“Set a thief to catch a thief”?

Earlier posts have dealt with the case of Jatinder Ahluwalia – a pharmacologist – who was found to have deceived his colleagues and probably sabotaged other’s research whose paper published in Nature was retracted. Ahluwalia was then at University College London but is now employed at the University of East London.

Retraction Watch now points out that he has published a new paper – not on pharmacology this time but about plagiarism! The paper appears in Bioscience Education, “Students Turned Off by Turnitin? Perception of Plagiarism and Collusion by Undergraduate Bioscience Students.”

Ahluwalia and his co-author, Andrew Thompsett, did the study

to provide qualitative data on the perceptions of plagiarism and collusion of final year Pharmacology students.

That he is no longer at UCL is understandable but that he is employed in the position he has at the University of East London is less understandable – not least from the perspective of the University. East London University has a history going back to 1898 as an educational institution but only became a University in 1992. It is the 3rd largest university in London in terms of student numbers and the 18th largest in the United Kingdom. But it ranks around 108th of the UK’s 115 Universities. I have difficulty to see how this University (which clearly needs to improve its ranking) could enhance its reputation by employing Ahluwalia. But perhaps Ahluwalia is a good teacher even if his reputation as a researcher in his own field is irrevocably tarnished.

The subject of his latest publication being more a social study rather than hard-core pharmacology is also understandable. And unlike many other sociologists he may have some unique qualifications to study plagiarism.

The paper itself is somewhat negative about a particular commercial product (Turnitin) and therefore of some benefit to its competitors – and that itself rings some alarm bells.

Unfortunately for Turnitin,

The results from the pilot study suggested that students did not find Turnitin (UK) easy to use neither did they perceive it as a useful learning tool.

But some questions also arise as to the the publishing Journal’s wisdom of publishing such a study  – which could be considered  “negative advertising” – and by such an author. Especially since they say that one of their objectives is to disseminate “good practice”.  Even consumer magazines are wary of reviewing just one product in isolation without also subjecting competing products to the same tests. From their website:

Bioscience Education is an online, bi-annual electronic journal owned and published by the Centre for Bioscience. Its aims are to promote, enhance and disseminate research, good practice and innovation in tertiary level teaching and learning within the biosciences disciplines.

Set a thief to catch a thief is a well tried concept but it does require some modicum of common sense.

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3 Responses to ““Set a thief to catch a thief”?”

  1. sceptic Says:

    Are you personally in a position to know whether the “investigation” was trustworthy?

    It seems pretty clear that “internal” investigations will ALWAYS blame the more junior scapegoats. It is easiest for UCL to blame Dr Ahluwalia, especially now that he is no longer at UCL, especially since this would not compromise the reputation or research grants of UCL personnel, e.g. Dr. Ahluwalia’s supervisor. Frankly, given that this paper was immediately doubted by other scientists, one would have expected more care on the part of the supervisor. If UCL wants to show any ethical validity in such cases, it is necessary that such investigations be carried out by personnel EXTERNAL to UCL and that the choice of the individuals to carry out the investigation should be independent of UCL.

    What about the journals? They also have a vested interest in seeing that such situations remain as “obscure” as possible, that only low level scapegoats emerge, that “influential” people are not discredited and that their “refereeing system” is not discredited. Was the usual Nature refereeing process applied or were “insider” pressures exerted on editors and /or referees?

    Frankly what should happen in such cases is that an external, independent body undertake the investigation – looking at both how the fraud was committed (and in this particular case there were apparently two quesdtionable papers – only one of which has Dr. Ahluwalia as an author) and at how the refereeing process failed. Both the journal and the authors of the discredited paper should be required to participate in this process under penalty of publishing the fact of their refusal.

    There is no doubt that an “insider mafia” operates in many cases and it is as necessary to clarify whether the supervisor exercised the proper “due diligence” and how the paper made it through a refereeing process as to assign blame to a low level scientist. Neither UCL nor Nature are in a position to guarantee that a proper independent investigation has been carried out.

  2. Very fishy: Dismissed from Cambridge, PhD from Imperial, misconduct at UCL, employed at UEL « The k2p blog Says:

    […] His paper on plagiarism while at UEL also has some obvious commercial implications. […]

  3. Ahluwalia is no longer at University of East London « The k2p blog Says:

    […] also  – “Set a thief to catch a thief”? and Jatinder Ahluwalia tries to […]

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