Author: Arvind Kumar.
In December 2017, I published an article entitled ‘Law aiding Monsanto is reason for Delhi’s annual smoke season‘ in the Delhi based newspaper Sunday Guardian. The article explained why the Delhi metropolitan region had been blanketed by smoke from burning fields in Punjab every November since 2009.
Although farmers in Punjab had been burning the residue of their paddy crop in order to clear their fields in preparation for the wheat season for several decades, Delhi started facing the severe problem only in recent years.
After researching the issue, I was able to link the phenomenon to a law passed in 2009 by Punjab and Haryana and came up with the explanation that the laws in the two states had triggered a chain reaction leading to Delhi being covered by smoke. The laws in the two states forced farmers to delay the planting of rice crops until June. This delay in planting led to a delay in the harvest of rice which had a 120-day cycle from sowing to harvest. The delay in harvest in turn led to a delay in farmers burning their fields. The burning now took place after the monsoon season had ended when the direction of wind had changed and was blowing into Delhi. In earlier years, the burning took place in September when the wind direction had not yet changed and the smoke had remained in Punjab.
An aerosol and remote sensing scientist at NASA, Dr. Hiren Jethva, noticed my article and posted it on the social media site twitter along with the comment “Now I understand why satellites detect more fires in November post-2009 over Punjab.”
I contacted Dr. Jethva who on second thoughts disputed my finding and pointed out that his data showed that the pattern of smoke drifting to Delhi began in the period between 2006 and 2009 and not after 2009. I used his input to research further and found that although the law had been passed in 2009, it had been implemented using incentives and persuasion in 2007, and through a government order in 2008. I was thus able to reconcile the scientist’s data with my theory, and in 2018, I wrote a follow up article entitled ‘Monsanto’s profits, not Diwali, creating smoke in Delhi’ in which I mentioned Dr. Jethva’s observation and explained how the process had begun in 2007 and 2008.
Both articles were widely read by the general public as well as the members of the scientific community and even resulted in Monsanto objecting to my article as I had stated that the laws in Punjab and Haryana benefited Monsanto. Sunday Guardian carried their objections along with my rebuttal.
Sometime in November 2019, a few people called attention to a video by Shekhar Gupta in which he had plagiarized my findings and credited his online magazine for it. His plagiarism with all relevant web links is documented in an article by Satya Dosapati entitled ‘Shame on you Shekhar Gupta for Plagiarizing.’
It is unclear whether the Press Council of India will pursue action against Shekhar Gupta despite their ‘Norms of journalistic conduct’ stating under the heading ‘Plagiarism’ that “[u]sing or passing off the writings or ideas as one’s own without crediting the source, is an offence against ethics of journalism.”
While looking for the plagiarized work in Shekhar Gupta’s online magazine, I stumbled upon a press release from Cornell University claiming credit for my work.
This press release, dated 30 July 2019, more than a year and half after my original research was published, claimed that “[a] new study reveals how water-use policies require farmers to transplant rice later in the year, which in turn delays harvests and concentrates agricultural burnings of crop residues in November — a month when breezes stagnate — leading to increased air pollution.”
Their actual paper regurgitated the theory published in the Sunday Guardian along with some pretty pictures and data. The authors could have claimed that they corroborated or validated my work but chose to claim that they came up with the theory and even published it in Nature Sustainability. In the world of science, Nature is supposed to be a “prestigious” journal.
When I confronted Andrew McDonald, a faculty member of Cornell University who was listed in the paper as the main author for communication, he claimed that it was the first time that he had heard of my work and that his team had come up with the finding independently. However, it turned out that one of the official reviewers of their paper before it was published was the same NASA scientist who had posted my article on twitter. The NASA scientist had sent the authors the web link to my second article (which in turn summarized and linked to my first article) and suggested that they refine their work, presumably meaning that they should fix the erroneous date of 2009 and cite my article while making the fix. The authors had responded to this suggestion by saying that their study was more of a quantitative work and was consistent with the major findings of the Sunday Guardian article. Despite acknowledging my work during the review phase, the authors proceeded to conceal the existence of my research and did not cite it in their paper.
