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Hyderabad University VC Admits to Plagiarism

The Wire presented Appa Rao Podile with evidence that three papers coauthored by him contained multiple instances of ‘cut and paste’ writing.

University of Hyderabad vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile. Source: YouTube

University of Hyderabad vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile. Source: YouTube

New Delhi: Appa Rao Podile, vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. Most recently, he was under fire for his use of the police to deal with students protesting the university’s response to Rohith Vemula’s death. While that crisis has cast a shadow on his role as an administrator, emerging evidence of plagiarism in multiple scientific articles coauthored by Appa Rao is likely to raise questions about his academic credentials as well.

The plagiarism relates to three papers published in 2007 and 2014.

Six plagiarised sentences were found in the article ‘Root Colonization and Quorum Sensing are the Driving Forces of Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR) for Growth Promotion’, published in the journal Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy in 2014. Appa Rao is listed as the lead as well as corresponding author. In a second paper, ‘Induced Defence in Plants: A Short Overview’, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, India in 2014, on which Appa Rao is one of three authors, one instance of plagiarism was found. In a third paper – chronologically the first, having been published in 2007 in the Indian Journal of Microbiology – one sentence has been plagiarised from text he coauthored in 2005, and again reproduced in a paper he coauthored in 2010.

All the instances are listed at the end of this article with the sources containing the original material.

When contacted about the papers, Appa Rao’s response was uniform across all cases: that it “wasn’t a deliberate attempt” from his group, and that he takes full responsibility for the mistakes. “If we have plagiarised others’ data, we will retract the paper with regrets. If we have missed citing references of the original source for a part of the text, we will apologise for the mistakes.” He added that he would make use of the “appropriate software from now on” – referring to tools that check for plagiarism. However, the University of Hyderabad website states that the use of one tool in particular, Turnitin, is mandatory before students are allowed to submit their papers for peer-review. When asked about this, Appa Rao said, “Turnitin is now available for us to use before submitting papers” and that it wasn’t the practice “when our paper was submitted.”

Rahul Siddharthan, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, said, “While the examples of plagiarism exhibited are disturbing, I feel it is too early to say how systemic the problem is, and a proper investigation is required before further comment.” According to Raghavendra Gadagkar, the president of INSA, the next course of action will have to be determined by the editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of INSA, Subhash C. Lakhotia. In an email to The Wire, Lakhotia said, “The journal is committed to standard practices of scientific publications and has a defined policy of dealing with any incidence of plagiarism or other misconduct.” At the same time, he did say that the journal does not “routinely use an anti-plagiarism software”.

Not the first VC

Presented with evidence of his plagiarism, Appa Rao wrote back asking for advice from this correspondent: “Please advise me as to what other authors have done in similar instances. We will also follow … Since it is a sensitive matter we would like to be properly advised.”

The journals’ decisions are limited to what will happen to the papers themselves – not what penalties, if any, Appa Rao might end up facing. Because he acknowledges a grant from the Department of Biotechnology at the end of his paper (No.BT/PR4175/AGR/21/350/2011), a formal complaint lodged with the DBT could result in it directing the University of Hyderabad to examine the matter. The DBT’s policies concerning research misconduct are “identical in spirit and substantially so in content” to the UK-based Wellcome Trust’s policies on the issue. The penalties range from retracting the relevant passages and being rapped on the knuckles to retracting the entire article and asking for institutional action against the authors.

Many instances of plagiarism by high-profile Indian scientists have been recorded in the past. Some prominent offenders include Bharat Ratna awardee C.N.R. Rao; the noted chemical engineer R.A. Mashelkar; Pondicherry University VC Chandra Krishnamurthy; former Delhi University VC Deepak Pental; and former Kumaon University VC B.S. Rajput. While Rajput was eventually forced to resign from his post, it wasn’t before a group of American academicians petitioned the then-President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to have his publications investigated.

