Thursday, December 31, 2009

Home page

I have received a few emails informing me that they are unable to access my web page hosted in IISc because of the security certificate. This is in Actually, I never point to this as my web page because of slow connections outside IISc. I have a page maintained at googlepages, which now redirects you to the page at googlesites.

I have been aware of this problem for over a month and have reported it. Previously, I would logged in myself as the sysad and renewed the certificate. But I have not done it because lately I am sick of doing things, which are others are paid/supposed to do but do not do. Just now a thought came in my mind: How about making this a new year resolution?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Archives of publications

In her post, midway rants
Why can I not read online even a 1897 research paper in J.Phys.Chem for free? Copyrights expire, and this is 1897 for God's sake! It is quite annoying.

She wonders why it is not free. It is not free because it is sold. Our library wants to put all the old issues of the journals (prior to 1950) in old stacks that will be not easily accessible. Though we own the hard copy of the journals, we still need to buy the archives (the online version). Buying the archives to all the old journals from just the societies would cost more than Rs. 1.5 crores. Many universities in the USA have gone ahead and bought the archives because the space that is used to store these old issues cost more.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Commercial vs Society publishers

Journals in which scientific research is published have two kinds of publishers: commercial and society.  IISc subscribes to a large number of journals and pays around Rs. 1.5 crores to the society publishers and 12 crores to commercial publishers.

Traditionally, society publications are considered more prestigious journals within the academic community. For example, most of the physics community publishes in journals published by American institute of physics (AIP) and Institute of Physics (IOP). In chemistry, it has been traditionally journals published by American Chemical Society (ACS) and Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). However, this situation is rapidly changing in sciences and engineering.

For example, in chemistry, many high impact journals like Angew Chemie, Chemistry - A European Journal; Chemistry - A Asian Journal etc are being published by a commercial publisher. In my area of chemical engineering, the top journals that publish in general area of chemical engineering are AIChE. J., Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research, Chemical Engineering Science and Chemical Engineering Journal. Three of them are published by commercial publishers. In my sub area of research on catalysis, the top journals are Journal of Catalysis, Applied Catalysis B, Applied Catalysis A, Journal of molecular catalysis and all of them are owned by a single commercial publisher. Similarly, in fields like Material Science/engineering, the top journals in that field are owned by commercial publishers.

Thus, commercial publishers publish very good journals. The differences and problems arises because the quality of *all* journals published by the society and the commercial publisher. For example, how many journals published by American Chemical Society have an impact factor of less than 3? Just one. The same can not be said of commercial publishers, who publish journals of widely varying quality.

A librarian (especially in India) wants to buy the entire package sold by the publisher. This leads to tremendous cost incurred by the institute and the administration is stuck with a bill that increases every year as the commercial publishers continue to add journals without adding to the content. Researchers expect that the administration will subscribe to all journals that are possible; librarians like to give access to all journals for the researchers, while the publishers would like to maximize their profit. The efforts to contain bloating library budget ultimately seem to rest on the administrator of the university, who is unable to alter the dynamics because of resistance from every quarter. In deciding whether to continue subscription to a particular journal, at least four criteria should be used : impact factor of the journal, number of articles published by faculty in that journal, number of citations to the papers published in that journal and the number of downloads from that particular journal. Such statistics should be provided and the librarian/faculty should be willing to cut subscriptions. Unless this happens, it is unlikely that the budgets can be reduced rationally.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Administrative procedures in IISc

In a comment on the post, Bharat says,

About administrative issues, the US universities have a really good system of "welcoming" new faculty. They have a half-day to a daylong "orientation" session for all new faculty. Presentations are made by people from administrative staff that is extremely relevant to the prevailing procedures in the university.

