Appa Rao Podile. Source: YouTube

Appa Rao Podile made fellow of science academy that published his problem paper – some questions

Appa Rao Podile, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, has been elected a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in spite of one of his three papers – which The Wire had identified in April 2016 as containing evidence of plagiarism – having been published by the academy. According to the citation, he “has made important contributions in the field of plant-microbe interactions. His work on chitinases has enabled the development of alternatives to toxic antifungal compounds for plant protection.”

INSA is one of India’s three science academies. The other two are the National Academy of Sciences and the Indian Academy of Sciences. Between them, they’ve formally divvied up an agenda of three portfolios. The National Academy of Sciences handles women in science; the Indian Academy of Sciences handles science education. And INSA, ironically, handles ethics.

The paper Appa Rao had coauthored (and for which he also the lead author) and published by the journal Proceedings of the INSA in 2014 was titled ‘Root Colonisation and Quorum Sensing are the Driving Forces of Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR) for Growth Promotion’. It contained six instances of plagiarism – the most among the three papers. After The Wire had reported on the offence, Appa Rao assumed complete responsibility and apologised for his mistakes. Proceedings of the INSA also issued a clarification accompanying the paper.

Two scientists I spoke to said on condition of anonymity that Appa Rao Podile’s election only damaged the credibility of the academy. Om Prasad, a history student at JNU, added, “He cannot be a role model for any aspiring researcher in the sciences or in academia in general” for having handled the Rohith Vemula suicide and protests the way he did (almost completely devoid of dignity) and for his plagiarism in various papers.

This is an issue I’d explored in January this year, when Appa Rao had been awarded the ‘Millennium Plaque of Honour’ by the Indian Science Congress (ISC). The plaque is awarded every year by the congress’s organisers to ’eminent’ scientists. In a time when the ISC’s credibility has been flagging, and considered by many scientists to be a waste of time, it is odd that the award would be given to someone whose administrative and academic credentials are in question. I expected the INSA also would’ve had similar considerations – but no.

I’d asked A.K. Sood (INSA president), Subhash Lakhotia (senior scientist at the academy) and Lahiri Majumdar (plant sciences editor of the Proceedings of the INSA) about these issues. In response, I got a carefully worded statement from Alok K. Moitra, the secretary of fellowships at the academy. I’ve pasted the bulk of it below; only one paragraph has been left out because it discussed a set of emails exchanged between INSA members and me last year.

The question of plagiarism in an article published by him and his colleagues in one of the issues of the Proceedings of the INSA was thoroughly examined by the editorial office of the journal immediately following the allegation made by you in April 2016. The examination revealed that although there were instance of similarities in five-six isolated sentences with some earlier publications, none of them would qualify for typical plagiarism since these did not pertain to someone else’s data. These were general statements, some of which may not need any specific citation as such. Being general in nature, they are also likely to share variable strings of words. Nevertheless, the authors did publish a note of apology in a later issue of our journal for inadvertent identity/similarity of a few isolated sentences in the published paper with those in some other papers.

The INSA Council while discussing the election of Professor Appa Rao Podile to fellow of INSA considered this allegation and decided that the allegation of plagiarism was without merit. His election to the Fellowship of INSA is based on his scholastic research contributions.

§

Based on these facts, I have a few questions. But before that, a short note (just in case for some idiotic readers who comment on a story without reading it first): I’m not saying at all that we forgive Appa Rao Podile for the way he dealt with the students and faculty at the University of Hyderabad campus (under political pressure to boot) as well as for the way he conducted himself when a police inquiry was initiated against him.

1. Appa Rao admitted to his mistake and issued a correction and an apology (subsequently publicised by the journal). His misconduct wasn’t in the experiment but in the descriptive part of the paper. Prasad argued that none of this exculpates him – but this is quite in opposition to what former UGC chairman Praveen Chaddah had written in 2014: that entire papers shouldn’t be retracted or dumped when misconduct like plagiarism is confined to the paper’s descriptive parts and doesn’t spillover into the data or experiment itself. I don’t know where I myself stand, but I think there’s some introspection to be done here about whether we’re being too strict apropos Appa Rao’s plagiarism infraction because of his role in the University of Hyderabad protests, violence, etc.

2. An obvious follow-up question arises: when we’re felicitating a scientist for his scientific accomplishments and electing him as a fellow of a reputed science academy, are we allowed to pull up the academy for not having considered his non-scientific work as well? (I realise this is a loaded question because it suggests that I’m not going to be happy with the academy until it recants its fellowship offer, but no – I’m actually curious.)

3. Are we paying attention to the academy itself only because it has elected a controversial fellow? I know my answer is ‘yes’. India has three science academies and they rarely ever feature in public conversations about science in India, so it feels somewhat embarrassing to suddenly consider the INSA to be important. And part two: do we expect all the fellows at India’s science academies to be role models? If we’re going after Appa Rao now because he’s not been a model citizen, shouldn’t we be asking such questions of all the fellows of the three academies?

4. Should our consternation at Appa Rao’s election be directed towards Appa Rao or towards INSA? Common sense would dictate that we divert our scrutiny towards INSA. And we immediately realise that as much as Appa Rao had erred in plagiarising in his paper, INSA had also erred in publishing the document without checking it for plagiarism first. We find further that the INSA guidelines for the election of new fellows is insipid, making no room to consider the possibility that some scientists may be great with the science but jerks at other things. There are also no guidelines for what actions it would take against a fellow should he be implicated for some offence in the future (and gradations therein). What happens when the fellow of a science academy commits murder? (Can you imagine anyone rushing to find out what INSA/IAS/NAS is saying?)

Update: I’d had a follow up question for Moitra, to which I received a reply late yesterday.

Q: Apart from Appa Rao’s academic credentials, did INSA consider his administrative track record at the University of Hyderabad? Did it consider the fact that a fact-finding team (of three well-regarded academics) concluded that Appa Rao had acted unethically and in a way damaging to the reputation of the University during his term as VC? Wouldn’t Appa Rao’s election to the academy thus seem as if – as long as a scientist does good science, his other transgressions can be ignored?

A.K.M.: In our earlier response, we did state that the election was based on scholastic achievement. Administrative failures/successes can be subjective impressions depending upon from which angle one looks at it. Election to fellowship is essentially on the basis of scientific contributions. However, only if there are established cases of wrong-doing as judged by the judiciary system of the country, the election would not be made in spite of scholastic achievements.

Featured image: Appa Rao Podile. Credit: YouTube.