Bengaluru: Research on coral reefs published by scientists at the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) has been found to have plagiarised content, some of it wrong and misleading.
When Fenner went through a paper on corals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by a research group from ZSI, he found a long list of 274 coral species. ‘Status of Scleractinian Diversity at Nancowry Group of Islands Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ is authored by Tamal Mondal, C. Raghunathan and K. Venkataraman, and was published in the Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research in 2013. The list, however, included two species, Orbicella annularis (formerly Montastraea annularis) and Siderastrea radians, that are from the Caribbean and not known to be present in the Indo-Pacific region including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
“If the authors knew how startling and important a find those were, they would have made a big deal out of it, worth a big paper in a major journal,” Fenner wrote in his email. An earlier paper (‘An Observation on the Coral Bleaching in Andaman Islands’, published in the International Journal of Environmental Sciences in 2011) by two of the same three authors – Mondal and Raghunathan – listed 293 species of corals, of which nine, Fenner noted, were Caribbean.
He then looked up a book, ‘New Records of Scleractinian Corals in Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ by Mondal and Raghunathan, along with three other authors – Ramakrishna, R. Raghuraman and C. Sivaperuman – at the ZSI. He found more of the same, along with outright plagiarism.
This plagiarism manifested in multiple ways. The introductory section in the ZSI book is identical to text from various sources, chiefly ‘Reefs at Risk: A Programme of Action‘, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This source is not cited at all, even in the references section. Moreover, a Google search using any sentence picked at random from the ZSI book turns up matches from various other sources that have not been cited. Even a typo in the book, “1O mm” instead of “10 mm” (the uppercase letter O instead of the digit 0) has been carried over from the original source.
The norm in academic work is to use quotation marks and to cite the source from which one is quoting. Neither of these have been done in the ZSI book. What’s more, many of the citations that do appear were present in the original source.
Fenner didn’t stop there. He compared the descriptions of many of the corals in the ZSI book to that found in ‘Corals of the World’ by J.E.N. Veron, published in 2000. “Lo and behold, the wording was exactly the same, every single word,” wrote Fenner in the mailing list email.
Veron’s book (an online version is here) is considered the authoritative source on corals. Fenner himself worked with Veron – a legendary figure among coral researchers, said to have discovered 20% of all coral species – for six years in the Caribbean. Fenner is now based in American Samoa, a US territory in the South Pacific, as a consultant for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Fenner found that other bits of Veron’s book had found their way into the ZSI book too. It listed, for each coral species, “key characters” that were used to identify that species – and this text too was identical to that in Veron, unattributed. “This is plagiarism,” wrote Fenner. “It is passing off the text as though it was original and written by the authors.”
The book, like the papers, claimed to find corals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that are actually found only in the Caribbean (in addition to at least three species that don’t exist). To compound the misleading nature of the information, these Caribbean species have in fact been misidentified. The photos accompanying these labels, Fenner noted, are actually those of Indo-Pacific species.
For instance, one of the photographs in the book is labelled as Porites porites, a Caribbean species that is a hexacoral, with six tentacles. But the photo actually shows an octocoral, with eight tentacles. “From the texture of the colony surface, it appears to be Heliopora coerulea,” an Indo-Pacific species, said Fenner. “This is a very basic mistake and demonstrates clearly that they don’t know what they are doing. That makes the data totally unreliable, and any other scientist that uses it will have many mistakes. So the scientific community has to know that their data and papers are unreliable.”
As it happens, one of the questionable papers (Int. J. Env. Sci. Vol. I (1st Issue), pp. 37-51, 2011) by this research group has been cited two times by other authors. The paper lists two species twice, each time with different data. “That suggests that they may have been making the data up,” said Fenner. Similarly, in a third paper published by Mondal and Raghunathan with Venkataraman (‘Diversity of Scleractinian Corals in Middle and North Andaman Archipelago’, published in the World Journal of Zoology in 2011), one species is listed twice with different data.
The problem, he pointed out, is that these published works do not contain any information that could be used to check if the claimed species identification is accurate.
The lead author of the book, Ramakrishna, is a former director of the ZSI. He expressed surprise at the finding of plagiarised content in the book when contacted by email. He said that he had retired in July 2010 and that the book was published only later, in September 2010. K. Venkataraman, a coauthor of one of the two papers that reported Caribbean corals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, succeeded Ramakrishna as director of the ZSI. C. Raghunathan, who is an author on all three papers as well as the book, is presently the joint director of the ZSI. Email queries to Mondal, Venkataraman and Raghunathan were unanswered at the time of writing – as were emails to Kailash Chandra, the present director of the ZSI.
Ironically, Chandra was himself accused of plagiarism in 2014 along with three of his colleagues, in a paper on hawk moths. The then director Venkataraman had promised stringent action if Chandra was found guilty. Chandra took over as director of the ZSI in 2015, according to his CV.
The ZSI, founded in 1916, has been and continues to be an important institution. It “holds the type specimens for many species in the country,” said Rohan Arthur, a marine scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation, where he directs the reef research program. “It’s found across the country, and is still among the principal institutions of taxonomic research in the country. However, institutions of this calibre really need to have adequate checks of research quality and ethics if they do not want to squander their formidable academic reputation. Many of our legacy research institutions in the country need a serious, ground-up rethink of how they’re doing their research if they want to remain relevant.”