For example, an IIX can have a single day orientation for all new faculty that deals with presentations by senior faculty or administrative staff on the following topics:
1) Settling down: Campus accommodation, pay and benefits overview, Campus facilities: Gymkhana, Health Centre, Library, etc.
2) Kickstarting your teaching: Student admission procedures, grading system, course styles offered by current faculty, resources available for teaching, teaching awards.
3) Kickstarting your research: Selecting PhD students, Grant writing, introduction to funding agencies, buying equipment, travel and reimbursement procedure, fellowships available to new faculty and procedures.
4) Projects and Consulting: Rules, regulations, procedures etc.
5) Operational Overview of the Institute: Directors' office, Various Deans, Senate, Payroll and Finance, Support Staff, Guidelines in dealing with non-teaching staff.
6) Cultural issues: Many local culture specific issues that faculty coming back from abroad after a long time(or foreign faculty) may not know.
All it takes is a group of interested faculty/staff to put this together and this can sustain itself from year to year based on voluntary work.
 Because IISc (and most IITs) recruit only 3-4 faculty every quarter, it is impossible to hold orientation programs for new faculty. However, it is possible to write about each of this in separate posts. I will write about the above topic one by one in 2010. Thanks for the suggestion.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Search engines

I have been an user of Mathematica ever since 1993 and I used to use it extensively for my research as well as during teaching a course on numerical methods. I wanted to write about a wonderful science search engine, Wolfram alpha, but Sachin Shanbagh has already written an article on it. For an alternative view, check out this. Anyway, Wolfram alpha is worth a look.

In case, mathematics or science is not your cup of tea (or coffee) and you are looking for a different sort of search engine (don't be surprised if google hits the Indian market first), look at this - the google matrimonial !

Air travel

I had earlier written about the requirement to write to the joint secretary to get permission for travel by private airlines. Please follow the format given here. You can write to one of the following,

Joint Secretary Shri P.N. Sukul 24610386
Joint Secretary Shri Alok Sinha 24616303
Under Secretary Shri S.K. Chhikara 24610372

You can fax the letter to 24640213 or call Sharma at 24632950 ext 2873.

Please add STD code of (011) to all phone numbers above.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Vision in vacuum

Recently, I visited a department, which had a vision paper and in a slide, they put their vision, "To be one in top five departments in the world." I smiled and thought it must have been their innate modesty that restricted them to be just among the top five and not the best in the world. IISc and many of its departments have simply overcome this problem by not having vision documents at all.

Vision without carefully designed policies, tasks and formulated action plans are simply that - visions and, these visions are no different from visions obtained by taking LSD. To quote from my colleague and friend, Jayant Haritsa (from Abi's blog; Read Jayant's post, it is frank and enlightening, as would be any conversation with him), "..stemming the perceived rot first requires introspection about the internal mechanisms of our institutions."

Competition to attract faculty

The telegraph has an article on competition to attract faculty,

Once that is done, then the ministry should stand back and watch as the institutions compete among themselves to get the best people. The ministry could let the competition begin at home, before it goes global. And this should include playing full tilt at poaching quality faculty from institutions within the country. It should be possible to imagine the institutes of technology at Kanpur and Kharagpur vying with each other to work out the best offer for a brilliant candidate in the country. The universities can do this among themselves because they are governed by their own acts. But the Centre continues to keep the IITs under its wing in these matters, and it is now time to shed this kind of overseeing and controlling mindset.

It would be really interesting to see the competition between IITs and IISc to retain their best faculty. Incentives can include chair positions, enhanced infrastructure and better/assured funding.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Scopus awards

Congratulations to my colleagues in IISc, K.R. Prasad, Vijay Shenoy and Siddhartha Gadgil for winning the Scopus award in chemistry, physics and mathematics, respectively.

The winner in engineering, Tanmay Basak, is a good friend of mine, an alumnus of our department and is currently a faculty in IIT-Madras.

Congratulations again to all of them.

Advice on admission

I have been getting lot of emails regarding admission to IISc as a student (M.E/Ph.D) and on recruitment as a faculty.

