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"All that glitters is not gold!"

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rajit Nair

Recently, one of the university doctoral theses was rejected by one of the examiners citing “striking similarities” with work done previously by the same examiner. The whole issue caused embarrassment for the department and the University. However, citing as an oversight ‘amicably’ the issue was solved and all the credits were acknowledged and the researcher submitted a new version for accreditation.

Two decades ago, there was a big controversy regarding an award winning literary work by a renowned writer. Some contemporaries alleged that the work was a replica of another masterpiece. Anyway the allegations and counter allegations went on for months and like any other issue, the enthusiasm faded or both parties reached an agreement to end the issue.

During my college days, to be specific during my degree final year it was required to submit a study tour report after the 2 week long tour. The funny part of it, which our Professor noticed is that 33 odd reports having the same content or same sentences and sequence of incidents, except some ‘smarties’ ‘jumbled’ the paragraphs to avoid Professor’s ‘monotony’. When questioned, one of our classmates passed a very ‘innocent’ comment, “Sir, naturally, the reports will have resemblance as we all visited the same places, and met the same people together”. In fact, if anyone digs for the lineage of the report, s/he may end up finding that the ‘parent’ report traced to couple of earlier batches. We were told that once our predecessors took the ‘same route’ and the carbon copy made from the previous year’s study report got exposed by the Examiner. The problem was not with the details regarding the visit to the famous Research Institute in Coimbatore, but by ‘oversight’ the Director’s name was not updated in the report. The report mentioned about the Director who passed away couple of months before the actual tour. This shocked the Invigilator.

Well! This reminds me of a famous quote, “If you steal from one author its plagiarism; if you steal from many its research” (Wilson Mizner). A work can inspire you, but if you are over enthusiastic to take short cuts in life either to become famous or to be noticed and convert that ‘inspiration’ ‘as-is’, then, definitely one day, you will get exposed. Please read my previous article on business cloning regarding copying of business models.

Similarly, Market research is another area, where such ‘adjustments’ would happen. How many of the reports can we trust these days? It’s not a myth anymore that even some of the top-rated market research companies don’t even have a team to perform such research. Some may not know even the ABC’s of sampling or field research. I have witnessed the difficulty of a statistics team to compute data from a set of completed questionnaires that were faulty designed by a ‘smart’ Office Assistant who never had experience in designing research questionnaires. The only merit was that this Office Assistant was successful in ‘putting’ boxes in MS Word.

Asking the right question is an art. Doesn’t need a genius to figure out that if you ask the wrong question, then naturally the output will also be wrong or misleading or garbage. Using unskilled and poorly trained fieldworkers or volunteers or data collectors can also fetch junk, even if you have the best data collection instrument. If the interviewer does not understand or wrongly understood the questions or cause of the research, then the response will be equally deceptive. Also, if the data collectors are not directly involved with the research or they are just paid data collectors, poorly paid and frustrated, then the quality of data is at risk. If it is an epidemiological study and covers wider geography, questionnaires filled up by the same fieldworker sitting at home using different styles and different inks are also a possibility. There may be loads of such reports so produced, presented and got applauded that are either fabricated or without any standard norms.

Data presentation is another essential skill in research. It’s very easy to present negative outcomes as a positive conclusion. This starts with tweaking data using charts or playing with the English language. If a Bar diagram is substituted with a Pie Chart, the presented set of data sometimes would give a different reading. I am not elaborating such gimmicks, some researchers ‘cover-up’ their unworthy work. For those interested, please read or refer “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, by Edward R. Tufte would give the reader range of do’s and don’ts regarding data presentation. There is a general trend, rather a cliché that if you use Percentage (%), then the listeners may not question or give the presenter more appreciation. In my view, this is also another manipulative way of data presentation. Like, data presentation, sometimes, report writing also seems so naïve.

Research in any field should be done seriously, as it is recorded and today or tomorrow someone may refer and may postulate their findings in a wrong way. Any research done without proper scientific reasoning is a ‘criminal waste’ and such researchers or agencies should be publicly ‘exposed’. Research is more than a 12th grader’s class project, and if the student ‘cut n paste’ from the Internet sites are respected as we expect the students only to learn or get a feel of doing research. But when it comes to serious research including scientific or technical or business or investment or market feasibility and that too that has immediate or future foreseen or unforeseen implications, then it should be done diligently.

Statutory warning (may be considered): All researchers, immediately after submission of their work would be subjected to narco-analysis test or polygraph and if found devious, would be subject to appropriate disciplinary actions!

Please keep visiting (every week) for more on the series “Fearless or Shameless”.

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