One conspicuous problem with many of the publications from this research group at ZSI, as can be seen from their CVs, is that they are in-house publications. “In-house publications have their place and they are a valuable source of information, where scientists can publish their work rapidly,” said Arthur. “But unless their quality is rigorously monitored, they can rapidly lose their credibility.”
Fenner suggests that the ZSI should have outside experts, including internationally recognised coral taxonomists, as reviewers for its in-house publications in this area. And that they should collaborate more with researchers abroad and publish in international journals. “That is a way to get outside help in improving quality,” he said. “ZSI needs to rely less on quantity and more on quality, as judged by international judges, not only Indian.”
However, foreign collaboration for taxonomic research in India is hampered by regulations such as the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, which make it difficult to exchange specimens. One of the intentions behind the Act was to stop biopiracy: people abroad patenting biological material of Indian origin for commercial profit. However, as a 2008 article in Current Science, titled ‘Death sentence on taxonomy in India’, put it,
The Biological Diversity Act, 2002 seriously curtails the scientific freedom of individual taxonomists by putting draconian regulations on the free exchange of specimens for taxonomic research and threatens to strangulate biodiversity research in India with legal as well as bureaucratic control.
The Act requires that exchange of specimens for research be done through the government, with all the bureaucracy and inappropriate handling of delicate and valuable specimens that that entails.
A related side effect is that specimens housed in the ZSI’s section in the Indian Museum in Kolkata has become unavailable to researchers abroad. As the article said, “It is generally accepted among the scientific community that the types [specimens] are the property of science and should be made available to bona fide researchers throughout the world.” Failure to do this on the part of government-run museums in India would, it went on to add, “totally isolate Indian biodiversity researchers and is akin to a self-imposed siege on scientists in the country.” This situation appears to have contributed to taxonomic research in India growing stale.
Researchers in India outside government-run institutions find it difficult to collect new specimens too. “Taxonomic studies of coral down to the species level requires some fairly detailed skeletal analysis,” said Arthur, who limits himself to identifying the genus rather than the species. (Genus is the level above species in biological classification.) “Without being able to collect physical specimens, it’s very difficult to identify coral species. Most institutions in the country apart from the ZSI find it very difficult to even get samples because corals are a protected group.”
In April 2018, India adopted a new tiered system for penalising plagiarism, based on evaluating what percentage of the work in question has plagiarised content. These regulations were issued by the University Grants Commission and is binding on universities. It’s unclear if they apply to a research organisation such as the ZSI, which comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Fenner had contacted the ZSI researchers with his findings. “I had hoped that the people in ZSI who did this would admit publicly what they did. I urged them to do it, but they have not done it,” he said. “ZSI needs to change its culture of tolerance of these things.”
Arthur, who has worked on corals around India and Kenya, cautioned against generalising from this one instance of plagiarism, given that the email Fenner sent to the mailing list was titled “Plagiarism in coral reef science in India”. “I find it a little objectionable – and more than a little parochial – to label this ‘Plagiarism in coral reef science in India’, as he did,” said Arthur. “While raising the issue is critical, it does a huge disservice to tar the entire research community with a single brush.”
“There is a problem of quality, we have a problem with our attitude towards publishing. It’s a much larger problem that has to do with certain institutional cultures – that certainly needs fixing,” Arthur said. “But this should not take away from the large number of scientists who are doing some excellent research in marine and coral reef science in India.”
Fenner agreed. “It is clear that many scientists in India are honest and do not engage in these practices, and the problem is by no means restricted to India,” he said. “It is just shocking to see such a blatant example of it in documents published by professionals, instead of just students, and the authors getting away with it and benefiting from it.”
India, in fact, has a long heritage of pioneering work in coral taxonomy. The first International Coral Reef Symposium was held at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Mandapam Camp, Tamil Nadu, in 1969. One of the forces behind this was the late C.S. Gopinadha Pillai.
“Dr Pillai is world-renowned for having been one of the most important pioneers of coral reef taxonomy, globally,” said Arthur. “The Latin name of every species known to man will be followed by the name of the taxonomist who first described it formally. If you examine the list of corals known from tropical reefs today, Dr Gopinadha Pillai’s name appears frequently. His work has been quite an inspiration for many people globally when it comes to coral taxonomy. But since his passing away, there have been very few people to carry on that mantle. As a result, what we know of coral taxonomy from reef regions in India is still relatively poor. It’s still not completely well-worked out.”
Plagiarised and unreliable work from institutions like the ZSI makes this worse, not least because quite apart from the academic implications, there are real-world implications too.
“We depend on taxonomists to give us accurate descriptions of the species we find. And if they did not, many of the biogeographic trends we rely on don’t make much sense,” said Arthur.
Estimating the population of a species of coral, to begin with, requires reliably identifying species. If this isn’t done, any population-based estimates become unreliable. “So, if you find either increases or decreases in numbers of species in particular regions,” said Arthur, “it is very difficult to evaluate if this is a true trend that needs exploration for scientific or for conservation reasons, or if it’s merely an artefact of shoddy science.”
And we could do without shoddy science at a time when corals are facing climate-change-induced stress. “We know that the responses of coral to climate change are highly dependent on the species. So you can get very wrong information if you’re identifying species wrong,” said Arthur. “So on one level, there are troubles academically but there could be very real problems in terms of management as well.”
Nithyanand Rao is a freelance science writer.