On admission to IISc as a student, you can get admitted to the M.E. program only through GATE. I get lot of emails asking me what is the cutoff. It is impossible for me to check and tell the cutoffs for each branch of engineering for various categories (GN/OBC/SC/ ST/PH/KM) etc. As a thumb rule, you need at least 99 percentile in the GN category to get admitted. For the M.Sc (Engg) program, one still needs to be qualified in GATE but the cutoffs are lower (around 90-95 percentile, depending on the department). The difference between M.E and M.Sc (Engg) program is that the latter program is research based and most likely take more than 2 years to complete. One can be admitted directly (after B.E/B.Tech) to Ph.D program in engineering WITHOUT GATE. The shortlisting is based on the marks obtained in undergraduate degree and other parameters. For admission to Ph.D in sciences (chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics etc.), one SHOULD have qualified in at least one of the following exams: GATE or Institute entrance exam or JEST or CSIR JRF. The cutoff marks/percentile in each exam varies from each department every year depending on the number of candidates applying.

Both M.Sc (Engg) and Ph.D (both sciences and engineering) require clearing the interview. The mode of interview also varies from department to department and I can not give general guidelines. All I can say is that it will be technical and it is best to come well prepared in 3-4 subjects (and mathematics for engineering departments).

On being recruited as a faculty in IISc, I have mentioned the procedures that are followed for an appointment and I have also mentioned the pay scales and other benefits in my earlier posts. However, sending me your resume and asking me whether you stand a chance has no meaning. I can only give you the procedure and a technical evaluation of the resume has to be done by the department. As in any evaluation, there is lot of subjectivity and one can not say whether publishing five or ten papers will make a difference. I think it is more of a fit and what field the department is looking for. Therefore, it is best that you visit the department or talk to the faculty in the department and find out.

To quote my own example,  I applied to the chemical engineering department in IISc in late 1996 and was rejected (rather rudely). In 1997,  I applied to IISc and three IITs and visited these places. I was offered by all of these institutes in 1998. In 1996, I had 15 publications and in 1997, I had 18 publications and I am sure that did not make a difference. In IISc, it seemed to me that a faculty who was doing research in separations and another faculty who was doing research in polymers were about to retire and I was recruited because I was doing research in both of these fields. After I joined IISc, the retirement age increased from 60 to 62 and then to 65. In my first year, I was really foolishly worried that I may be asked to leave. However, the department was kind enough to continue my appointment and, in my assessment, I have performed rather satisfactorily subsequently.

Why am I writing all this? Because, unlike many, I do not suffer from email bankruptcy  and, in fact, respond to all emails within 24 hours (if I am not travelling). However, lately, I have not responded to any email of the above categories. Unlike many whose are most free during Dec 15 - Jan 2, I am most busy during this period. Being on committees that have to tender and sign the contract for various services (like housekeeping, security, manpower, library journals etc etc.) with the vendor before Dec 31, there are several meetings that have to take thoughtful but quick decisions and not delay/avoid decisions.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Decision avoiding

Two articles on decision avoiding or deferring. The first is from Sharu Rangnekar and the second is Chandrasekaran in The Hindu. The second article was sent to me after reading my earlier post which ended with the statement "Hasten Slowly."


The first step to decision-avoiding is to determine whether we should avoid the decision by ourselves or “pass the buck”. The third decision-rule states: If you can get somebody else to avoid the decision, don’t avoid it yourself.

*Committee Method: The most popular method of passing the buck is to appoint a committee to ‘review the problem’ This method has been patronized very widely by government authorities  but  it  is  by  no  means  their  monopoly  Non-government  sectors  also  have  found  this  method  extremely useful for decision-avoiding Although in many cases, the very act of appointing committees will effectively ensure decision-avoiding, a wise manager will doubly ensure the result by taking the following measures:

1.    Make the committee as large as possible: A committee of three may suddenly get to a decision. The  possibility  is  greatly  alleviated  if  the  membership is  increased  to  nine.  Research  has  revealed  the mathematical rule (known as the fourth decision-rule)): The possibility of avoiding decision increases In
proportion to the square of the number of members in  the  committee.  Committees  with  membership  of
thirty  and  above  rarely  reach  any  significant  decision (e.g. National Integration Council).