In many cases, institutions have been slow to upbraid or penalise offenders while the offenders themselves have blamed someone else for the mistakes. For example, after multiple charges of plagiarism were levelled against C.N.R. Rao for papers published in 2011 and 2012, he first denied it was plagiarism and then blamed a graduate student for the mistakes. In 2007, Mashelkar was pulled up for plagiarising a report on patentability in India, whose drafting he’d led, and for which he blamed a “sub-group”. In 2009, Pental, then the VC of Delhi University, was notified of an instance of plagiarism by a student on the cusp of receiving his PhD; Pental did not act on it. And despite repeated complaints, Krishnamurthy continues to remain at the helm of Pondicherry University (although the Supreme Court has prohibited her from contesting the MHRD’s decision to issue her a show-cause notice for staying on).

A common problem

There are many reasons for why a “plagiarise and [still] flourish” scenario continues to prevail in many pockets of India’s academic community, scientists say.

Apart from VCs themselves indulging in plagiarism, an anything-goes attitude toward the practice is partly inculcated by the delay between authorities acknowledging charges against an individual and taking meaningful action should those charges pan out. Guidelines on research misconduct typically don’t include any timeframes within which different steps of the process will have to be completed. “Once the plagiarism is established beyond doubt, punitive action should be immediate, modulo the other rules that may apply,” said Ram Ramaswamy, the president of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, and Appa Rao’s predecessor as VC. “Most institutions in India have probably not applied their minds to this very seriously.”

Moreover, many of these guidelines are not clearly visible or easily accessible on institutions’ websites. “Web searches at Indian science institutions and universities reveal a somewhat disappointing scenario, with the vast majority of institutions providing no ethical guidelines at all,” Sunil Mukhi wrote, while appreciating the changes that a mandatory use of tools like Turnitin has brought about, in the March 2016 issue of the journal Current Science. “A few institutions offer rules and regulations addressed exclusively to students that include brief warnings about plagiarism and related matters. Only a tiny fraction has formulated comprehensive guidelines covering diverse areas such as those listed above. Similarly, most of the various science, engineering and medical academies in India do not seem to have a comprehensive ethics document.” Mukhi is a professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.

However, Pushpa Mitra Bhargava, former and founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, is more incisive about characterising what he thinks has made plagiarism a tolerable thing to do. According to him, the fact that no more than a 100 million people are able to access “quality education” in the country has resulted in mediocrity becoming rife within the scientific community, which constitutes a tiny fraction of that 100 million. “Because of the low standard of our scientists, they are unable to produce research output of any originality,” he told The Wire. “Plagiarism then becomes an easy route to be recognised. The situation is made worse by the absence of proper penalties for plagiarism. As regards the VCs, they are also derived from the same pool of mediocrity.”

A mature response

Two of Appa Rao’s three papers are reviews – articles analysing the latest developments in certain topics – and don’t contain any original results. While this doesn’t make Appa Rao and his colleagues any less culpable, the extent of plagiarism assumes importance when deciding what to do next, according to some life-science researchers The Wire spoke to. In a work containing original results, on the other hand, even minor instances of plagiarism are capable of casting darker shadows on the quality of the research.

In fact, there has also been debate about whether plagiarism in itself should be tolerated as long as it is restricted to the text of the paper and the results are original. In July 2014, Praveen Chaddah, former director of the University Grants Commission, noted through an oped in the journal Nature: “Copied text in a paper’s introduction or concluding paragraph may happen simply because the authors lacked sufficient command over the language (usually English) to express the concept in a different way”, and asked who would benefit from retracting the paper. Later the same year, a committee put together by the University Grants Commission, and led by Sanjay Dhande, the former director of IIT-Kharagpur, recommended penalties like salary cuts and dismissal for those convicted of plagiarism. But in the same vein as Chaddah, it also recommended differentiating between more and less offensive versions.

Nonetheless, Siddharthan is “happy to note that Prof. Appa Rao accepts responsibility as senior author” – a sentiment that doesn’t extend to Appa Rao’s handling of the student protests at the University of Hyderabad.

“I wish he had been equally ready to take responsibility for the ejection from the hostel and institutional ostracisation of five Dalit students, leading to the suicide of one of them, Rohith Vemula; and, equally, had taken responsibility for the recent police action on the campus leading to the arrest of 25 students and two faculty members, and widely-reported brutal assaults on them in custody – many of them reportedly not even being present at the scene of vandalism in his office,” said Siddharthan.

