Indian scientists not allowed to think novel – Current Science

Right at the onset I must say that this is not a criticism of Current Science. Current Science is an extremely valuable journal. Science publishing today is increasingly being monopolized by a few publishing giants. They charge the readers heavily and a big controversy over free access to knowledge is currently on fire. But what is even more weird is that they charge the scientists heavily to publish their papers. I have been briefly in the fields of performing arts, theatre and literature in my life. In all these field every contribution is remunerated, in a small or big way. When I talk about an author having to pay, my non-scientist friends just can’t believe!! This can’t be anything else but scandal, they feel. Science is the only field where a contributor has to pay for contribution to knowledge!! But the publishing giants have successfully made this a norm. Most interestingly, scientists (including myself) are the most stupid, helpless and gullible people to fall prey to this utter non-sense.

In this desert of stupidity, journals like Current Science are the last surviving oases. They neither charge the author, nor the online reader. They are run by the academies of scientists using public money. This is a great service and journals like this need to survive the global downfall of ethics in science publishing. Recently I got a weird experience with Current Science, which reflects more on the mindset of the mainstream community of Indian researchers, rather than reflecting on Current Science itself. As a common man and science lover, it is my duty to make this incident public.

To relate the story briefly, with two coauthors, one being a college teacher and another, a first year student, I communicated a paper to CS. In this we had used a simple mathematical expression that we thought works well as an index to reflect a pattern of our interest. Then there were a number of statistical arguments based on it. In due course of time the review response was received. There were comments by only one reviewer. His main objection was that this ratio had not been used before. There was no precedence and therefore we couldn’t use it. Any inferences based on a new index were not valid according to him. There was no other objection about the use of the ratio. He did not say anything about the ratio not being appropriate to answer the question addressed, the ratio having some undesirable properties that could lead to a bias or anything of that sort. His only objection was that there was no precedence of using such an expression so our entire argument was invalid!! Then there were a few other comments which we thought we could reply to or incorporate changes in the manuscript. In the reply, we added a supplement exploring the mathematical and statistical properties of the new index, ran simulations to show how the ratio behaves and argued that it was appropriate to serve the purpose. It would have been a fair rejection if he argued against the ratio with some logic, mathematics or statistics in support, if he thought our simulations were inadequate to prove our point and so on. He could have also said, whenever you are using a new expression, you need to be more careful. You need to do this, this and this before you bring it to a publishable level. This would have been a scientific and useful debate. Independent of agreeing or disagreeing, I would certainly have respected it. I really enjoy such debates. But no! On seeing the revision (or perhaps not even seeing it) he said again that you cannot use an index that does not have a precedence. He also said that our paper contradicted some recently published papers (without citing any paper) therefore our argument was flawed. There was no other reason given why he thought our argument was flawed.

In brief you cannot talk about anything that established scientists have not said before, forget about contradicting them!! The manuscript was ultimately rejected based on the single reviewer’s recommendation. Acceptance or rejection is not the issue here at all. All researchers know that it is a part of the game. It is not always logical. Subjectivity in the decision is inevitable. Chance plays a great role. But what is important is the basis on which a rejection is recommended. It simply means that introducing any new concept in science is only a monopoly of a few elites. Lesser mortals like you are not allowed to talk about anything new.

I wrote to the handling editor, keeping other editors in cc whether by the current science norms, not having precedence and contradicting earlier publications was considered a sufficient reason to reject a paper. A lot of correspondence followed. Most of it was either about the rejection, either justifying it or consoling us. But we had never challenged this particular rejection. This specific question whether not having precedence can be a valid reason for rejection did not receive a clear answer. The entire editorial correspondence is available for interested readers here (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1w6N7OlklORe3nkpUcYgl5Fcf3RB6CeRi/view?usp=sharing). The reviewer’s comments, our replies (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1hBfAyrK8MDr0gcebX0WtE7xqFq-ReRCe/view?usp=sharing) and the original and revised manuscript is available here (https://drive.google.com/file/d/181wDJls8pGKsGp-B_f2gyXVzvhWXrvZ_/view?usp=sharing). Readers can make their own judgment.

In India, this is not the first time that such a thing is being experienced. Whenever something really novel comes from India, people look at it with suspicion. If something comes from the west, they generally have no problem. The modal Indian science community is still largely in the slavery days. Colonial era hasn’t yet ended. White man is still the master in the field of science. In India you may do some fill in the blanks kind of work, add marginal novelty for the name sake but Indians are not supposed to pioneer anything entirely new, small or large. It will not be considered science unless there is a white skin stamp on it. We recognize Indian scientists only by the honors they might get in the western scientific world. There are many science academies in India whose fellows are the most renowned researchers. These academies have several excellent journals such as CS. But the academy fellows themselves are always looking for publishing in the western journals with high impact factors. Publishing in an Indian journal is below their dignity, or only the last option if no western journal accepts their papers. One who does not do a post doc abroad is not worth even considering a scientist!!

About 20 years ago a senior scientist told me that he wanted to nominate me for Bhatnagar Award. Being just a science teacher, I did not expect this. Bhatnagar is not meant for science teachers. But to respect him, I provided the list of my papers and all other information needed. At that time I had published in PNAS, Lancet, Amercan Naturalist among others. But two of what I considered my best papers were published in CS. So in the list of my five most important papers I listed the CS papers with priority. One scientist who was on the Bhatnagar selection committee then, told me years later that when the committee members saw Current Science papers in the best paper list, within seconds my nomination was discarded. They didn’t even read anything further. In order to call it a good paper it has to be published in Nature, Science, Cell! How can an Indian journal paper be considered for  a Bhatnagar? Fellows of the Academies do not believe in their own journal! This is the level of self esteem of Indian Science. How can we expect path breaking work coming from India? Whenever it actually does, it is entirely the greatness of that exceptional individual, without community support, or in fact, is spite of the community.

On the other extreme are the fanatics of ancient Indian science. They are equally bad, if not worse, for the progress of Indian science. They think that all of Indian science happened thousands of years ago and now nothing is left to be done. So either way, there is no support for novel ideas originating from India. If you are doing science in India, and want to make a successful career, you should not seek too much of novelty. It is not allowed by other Indians. Originality makes life harder. Live a simple life and be successful by being a follower. You are not allowed to be a pioneer in this country. What happened with the CS review was only an inevitable reflection of the mindset of mainstream scientists in India. Therefore I don’t see any particular editor or reviewer being “wrong”. No individual in particular can be blamed because it is a community characteristic influencing individual behaviour. Rejecting originality by an Indian is the norm in Indian science. Only a handful might be exceptions. In such a community, what else can we expect?

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