Ethics and Indian Science
The story is well-known by now. A graduate student named Heather Ames was doing cancer research at the University of Michigan. At one point she started noticing her experiments going horribly wrong. This started happening so often that the frustrated researcher almost began to question her own sanity. When she complained to her advisor her advisor would not believe it initially. At one point even her advisor suspected, based mostly on second-hand reports, that the young woman was sabotaging her own experiments to gain sympathy. One can only imagine her plight. Finally, by judicious recording of her experiments, she was able to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that someone was tampering with them. When she and her advisor reported the matter to the campus police, the police first gave the poor woman herself a lie-detector test. Only after they were convinced of her innocence did they launch a serious investigation. The winning strategy for catching the culprit turned out to be simple. A camera surreptitiously installed in the lab proved that the young researcher’s colleague, an Indian postdoc named Vipul Bhrigu, was cruelly sabotaging her experiments. This was not a one-time misdemeanor but a carefully planned and repeatedly executed crime, sometimes committed using the simple (but less-than-subtle) technique of adding plain old ethanol to the experimental setups to damage them. The reason apparently was simple jealousy.
Bhrigu is now back in India and his future in science is uncertain to say the least. But his story has again focused everyone’s attention on Indian science and ethics. This is certainly not the first time in recent times that the spotlight has fallen on Indian scientists. Only two years ago, a chemistry professor from Sri Venkateswara University was found to have fabricated literally reams of published manuscripts; ironically, it was another Indian professor working in the US who exposed the scam. A few years before that we had the celebrated case of a National Center for Cell Science (NCCS) researcher reproducing identical data in key papers, a case serious enough to warrant an investigation by committees from IISc and Science magazine. The latest incident of plagiarism comes from IIT Kanpur, where researchers seem to have taken sources of plagiarism to a disarmingly simple level; introductory paragraphs that they used were borrowed with slight modifications from Wikipedia. And although they seem much more prevalent there, nor are such cases exclusively restricted to academia; a team from Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories was accused of publishing an irreproducible procedure for an important drug synthesis by a Swedish group that meticulously tried to repeat it.
Why have Indian researchers’ ethical lapses come to the forefront so often recently? Is it because there’s something fundamentally flawed in the Indian system that encourages unethical behavior? Or is it that these cases are simply being exposed and reported more widely? There are several factors which could be responsible, but instead of exploring all of these I would like to focus on one factor that undoubtedly constitutes a fundamental flaw in our system: the almost complete lack of ethics lessons in our science education, both in formal and informal ways. When it comes to teaching our students about scientific ethics, our system just does not care enough.
When I was in my first year of graduate school in the US, all of us had to take a mandatory two-day ethics class. My friends in other universities indicated that they had to undergo similar training. At first we all groaned about a class that seemed pointless and sucked away time from research, but we quickly realized its importance. They even managed to make the class very interesting by showing movies posing ethical dilemmas and asking thought-provoking questions about real-life situations. A typical scenario was as follows. A colleague in your department gives you an interesting scientific idea in a casual conversation down the hall. You then spend several months working on this fledgling idea, flesh it out much more and execute it to reveal important results. Do you then acknowledge your colleague as a co-author or only in an acknowledgement section? How do you decide on the exact value of his or her contribution? Those two days were real brain-ticklers and definitely underscored the purpose of ethical behavior in science in our minds. But ethical lessons were also not limited to formal classes. I remember how my advisors used to constantly underscore the value of proper attribution of sources, even if the cited statements may have been ‘well-known’ or ‘obvious’. This went beyond the common and more obvious caveats about reproducibility and meticulous conformation of data. Also important was the acknowledgment of colleagues, either as co-authors or in an acknowledgments section. The message was clear; ethical behavior in science should be taken extremely seriously and is as important as the research itself.
Contrast this with my education in science in India, and I suspect my colleagues will share similar experiences. I don’t remember a single time that any of my professors ever stressed the need to attribute sources clearly. I am not implying that the professors did not care about unethical behavior themselves, but they sure did not drive the point home in class. Among students too, casual transgressions were the norm. In fact, I remember students asked to give presentations nonchalantly borrowing figures and quotes from the Internet without ever attributing them in footnotes. I was a little guilty of doing this myself in a presentation. Nobody ever said anything about attribution or acknowledgment. It was simply not regarded to be an important part of the research. With such a complete lack of focus on ethics during formative years in college, is it surprising that Indian researchers don’t seem to respect ethical boundaries? Charity, as the old cliché goes, certainly begins at home in this context.