2. Make the committee meeting difficult: This  can  be  done  by  appointing  a  sick  chairman, members geographically as distant as possible, etc.

3.    Make the committee incompatible: At least two members of the committee should have a  previous  record  of  proved  hostility  or-  at  least  a dominating attitude. Others will develop hostility as the committee work proceeds.

*Abominable No-man Method: Many companies have an invaluable asset which rarely figures on their balance sheet. It is the “Abominable no-man”. The basic characteristic of this person is his infinite capacity to say “no”. Consequently, even a threat to refer the matter to A.N. compels the initiator to drop his proposal.

*Bottomless Joe Method: In the absence of the availability of A.N., some companies resort to the “Bottomless Joe”. B.J. has  the  exceptional  quality  that  any  matter  referred  to  him is  guaranteed  to  get  lost.  He  is  invaluable  to  his  employers because he cannot or will not complete any job assigned to him and is thus very convenient for avoiding decisions. Needless  to  say,  A.N.  and  B.J.  are  extremely  useful  as members of any committee appointed to avoid decisions.

*Make  it  a  Policy  Matter:  In  circumstances  where committees  cannot  be  appointed  and  A.N.  or  B.J.  are  not readily  available,  the  buck  can  still  be  passed  to  the  higher management by making the problem a policy matter, e.g. “There has been a proposal for a cycle-stand for workers. This basically forms a part of our employee-benefit scheme and consequently cannot be considered in isolation. In due course, the top management should consider this proposal while  reviewing  our  wage-structure,  benefit  scheme,
etc....” In  criminal  cases,  ‘insanity”  is  the  ultimate  plea.  Similarly, in  management  action  or  inaction,  “policy”  is  the  ultimate convenient label.

*Appoint a Consultant: This is rather a desperate move and should be resorted to when other remedies are not available. If a proper consultant is chosen and his terms are made ambiguous enough his report will create enough confusion and hostility so that the original problem will be lost.


Situations arise where a manager is unable to pass the buck and is compelled to avoid decisions by himself. In such cases, the manager may use any of the following approaches:

Scare the Initiator: The methods available for this purpose are:
*Tantrum Method: This is a somewhat ancient method, but is still effective. When the initiator comes with his proposal, you should throw a tantrum.

*Hush-hush  Method:  Alternately,  you  may  warn  the initiator that he is rushing in where “angels fear to tread”

*More-details-please Method: If you keep on asking for more and more details, the initiator will give up his proposal sooner or later e.g. “Regarding  your  proposal  (cycle-stand  for  workers)  we regret to note that full details have not been made available. Before the proposal can be considered further, we would like
to have the following details in quintuplicate:
1.    Dimensions of standard cycles with expected variation.
2.    Average laden and unladen weight with usual variations.
3.    Estimated capacity requirements by quarters in the next seven years.
4.    Possible modes of construction with estimated cost   (Please enclose 3 competitive quotations each )
5.    All other relevant or significant details available at your end...”

*Double-talk Method: If you have mastered the jargon of management, you can confuse the initiator, e.g. “You are talking about cycle-stand for workers. Do you realise that is just a method of their expressing the lack of mutual trust. So we must look upon the problem as a  symptom  and  not  as  a  disease.  What  must  we  do to create an atmosphere of mutual trust or harmony? Not granting material benefits, but interacting with the workers to create a feeling ,of unity...”

*No-problem-exists Method: Deny the very existence of the problem, e.g.: “What  is  this  about  a  cycle-stand?  We  have  been running this factory for 15 years without a cycle-stand. Everybody knows that cycles can stand without a cycle-stand.  Why  do  you  want  a  cycle-stand?  Why  do  you want to bring up an imaginary problem?..

