Sunday, August 17, 2014

Some Bad Habits are Learned at School

A letter from S. Ramasesha in Current Science:

... While wilful plagiarism should be punished exemplarily, it may also, in some cases, be due to a lack of understanding on the part of the offender as to what constitutes plagiarism. In the Indian context, often the young researchers, mainly students, commit plagiarism ‘unknowingly’ because it is not clear to them as to what constitutes plagiarism and what does not. This is especially true for students in India, since in their formative years in school, often teachers give full credit only for answers which are reproduced verbatim from their textbooks or class notes. Students who write answers in their own words are often penalized. [...]

And also, this article by Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie in Times Higher Education:

Further discussion with our own undergraduate research students uncovered what they considered to be the main cause of such misconduct: the way science is taught at school. The obsession with box-ticking is a major culprit, where assessment rewards only the right answer rather than the process of research and the integrity of reporting. Students told us of teachers who encouraged them to make up results (the right ones, of course) when a particular experiment had not “worked”. The problem is obvious: teachers have not been given sufficient time by governments and curriculum developers to properly teach the scientific process and to do experiments carefully. If an experiment or demonstration fails, pupils need to understand why. It is ludicrous that pupils should ever be encouraged to fake results when their experiments do not turn out as expected, or be punished with lower marks when they do not get the “right” answer. We expect that for some ambitious young scientists, the mis-training they received at school sets the agenda for the rest of their career.

Einstein's Grade Card

We saw Ramanujan's grade card last week. It's Einstein's turn this week.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Links ...

  1. Infosys Science Foundation donates Rs. 20 crores to IISc for chaired professorships in mathematics and physics.

  2. The Lower Ambitions of Higher Education. Dwight Garner reviews William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

    William Deresiewicz, of course, is the author of The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, an article that went viral almost immediately after it went online in 2008. It now seems to have been expanded into a book.

  3. Plagiarism Allegation on Textbook's Definition of Plagiarism. The title says it all.

    [This reminds me of plagiarism in an book on ... intellectual property!]

  4. Graeme Wood in The Atlantic: The Future of College?

  5. It's official: paying reviewers does get results! Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and László Sándor describe the lessons from their experiment with referees at an economics journal.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vishwesha Guttal on Higher Ed Regulation in India

Over at The Conversation, Vishwesha Guttal, a colleage in the Centre for Ecological Sciences, has a piece on Indian higher ed with a specific reference to the recent UGC directive to IISc on its FYUP. An excerpt:

India has adopted the UK’s model of three-year BSc program for more than 50 years, but the quality of most of the programs is abysmal. A paper prepared jointly by three Indian science academies in 2008 identified various limitations of the present system that focuses on quantity of information rather than the quality of education. The report argued for a four-year program with an emphasis on flexibility in curriculum, choice of subjects and research experience. They also recommended allowing students to switch between science and engineering.

India’s requirement as a large and diverse country cannot and should not rely on a failed mode of higher education uniformly imposed across the entire country. Experiments to improve education must be encouraged, especially if the premier institutes of the country are taking the lead. We can only know what works best if we attempt a variety of approaches.

FYUP at IISc: A Resolution?

This post has some updates at the end.

* * *

Basant Kumar Mohanty reports in The Telegraph (also check out Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi's take on it in a comment in an earlier post):

The Indian Institute of Science and the University Grants Commission have agreed on a compromise formula to wriggle out of the latest controversy surrounding the four-year Bachelor of Science (BS) course.

The IISc’s proposal to tweak the four-year BS course to BSc (Research), making the fourth-year research voluntary, has been accepted by the UGC, even as students and parents continue to be unhappy.

The BS course will now be known as BSc (Research), with an exit option after three years as a general BSc programme while the fourth year will be devoted to research.

I'm sure we will learn more in the days ahead, and I'll update this post with links.

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  1. (9:00 AM, 14 Aug 2014) The proposed change in the degree awarded at the end of four years -- from the original, nationally advertised B.S. to the new, decidedly underwhelming B.Sc. (Research) -- is bound to rankle the students. I dont' expect the second change (that of an exit option after 3 years leading to the usual B.Sc. degree) to cause a major stir.

    It is not clear how exactly this name change came about. In one version (in Mohanty's Telegraph report, above), it was IISc's idea: "The Bangalore institute yesterday [11 August 2014] sent a letter suggesting it was ready to tweak the BS programme to BSc (Research)." CNN-IBN and Deccan Herald also support this view: "According to a ministry official, the IISc also proposed to change the nomenclature and scheme of the programme making it a three-year course for BSc degree and four-year BSc research degree."

    In a second version (also reported by Mohanty in The Telegraph, one day earlier!):

    Official sources said the UGC has suggested that the IISc should tweak the format of its course and rename it BSc (Research). The first three years could be devoted to a general BSc course as offered by other universities, and the fourth to research, which could be optional.

    Students could then exit the course after three years if they wished. If they chose to continue for the fourth year, they would be awarded a BSc (Research) degree. They would also get credit points that would help them get direct admission into a PhD programme.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


  1. On this the World Elephant Day, you should enjoy this cute overload video shared by Sanjeeta in our Institute's Ecological Students Society blog. Institute.