The authors also did not make the suggested refinement that would have led to them mentioning the pattern of smoke drifting to Delhi in 2007 and 2008 as I had done in my second article. Instead, they retained the erroneous date of 2009. Replication of errors is a hallmark of plagiarized works and this paper was no exception. The authors of the paper had clearly used my first article as the basis for their ideas and did not bother to incorporate the information in my second article even when it was made available to them perhaps because they were not the real researchers and did not understand the significance of the reviewer’s comments. Unlike Dr. Hiren Jethva, who had used the scientific method to look at actual data and conclude that my original date of 2009 could not be correct, the authors of the paper which was published in Nature Sustainability did not use the scientific method. Had they done so, they would have arrived at the same conclusion as Dr. Jethva.
It should be noted that even if the paper in Nature Sustainability was an independent finding (which it was not), the authors had an obligation to cite the Sunday Guardian article as it contained the same conclusions as in their paper and existed before their work. Moreover, the Sunday Guardian articles were brought to the attention of the authors in a timely manner before the final version of their paper was published.
When confronted, instead of claiming that the omission of the citation to my article was an oversight on the part of the authors, McDonald doubled down and pointed to another paper published by a group in Harvard University as evidence of independent groups arriving at the same conclusion. That paper too did not cite my article and was published at eartharxiv.org. Ironically, arxiv.org was created by Cornell University in order to help authors protect their works from plagiarism when they submitted their papers for review. The Harvard group had used a site that existed to prevent plagiarism to publish a paper with plagiarized information.
I soon attempted to file a formal complaint with Cornell University and found that I faced a wall of resistance from them. It took me several emails and phone calls even to figure out where I should complain. I was directed by the President’s office to the Office of the Counsel which in turn directed me back to the President’s office and the office of the Provost. Soon after, I received an email from the university saying they had appointed an investigator, but the tone of his email seemed to indicate that he did not want to accept my claim of plagiarism.
Sensing deception on the part of the university, I decided to make the matter public and copied a number of journalists, activists, and other members of the academia when I sent subsequent emails to the university. One of the people included in the email list was Professor C.K. Raju who told me, “Your idea published in Sunday Guardian is quite sensational. Must have been widely noticed.” Professor Raju himself had been a victim of plagiarism multiple times, the most notable case being the Fields Medal winner Michael Atiyah plagiarizing from his work in the field of physics. Other works of Professor Raju related to the history of Mathematics had also been plagiarized by George Joseph and Dennis Almeida of the University of Manchester and University of Exeter.
On the advice of Professor CK Raju, I contacted the journal Nature Sustainability but they did not respond to my complaint immediately and it took several emails and phone calls before they acknowledged the complaint. It was the same case with Harvard University. The professor at Harvard tried telling me that their work was a “preprint” despite the paper having been published online at eartharXiv.org.
Meanwhile, the investigator at Cornell University advanced the process but ran it like a kangaroo court that had already decided my guilt. His questions to me insinuated that I must have plagiarized from others! He even asked me whether credit for my idea should really be given to those who had published the explanation that smoke mixed with moisture gives rise to smog since that was a weather phenomenon and my explanation related to the wind direction too was a weather phenomenon. I let him know that my article had nothing to do with the process of formation of smog, but I also told him that he was running his court like the court in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Another question was why I had not complained to the institute where the Indian co-author worked despite the fact that the author from Cornell University was listed as the contact for communication and one of the two people who conceptualized the idea behind the paper. Apart from making this point clear, I also told the investigator that his line of questioning indicated that he was trying to evade affixing responsibility on the person in Cornell University and instead wanted to throw the Indian author under the bus.
It is more than a month now since my response, and I haven’t heard back from Cornell University. In the case of Harvard University and Nature Sustainability, they have made no effort to gather the facts from me despite sending me a short message claiming to be investigating the matter. All of this must lead one to conclude that intellectual dishonesty, lack of academic ethics, and plagiarism must be par for the course at both Cornell University and Harvard University, and when they are caught, they are reluctant to take responsibility but make it difficult for the victim of plagiarism.
[The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Arvind Kumar is a writer and an activist who writes on economics and politics. His articles have appeared in several media outlets including Sunday Guardian, Daily News and Analysis, San Mateo County Times and the Jerusalem Post. He is a co-founder and President of California Parents for the Equalization of, View More