The Narasimha Rao Method: There are a few ardent followers of our late Prime Minister in our corporate world. The late P. V. Narasimha Rao is one of our most under-rated Prime Ministers who, despite running a minority Government, gave us the seminal 1991 liberalisation that kick-started our journey to economic redemption. His method of action was seemingly not to act at all. His Sphinx-like silences when confronted by crises hid a fascinating way of seemingly letting things work themselves out in public on their own but he clearly did act in the background to make them happen.

The Jilebi Process: We all love the jilebi for its taste. Specialists in the corporate world love it for its shape. It is almost impossible to pinpoint where the start point for the jilebi is and where its end point is; more importantly, it has multiple loops. Once an idea is forced into the jilebi loop by experts, it is impossible to retrieve it in its original form. Time goes by, the idea loops around endlessly and people get fed up. They give up.

The ‘Naale Baa’ Technique: There was a story that made its rounds a couple of years ago in Bangalore about a ghost that would knock on doors and would go away if it was told Naale Baa in Kannada — meaning, come back tomorrow. You just had to repeat this if it came back again. Can you really count the number of times we have gone to get a decision from our bosses only to be told, come back tomorrow and the tomorrow for a decision never comes?

The Kamaraj Plan:  Many corporate honchos subscribe to the Kamaraj plan. The late K. Kamaraj was an iconic chief minister of Tamil Nadu in the 1950s and 1960s. A laconic man, his favourite response to anything asked of him was the Tamil word parkkalam — meaning, let us see. He achieved a lot as a chief minister, so his technique must have given him the latitude of not committing to anything immediately but also making sure that many things indeed got done in due course.

The Mobius Strip Manoeuvre: If an ant were to crawl along the length of a Mobius Strip, it would return to its starting point having traversed both sides of the strip, without ever crossing an edge. This is a splendid technique used by many bosses to give the worker ants the joy of feeling that they are doing something but essentially ensuring that they come back to the starting point without having achieved anything!

The Delphic Oracle Methodology: Pythia, the ancient Delphic Oracle, was supposed to be in a trance and “raved” — probably a form of ecstatic speech — and her ravings were “translated” by the priests of the temple into elegant hexameters. People consulted the Delphic Oracle on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs. Many a corporate has Delphic Oracles who speak in a strange language which needs translation by a body of acoloytes so that mere mortals can understand and act upon their advice. Guess it also gives a handle for denial when things go wrong!

Hasten slowly is a wonderful oxymoron. I feel it is also a great way to deal with problems — think through them and act appropriately when needed. You can always choose one of the options above to guide you when in doubt!

Saturday, December 12, 2009


As pointed out by Abi, there are two interesting posts on the issue of citations. First, Arunn has a post on Quantifying Research Quality through Article Level Metrics. He mentions that "The beginning of the end for impact factors and journals, a neat online article by Richard Smith [3], explains the newly introduced ALM indices with examples." As Arunn mentions, "Nevertheless citations offer a fair measure of worthiness of an article, as it is based on other peer reviewed research articles. The measure maintains a peer-to-peer credibility.The rest of the ALM mentioned in the above section are even more incredible, if not dubious."

Let me state my own opinions. It is important to realize that impact factors were originally introduced by Garfield to validate the 20:80 rule (Pareto's law) and help guide the librarians in choosing appropriate journals for the library. Unfortunately, many librarians in India have not used the impact factor to choose the journals they want to subscribe but are instead are happy signing the big deal which bundles a lot of useless journals to a single good journal. Therefore, many libraries (including IISc) have subscribed to nearly 2000 journals but use less than 200 of them to publish and cite. See my article on Current Science on this for more details.

The impact factor was not to guide where faculty should publish. Faculty and the scientists in the field mostly knew what the best journals in the field are and the impact factor just confirmed this. Garfield himself states, "Impact Factor is not a perfect tool to measure the quality of articles but there is nothing better and it has the advantage of already being in existence and is, therefore, a good technique for scientific evaluation. Experience has shown that in each specialty the best journals are those in which it is most difficult to have an article accepted, and these are the journals that have a high impact factor. These journals existed long before the impact factor was devised. The use of impact factor as a measure of quality is widespread because it fits well with the opinion we have in each field of the best journals in our specialty." 

