidents in the last eight to 10 years, observers argue. Meanwhile, the lack of both federal and institutional mechanisms that could detect and punish instances of misconduct have compounded the problem, say some scientists.

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.