So it’s clear that we need to stress the importance of ethics in our science education much more. How do we communicate this importance to students? We can start by clearly enumerating the reasons for behaving ethically and the consequences of unethical behavior in science.
One of the reasons why we need to be ethical is simply because it’s so easy to be unethical. This is a point that seems trivial but which needs to be belabored. People like Bhrigu committing wholesale sabotage know (hopefully) that they are committing a crime. But it’s actually quite easy to innocently engage in simple ethical lapses without knowing it. Copying from Wikipedia without attribution may be thought to be ok for instance because ‘it’s a public source’. Sometimes, modifying sources and then copying them may not seem wrong since the sources are being modified after all. The example cited above – not attributing a statement because its importance is ‘obvious’ – can be one of the more common ethical lapses. Not all of these transgressions are equally severe. But the problem is that once we fail to condemn one misdemeanor because it seems trivial, we open the way to more serious violations. Thus it’s important to stress the problems even with behavior that may not seem so obviously pernicious.
Sometimes when the carrot fails, the stick can work. Stressing the consequences of unethical behavior can also help. In the context of famous cases in the US, the consequences have ranged from retraction of papers and censure by the scientific community to revocation of degrees and loss of jobs. In probably the most famous case of pure fabrication in recent years, Jan Schön who committed fraud at Bell Labs on a spectacular scale had his PhD degree annulled by the University of Konstanz, although in a recent development the decision was overturned by the courts. At the very least, unethical behavior can permanently blot your career, making it very hard to get respect, opportunities for collaboration or funding. In most American universities ethical transgressions are taken very seriously, and this fact alone can serve to rein in researchers who may be tempted to step over the boundaries.
Sadly, there’s no guarantee that driving home such consequences would work today in India. Unlike European and American systems, the Indian system is not yet set up to deal formally and severely with unethical behavior, partly because it does not put a premium on ethics to begin with. As far as I know, many of the researchers cited above still retain their positions. There has been very little legal action taken against them. What is equally concerning is that people still loudly proclaim their innocence; for instance, a post that I wrote about one of the more obvious cases gathered comments accusing me of marring the reputation of the good professor! Granted, these days the Internet ensures that the miscreants at least cannot hide behind the cloak of anonymity, and at the very least they run the risk of becoming the laughing stock of the international scientific community. But are such disincentives enough for researchers who are comfortably tenured professors at Indian institutions and who know for a fact that they cannot be fired?
It seems that we are in dire need of formal institutional structures establishing ethical guidelines as well as punitive measures enforced for violating them; a model would be the Office of Research Integrity in the US. More importantly, these guidelines should be communicated to both new faculty members and new graduate students, preferably on the first day of their job. Every university should also have a one or two day ethics class of the kind described above which should be mandatory for graduate students. Setting up such a class is not hard. Case studies from India and abroad can be included. Real-life, thought-provoking scenarios posing ethical dilemmas can be presented for contemplation. Student participation should be required. Students are much more likely to remember the lessons if they are imparted interactively rather than in a typical lecture format that sounds preachy. All these examples should drive home the importance of attribution, acknowledgment and scrupulous confirmation of results.
Ultimately however, ethical behavior goes far beyond the proximal reasons and consequences cited above. The real and overwhelming value of ethical behavior in science is that it is the foundation on which the self-correcting edifice of science is built. Students are much more likely to take such behavior seriously if their role in the grand scheme of things is emphasized. The results which they publish are potentially going to be used by researchers from around the world and may lead to important discoveries that further our understanding of nature, cure diseases or improve our standard of living. Their ethical lapses mean the potential failure of thousands of other scientists in contributing to their careers and to scientific advancement. They owe as much responsibility for communicating their results ethically as any other researcher in any part of the world. Even if they may be working in relatively obscure institutions, they are as important for the integrity of science as a Nobel laureate in a top university. It is only by driving home the great significance of every individual scientist in advancing the structure of science that ethical behavior will hopefully not have to be taught as a separate discipline but will become an integral part of the students’ mindset and personality. They in turn will then communicate this personality to their students, and the cycle will continue.