CNR Rao, a faceted gem

Inquisitions are sure to follow if you’ve won India’s highest civilian honor on the back of a little-known career. At the same time, if that career’s been forged on scientific research, then blame all that’s little-known on media apathy, flick away what fleeting specks of guilt persist, and congratulate the winner for years of “great work” (which of course you didn’t hear about till news portals “broke” the news – even to the point of getting things, as usual, terribly wrong).

Yesterday, it was announced Prof. C.N.R. Rao of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), a chemist, was being awarded the Bharat Ratna for his prolific research and, presumably, his contributions to science education in India. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Rao helped set up the JNCASR and was pivotal in establishing the five IISERs (Kolkata, Pune, Mohali, Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram). In between, he was the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council for four Indian Prime Ministers: Rajiv Gandhi, Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Manmohan Singh.

As a researcher, Rao works in solid-state and structural chemistry and superconductivity, with more than 1,500 published papers and an h-index of 90. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1982, received the Hughes Medal in 2000; the Indian Science Award in 2004; and the French Legion of Honour in 2005. He’s received various other awards, too, and has honorary PhDs from over 50 universities the world over. All these distinctions, and more, have been covered by journalists in their reports published, and continuing to be published, hours after the PMO announced that he’d be conferred India’s highest civilian award.

What was conspicuously missing from the coverage was Rao’s involvement in a series of plagiarism charges levelled against him for papers of his published through 2011 and 2012. Both of India’s two most widely-read English dailies didn’t include it in their reports, while a third, smaller publication had a mention in its last line (I didn’t bother to check other publications – but imagine, between the two biggies, some 9.8 million readers in the country haven’t been reminded about what Rao was engaged in). Why would news-channels choose to leave it out? Some reasons could be…

  1. Rao didn’t engage in plagiarism, just that one of his co-authors, a student tasked with writing the introductory elements of the paper, did.
  2. Rao has published over 1,500 papers; even in the papers where plagiarised content was found, the experiments and results were original. These charges are, thus, freak occurrences.
  3. It’s a tiny blip on an illustrious career, and with a Bharat Ratna in the picture, minor charges of plagiarism can be left out because they don’t contribute to the “effect” of the man.

This is where I’d remind you about a smart Op-ed by IMS researcher Rahul Siddharthan that appeared in The Hindu on March 9, 2012. Here’s a line from the paper that points to the concerns I have with Rao:

Unfortunately, the senior authors (Rao, who was the last author, and S.B. Krupanidhi of IISc, Bangalore) did three other things. They both publicly blamed the first author, a graduate student of Krupanidhi. They both denied that it was plagiarism. And Rao declared that he had had little personal involvement with this paper.

If any of the three excuses listed above are being cited by journalists, Siddharthan’s piece defeats them, instead drawing forth a caricature of Rao and his character that seem disagreeable. I would like to think that Rao was simply absent-minded, but I’m unable to. Siddharthan’s words make Rao sound as if he was disgruntled with an unexpected outcome, that it was as a result of simply neglecting to supervise work that he wanted to end up taking credit for – no matter that the experiments and results presented in the paper were original.

To wit, here’s another paragraph from Siddharthan’s piece:

Rao and his colleagues were undoubtedly aware of the previous paper, since they plagiarised from it; yet they cite it only once, briefly and without discussion, in the introduction. Not only do they fail to compare their results with a very relevant prior publication: they nowhere even hint to the reader that such work exists.

To be clear, my grouse isn’t with C.N.R. Rao winning the Bharat Ratna but the lightness with which newspapers have chosen to suppress the fact that Rao, in some way, was unaware (or, equally bad, aware) about plagiarised content in his work.

Worse, in an article by K.S. Jayaraman in Nature in February 2012, Rao speaks about the importance of good language skills among students, and the need for an institutional mechanism to enforce it. In an interview published in Current Science in May 2011, he talks about the importance of grooming youngsters and providing the supportive environment he thinks mandatory for them to succeed. Is this Rao leading by example, then, to show the dire need for such mechanisms and environments?


While an exalted picture of him persists into Day 2 in the Indian mainstream media, I remember that at the moment of announcement, many of my scientist- and science-writing-friends expressed mild confusion over the choice. First thought: Surely there were others? A few minutes later: But why? An hour later: Is he in the league of Raman or Kalam? These giants of Indian science and technology commanded a public perception that transcended their work.

Then again, are all these questions being raised simply in the wake of years of media apathy toward Rao’s work in the public sphere?