  2. Andy Thomason in CHE: How Did the Federal Government Rate Your College a Century Ago?

  3. Another bit of historical curiosity: Did Srinivasa Ramanujan fail in math? A. Venkatachalapathy clarifies with some documentary evidence.

  4. Amir Alexander in SciAm: The Glory of Math Is to Matter.

    ... [M]ost fields of higher mathematics remain as they were conceived, with no practical application in sight. So is higher mathematics just an intellectual game played by exquisitely trained professionals for no purpose? And if so, why should we care about it?

FYUP at IISc: Links

Two former directors of IISc have been quoted in the press about this issue. The first, of course, is Bharat Ratna C.N.R. Rao, in a CNN-IBN news report: After DU, IISc Bangalore at loggerheads with UGC over scrapping of four-year undergraduate programme

Rao said that premier institutes should not be dealt with military commands. "IISc is the oldest also the best institute of this kind in India. It is the only institute which can be compared properly to many better institutes of the world and they should not be dealt by issuing circulars," Rao said.

The other is Prof. P. Balaram, under whose watch the FYUP at IISc came into being, quoted in The Hindu: IISc. is not Delhi varsity, say students, faculty.

The former director of the IISc. P. Balaram, during whose tenure the programme was introduced, described the Ministry’s current approach as “retrograde”, and added that the move “will dampen any kind of innovation in education.”

The government must consider that the IISc. is the only Indian institute with a global ranking, he said. “It has a 100-year history and an even longer future, and must keep evolving with the times.” [...]

As the title of the second story makes it clear, an IISc student has articulated the one key difference between the FYUP in DU and that at IISc:

A third-year student in the UG programme, Suhas Mahesh, described the move as “a terrible decision” by the Centre. “Unlike Delhi University’s case, here both IISc. faculty and students actually want the FYUP,” he said. Students take three competitive exams to make it to the course, and are each supported by scholarship.

The last point -- "each [student is] supported by scholarshi" -- is important; these are students who receive a scholarship -- primarily through KVPY and INSPIRE programs -- for studying science in any institution, and the fact that they have chosen to come to IISc should count for something.

Friday, August 08, 2014

A Nasty Surprise

G. Mudur and Basant Mohanty in The Telegraph yesterday: Meddle Virus Spreads to IISc:

The Centre today told Parliament that the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has been asked to discontinue its four-year undergraduate BS programme but the institute said it had not received any such orders.

HRD minister Smriti Irani, in a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha, said the University Grants Commission has reported that several universities, including the IISc, that are conducting four-year programmes have been asked to discontinue them and follow UGC notification on degrees.

Although IISc faculty said they had not received such a directive from the UGC, the reply in the House has triggered expressions of outrage in the science community.

And a follow-up story today: Parents to IISc: defy order on 4yr course with quotes from lots of parents, as well as non-IISc affiliated scientists -- Prof. Pushpa Bhargava and Prof. Lakhotia, in particular -- expressing their concern and/or outrage.

* * *

This is cutting too close for my comfort, so I'll refrain from offering any comment other than to express my hope that this will get resolved soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Experiments in HigherEd

The Economist has an article entitled The Digital Degree on the disruptive potential of online education. In the middle of a lot of hype, one finds this interesting concept that combines the benefits of online education and traditional universities:

Anant Agarwal, who runs edX, proposes an alternative to the standard American four-year degree course. Students could spend an introductory year learning via a MOOC, followed by two years attending university and a final year starting part-time work while finishing their studies online. This sort of blended learning might prove more attractive than a four-year online degree. It could also draw in those who want to combine learning with work or child-rearing, freeing them from timetables assembled to suit academics. Niche subjects can benefit, too: a course on French existentialism could be accompanied by another university’s MOOC on the Portuguese variety.

BTW, I liked this summary of the benefits of attending a traditional university:

Traditional universities have a few trump cards. As well as teaching, examining and certification, college education creates social capital. Students learn how to debate, present themselves, make contacts and roll joints. [Bold emphasis added]


  1. Mary Beard in CHE: What's So Funny? A neat overview of the history of theories of laughter. I like this line: "Confronted with the product of centuries of analysis and investigation, one is [tempted] to suggest that it is not so much laughter that defines the human species, as Aristotle is supposed to have claimed, but rather the drive to debate and theorize laughter."

  2. Here's a big one fit for the Annals of Research Misconduct: SAGE is retracting 60 articles published in their Journal of Vibration and Control [Update: The scandal has now forced the resignation of Taiwan's Education Minister]. Reason? A peer review ring:

    While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

  3. The Philosophers Mail: How we end up marrying the wrong people:

    ... Given that marrying the wrong person is about the single easiest and also costliest mistake any of us can make (and one which places an enormous burden on the state, employers and the next generation), it is extraordinary, and almost criminal, that the issue of marrying intelligently is not more systematically addressed at a national and personal level, as road safety or smoking are.

    It’s all the sadder because in truth, the reasons why people make the wrong choices are easy to lay out and unsurprising in their structure. [...]

