Not made in India

Are foreign scientific collaborations always the perfect give and take? Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju reflects on some missing links.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.284 Published online 17 September 2008

Gautam R. Desiraju

Most Indian scientists and researchers have worked with foreigners or continue to work with them at several stages of their careers. For a few, the interaction begins with their Ph.D. The vast majority of Indian scientists, however, have their first introduction to foreigners as post-doctoral associates, after a Ph.D from an Indian institution. Some others get acquainted with a foreign group that works in an area of research closely related to their own. This happens later in their research careers and is often the beginning of a lifelong association that leads to valuable professional connections. It can also result in rewarding personal relationships that both the Indian and the foreign scientist value greatly.

The last scenario is the most ideal one, but there are many less ideal situations.

Who's instrumental?

At the first level of blemish, there are well known Indian scientists (at least well known within India), who interact very closely with just one foreign group to the extent that most of the Indian contribution is collaborative. Often, the collaboration arises because of the lack or non-functioning of a critical piece of equipment in the home department. The equipment, or more accurately the lack of it, is the cause and sustaining factor for the collaboration. Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong in this provided the resultant papers have joint authorship or the foreign scientist is properly acknowledged.

In earlier years, when there was a real paucity of quality equipment in India, such collaborations were very common. In more recent times, as the instrumentation and infrastructure in India has improved, one has seen a lot less of such collaborations. In these cases, the foreigner typically collaborates with many other scientists worldwide because he is able to contribute with a highly specialized but critical experimental skill. The Indian is not his only collaborator. However, for the Indian, this particular foreigner is all-important. Without this person, his research output would decrease sharply.

It is sometimes hard to assess relative contributions in these collaborative efforts. In some cases, the intellectual effort is mainly driven from home and the contribution of the foreigner is purely at the instrumental and technical level. Other cases begin to look more equivocal.

Guest appearance

At the next level of culpability, the Indian who got into an association for want of a certain experimental technique begins to increasingly depend on the intellectual and infrastructural support of the foreign group. He supervises his students at home and initially some experimental data is collected in India. This data is either found to be insufficient or of sub-critical quality to draw worthwhile conclusions. The Indian starts spending prolonged periods abroad, typically two to three months every summer, in the same laboratory and the experimental data is either polished or recollected or rehashed.

The sum total of all this activity is that the original data collected by the students in the Indian laboratory get quietly shelved and the Indian busies himself with writing up the results for a top foreign journal on his return. This cycle continues year after year. One can think of many senior people, who sit on all kinds of committees advising us on what science to do and how to do it, adjusting quite happily to their role as annual guests in a foreign laboratory. Why the foreign scientist accepts such a situation is hard to tell. Perhaps he is too busy or preoccupied to really care, perhaps he feels that the visitor will have a positive influence on his own students, and perhaps the visitor is rather helpful in the foreign laboratory. In any case, the presence of this foreigner does not diminish his own status or authority in the least.

The Indian, however, loses on just about every scientific count. What is especially surprising is that this is a feature at all levels in Indian academia. One might expect such activity, if not exactly excuse it, of a teacher in a small, lesser endowed state university. When it happens with a scientist from a national level institution, such behaviour is unpardonable.

Cite license

At an even higher level of wrong doing, the foreigner in question happens to be the post-doctoral supervisor of the Indian scientist. Here, I would even begin to question the intellectual contribution of the Indian in what is purportedly his own research. The research in the Indian laboratory is a watered down version of what goes on in the post-doctoral mentor's laboratory.

Collaborative papers do appear but these are often from the distillate of the work. Spin offs and side themes are published by the Indian group without foreign authorship. These latter papers sometimes appear in prestigious journals (because of the above mentioned friendly peer group) but they rarely get cited and this takes one to the slightly different but also related issue of papers by Indian authors lowering the impact factor of a foreign journal.

Originality and innovation, the lifeblood of research, are the main casualties. Our system fails us completely here. Instead of discouraging this type of imitative research, we tend to encourage it because of an initial spurt of papers in international journals. The acquisition of a few (now almost mandatory) national awards, recognitions and research grants by the Indian researcher completes the picture and he settles down to many years of well deserved obsolescence and of course the now nearly-obligatory annual foreign holiday.

Amazingly, the shadow of the post-doctoral mentor continues till the end of the Indian's research career, sometimes even long after the foreigner has abandoned this particular line of research because it has become outdated or saturated. In such a scenario, there is no need to even ask why Indians are not opinion makers and leaders in the international scientific community.

Merger turned acquisition

At the highest level of guilt, one is aware of cases where the Indian obtains infrastructural, intellectual and moral support from a foreign group but the publications offer not even a hint of this. There are no foreign authors or acknowledgements, no mention of experimental data collected or refined in a foreign institution, often not even a suitable citation of the work done earlier by the foreign group. How such papers even get past the refereeing system of respectable foreign journals is beyond my normal understanding. It is true that referees do face a lot of time and work pressure today and of course a paper published in a journal gives one no hint as to how many earlier submissions were rejected by other journals.

Why such an arrangement is accepted by the foreign scientist is perhaps easier to understand. The foreigner might simply be too busy to care, or it could be a simple case of noblesse oblige.

What is regrettable is that on the strength of such papers, the Indian scientist sometimes picks up awards and recognitions within the country. Our system is so opaque and senseless today that an Indian scientist who truthfully includes a foreigner as a co-author is penalized for lack of originality while another who deliberately obfuscates this connection is richly rewarded.

One even has heard of a case where an Indian group acquired the same equipment as its foreign collaborating institution because the paper mentioned data collected on a particular instrument, the implication being that the equipment was located in the Indian institution. What was not mentioned is that the equipment actually used was located in say, Rostock rather than Ranchi. In this setting, do I need to even say that the above mentioned equipment never worked properly in the concerned Indian institution?

There is a real need to examine all these situations dispassionately. What is important in these cases is not whether a particular individual is guilty or not guilty of scientific wrong doing, but rather that we lack a systematic mechanism to investigate such matters and recommend and practise remedial action.

Many of the situations I have described lie in the grey area between right and wrong, and they are capable of being interpreted subjectively. One must tread warily but in the end I will only say that while one may manage with half truths and conveniently contorted arguments with the external world, it is truly impossible to cheat one's own self unless one is incredibly stupid.

The author is a professor of chemistry at the University of Hyderabad and is a member of the executive committee of the International Union of Crystallography.