Friday, December 10, 2010

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

For a scientist or other academician, minor ethical misconduct is as easy to stumble into as running a red light while driving (go on, pretend you never did that). If you have a collaborator, how can you ever be sure he/she hasn't plagiarised something (maybe just a figure) in the part of the paper that he/she wrote? If you summarise previously published work, as all of us need to do, are you sure you're on the right side of the guidelines on appropriate paraphrasing? And for most people, the hardest of all is to avoid copying their own words from a previous paper. I believe many people don't even try to avoid that, but since copying one's previous paper in toto is illegal, I assume there's some limit to what fraction of it you can copy verbatim.

Now in the course of a few investigations into academic ethics, I've usually found that the initial offence was indeed some form of "minor ethical misconduct". But what was true in almost every case was the response of the person when the misconduct was brought to their notice: cover-up. The end result was that a relatively small offence blew up into a huge one.

Why don't people simply say sorry when caught? Not sure, but I suspect this is a particularly Indian "virtue", and it does have an explanation of a sort. In India, if you admit to a mistake it is seen as a sign of weakness. People simply assume your misdemeanour must be the tip of an iceberg. Admit you unthinkingly ended up with a hundred rupees that someone else deserved, and you'll promptly be accused of swindling a thousand. Or ten thousand. In any case, no one will forgive you after your confession. On the other hand if you issue stout denials for long enough then people start to give up on your case, and if you additionally have a powerful backer who defends you in public then you're more than likely to get away. Except in those rare situations when a serious investigation takes place.

The above point amplifies something I blogged about earlier, in this post. And of course it is widespread far beyond the ambit of academic ethics. Look at Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. Neither said "I accept a journalist should not be a conduit for the affairs of a political party. While I'm within my rights to like a particular party, acting like a party member - as I did - amounts to conflict of interest and is journalistic malpractice. I apologise."

Either of them is free to take the above draft apology from my blog (with due attribution!) and sign it. But they've instead taken the brazen route, like the politicians and industrialists before them. As Elton John put it so well: "It's a sad, sad situation. And it's getting more and more absurd."

4 comments:

aativas said...

:-)

hitchiker said...

"In India, if you admit to a mistake it is seen as a sign of weakness. People promptly decide your misdemeanour must be the tip of an iceberg. Admit you unthinkingly ended up with a hundred rupees that someone else deserved, and you'll promptly be accused of swindling a thousand. Or ten thousand. In any case, no one will forgive you after your confession. "

I so agree with you.

vbalki said...

You've hit the nail on the head. Apologising unconditionally takes grace, and that takes inner security, neither of which is over-abundant in our milieu.

With your involvement in the exposing of plagiarism in geo.com, I know that you're very familiar with the way the cover-up goes when academic misconduct comes to light. What is stunning is that in many cases the wrong-doer is soon *rewarded* with some award or prize or other recognition, which is the establishment's crude way of asserting power and telling amazed onlookers that they can step to hell, accusations be damned.

Rahul Basu said...

what about when Academies do it? (Bt-brinjal report -- heard of it?) Don't they try to brazen it out too. Why don't we talk of that -- after all, the academies are supposed to represent the elite of Indian academics....