  4. The Economist: The Digital Degree. "The staid higher-education business is about to experience a welcome earthquake."

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


  1. Heidi Ledford in Nature News: We dislike being alone with our thoughts. "Many people would rather endure physical pain than suffer their own wandering cogitations."

    Here's my cynical take: A fun study makes bold claims in psychology, and gets published in Science. How long will it survive before it gets retracted?

  2. Patricia Fara in Nature: Women in science: A temporary liberation:

    The First World War ushered women into laboratories and factories. In Britain, it may have won them the vote, argues Patricia Fara, but not the battle for equality.

  3. Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun in Nature: A Test that Fails.

    Universities in the United States rely too heavily on the graduate record examinations (GRE) — a standardized test introduced in 1949 that is an admissions requirement for most US graduate schools. This practice is poor at selecting the most capable students and severely restricts the flow of women and minorities into the sciences.

    We are not the only ones to reach this conclusion. [...]

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


  1. Retractions of the Year? The Rise and Fall of STAP (a Special Section in Nature website on the STAP fiasco, with all the relevant links. I presume (but haven't checked) that all the links there are open access).

    Two papers published in Nature in January 2014 promised to revolutionize the way stem cells are made by showing that simply putting differentiated cells under stress can 'reprogram' them and make them pluripotent — able to develop into any type of tissue in the body. But soon, errors were found in the papers, and attempts to replicate the experiments failed. Haruko Obokata, the lead author, was found guilty of misconduct, and the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, where she worked, was threatened with dismantlement. Five months after publication, Nature published retractions of the papers, but the aftermath of the episode is likely to endure for much longer.

  2. R. Grant Steen in Publications (yes, there is a journal by that name ...): The Demographics of Deception: What Motivates Authors Who Engage in Misconduct? From the abstract:

    Journal IF was higher for papers retracted for misconduct (...). Roughly 57% of papers retracted for misconduct were written by a first author with other retracted papers; 21% of erroneous papers were written by authors with >1 retraction (...). Papers flawed by misconduct diffuse responsibility across more authors (...)) and are withdrawn more slowly (...) than papers retracted for other reasons.

  3. Joel Achenbach in WaPo: Science is open to error, misinterpretation and even fraud.

    Since science is a human enterprise, it is open to error, misinterpretation and, rarely but notoriously, fraud and fakery. Here’s a rundown of a few science mishaps, misapprehensions and debatable interpretations in recent years.

  4. Jalees Rehman in 3 Quarks Daily: The Road to Bad Science Is Paved with Obedience and Secrecy: "The recent events surrounding the research in one of the world's most famous stem cell research laboratories at Harvard shows us the disastrous effects of suppressing diverse and dissenting opinions."

  5. Dan Drezner in CHE: The Uses of Being Wrong: "Why is it so hard for scholars to admit when they are wrong?"

Experiments in Higher Ed: Fractal Courses at IIT-H

IIT-Hyderabad is experimenting with an undergraduate curriculum that contains many, many "single module" or "breadth" courses (typically, one lecture hour per week) in various disciplines at an introductory level, followed by a more traditional set of "depth" courses (which require two or more lecture hours per week) in the student's chosen discipline.

The idea, as I understand it, is to allow students to study a variety of subjects in engineering, sciences, liberal arts and creative arts and to get them to appreciate and integrate ideas from many different directions. This would not only give them a perspective and a context to place their own core field in, but also give them a leg up in interdisciplinary thinking.

Over at the IIT-H website, you can find a couple of presentations, both authored by the IIT-H Director, Prof. U.B. Desai, articulating the concept of fractal courses. They contain a model curriculum with a suggestive set of breadth and depth courses for students of electrical and chemical engineering.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Pinnacle of Human Communication


I needed this to figure it out: 9 Questions about 'Yo' You were Embarrassed to Ask.

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Hat tip to Joshua Gans whose post examines the informational content Yo.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

40th Birthday of Barcode Technology

From the Wired story 40 Years on, the Barcode Has Turned Everything Into Information by Marcus Wohlsen:

... [Putting] barcodes on chocolate bars and instant oatmeal did more than revolutionize the economy, or the size of grocery stores. Thanks to bar codes, stuff was no longer just stuff. After a thing gets a barcode, that thing is no longer just itself. That thing now comes wrapped in a layer of information hovering just beyond sight in the digital ether. The thing becomes itself plus its data points, not just a physical object unto itself but tagged as a node in a global network of things. Barcodes serve up the augmented reality of the everyday, where everything can be cross-referenced with everything else, and everything has a number.

Haberman himself knew barcodes meant more than just a better way to manage supermarket inventory. He saw linguistics. He saw metaphysics. He also understood that those deeper abstract meanings held the key to barcodes’ radical practicality. “Go back to Genesis and read about the Creation,” Haberman once told The Boston Globe. “God says, ‘I will call the night “night”; I will call the heavens “heaven.”‘ Naming was important. Then the Tower of Babel came along and messed everything up. In effect, the U.P.C. has put everything back into one language, a kind of Esperanto, that works for everyone.”