Rather, as Appa Rao put it, when The Wire pressed him to comment in more detail on what he intended to do about the three papers: “I am unfortunately deeply occupied in some administrative matter at present.”

Instances of plagiarism in Appa Rao Podile’s papers

Root Colonization and Quorum Sensing are the Driving Forces of Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR) for Growth PromotionProceedings of the Indian National Science Academy, No. 2 June 2014 Spl. Sec. pp. 407-413.

1. Text: “As our understanding of the complex environment of the rhizosphere, the mechanisms of action of PGPR, and the practical aspects of inoculant formulation and delivery increases, we can expect to see new PGPR products becoming available. The success of these products will depend on our ability to manage the rhizosphere to enhance survival and competitiveness of these beneficial microorganisms. Rhizosphere management will require consideration of soil and crop cultural practices as well as inoculant formulation and delivery.”

Source: Bacteria in Agrobiology: Plant Probiotics, ed. Dinesh K. Maheshwari, pp. 179, Sec. 9.9. Link

2. Text: “The rhizosphere contains a higher proportion of AHL producing
bacteria as compared to bulk soil, suggesting that they play a role in colonization [70]. This suggests that plants could be using root-exuded compounds in the rhizosphere to take advantage of this bacterial communication system and influence colonizing communities [7, 39, 71].

Source: The Role of Root Exudates in Rhizosphere Interactions with Plants and Other Organisms, Bais et al., Annual. Rev. Plant Biol. 2006. 57:233–66.

3. Text: “Enormous competitive advantage is conferred on bacteria by the QS, improving their chances to survive as they can explore niches that are more complex.”

Source: Plant-Bacteria Interactions: Strategies and Techniques to Promote Plant Growth, ed. Ahmed et al., pp. 3, Sec. 1.1.1. Link

4. Text: “On detection of the signal molecule at a given concentration, transcription of certain genes regulated by this mechanism is induced or repressed in the bacteria.”

Source: Plant-Bacteria Interactions: Strategies and Techniques to Promote Plant Growth, ed. Ahmed et al., pp. 3, Sec. 1.1.1. Link

5. Text: “There are many microbial processes regulated by QS which include DNA transferase by conjugation, siderophore production, bioluminescence, biofilm formation, and the ability of some bacteria to move, also called ‘swarming’.”

Source: Ecology, Genetic Diversity and Screening Strategies of Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR), Handbook of Plant Science 03/2008; DOI: 10.1002/ 9783527621989.ch1. Link

6. Text: “The environmental factors include climate, weather conditions, soil characteristics or the composition or activity of the indigenous microbial flora of the soil.”

Source: Screening of free-living rhizospheric bacteria for their multiple plant growth promoting activities, Ahmad et al., Microbiological Research, Volume 163, Issue 2, 15, March 2008, pp. 173–181. Link

Induced Defence in Plants: A Short Overview, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., India, Sect. B Biol. Sci. (July–Sept 2014) 84(3):669-679

Text: “Plants have a remarkable capacity to recognize pathogens through strategies involving both conserved and variable pathogen molecules often referred as elicitors, and pathogens manipulate the defense response through secretion of virulence effector molecules.”

Source: Plant immunity: towards an integrated view of plant–pathogen interactions, Nature Reviews Genetics 11, August 2010, 539-548. Link

Glucose dehydrogenase of a rhizobacterial strain of Enterobacter asburiae involved in mineral phosphate solubilization shares properties and sequence homology with other members of enterobacteriaceae, Tripura et al., Indian J. Microbiol. (June 2007) 47:126–131

Text: “In addition to providing carbon for intracellular metabolism, GDH plays a key regulatory and bioenergetic role in these bacteria. The protons generated in the oxidation contribute directly to the trans-membrane proton motive force (PMF), which results in the uptake of exogenous amino acids and other compounds.”

Source: Microbial Diversity: Current Perspectives and Potential Applications, Satyanarayana, T. & Johri, B.N., I.K. International Publishing House (2005), pp. 381. Link

Second appearance: Mineral phosphate solubilization by rhizosphere bacteria and scope for manipulation of the direct oxidation pathway involving glucose dehydrogenase, Sashidhar, B. & Podile, A.R., Journal of Applied Microbiology, Volume 109, Issue 1
July 2010, pages 1–12. Link

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