Of course, Web of Science started selling the list of journals with the impact factor for an obscene price and many scientists, instead of choosing the journals based on what they wanted, started choosing the journals based on impact factor. Eigenfactor is a good substitute to the impact factor because it is free, provides the cost-effectiveness of each journal, counts citations for a five year period and gives percentile rankings of each journal within each field. It is worth mentioning again that it is free.

The impact factors of journals from different scientific fields vary considerably. A common misinterpretation of impact factors and citation numbers is frequently reflected by the statements such as: "He (she) is an excellent scientist, because he (she) published three papers in a journal with an impact factor above 3, and was cited more than two hundred times".Whoever says this, should remember that, in fields such as mathematics, there are nearly no journals with impact factors above 3. On the other hand, in the subfield Biochemistry and molecular biology, there are more than forty journals with impact factors above 3. Thus, eigenfactor has introduced percentile rankings of each journal within each field. The variation of the average impact factor of the journals within each field is given by a recent article by Althouse et al., in the January 2009 issue of J. Amer. Soc. Inform. Sci. Tech.

Again, these are to be used to make decisions on library subscriptions or compare similar institutions and not to compare individuals in different fields.

Sachin Shanbag talks on Quantitative v/s Qualitative Evaluations: Impact Factors and Wine Experts and states, "I think they are a lazy substitute for actually reading a person's research and evaluating its worth individually.You wouldn't necessarily think that the musician who sells the most records, or has the most covers made is necessarily the best."

There is a recent article on Scientometrics and its fallacies in Nature. One feature of the article is that an individual's work can not be judged solely on the basis of the number of publications or citations.  But the Ponderer mentions in its blog,
"If something is important to you, you will find a way to measure it". This quote appeals to me, as an analytical person, perhaps overly so. I think often when we claim to make a decision subjectively, we are actually doing it quite objectively, but with bias - and claim subjectivity to avoid admitting the bias.

I am sure some bias will still remain, but much of it can be eliminated by agreeing to objective metrics. Maybe you like candidate A because she went to Cornell, just like you, but if candidate B has a more superior publication record, as attested by agreed-upon research metrics, can you argue with that? I think I am changing my opinion on h-index, citations and other cold objective metrics that I used to dismiss as bean-counting. We DO need objective metrics, because as humans we are intrinsically biased.

Use of these quantitative parameters for evaluating an individual is best avoided and, if used, it has to be viewed with caution. If it is used, it can be used for positive affirmation (i.e., people who have h-index are likely to be good), it should not be used to say a person who has a poor h-index is bad. Just because a positive correlation exists between high h-index and excellence (e.g. Nobel prizes) does not mean the reverse corollary applies. Thus, I completely agree that it is a lazy and clerical attitude to evaluate an individual's based only on number of publications or citations.

However, scientometrics is an excellent tool to judge and rank institutions. A large institution (with more than 400 faculty) will have all kinds of researchers: faculty who publish a lot with small number of citations, faculty who publish very little with high number of citations, faculty who have both large number of papers and citations, papers that are poor which get cited a lot and papers that are good which get cited poorly. A case in point is that if you do scientometric analysis, universities like MIT, Harvard and Caltech will come out in top 10. They are not in the top 10 because of scientometric analysis but scientometric analysis only justifies the ranking. Similarly, IISc ranks among the top in every category in India and this is only confirmed by scientometrics.

Thus, evaluating the country's research productivity on these parameters is very much valid. Research in any field should either lead to publications (that are cited) or patents (that are licensed) or useful products for end use. Research that does not lead to any of these from an individual may be even accepted but not for a large nation that puts 1 to 3% GDP into research.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Online exams

When I was GATE vice-chairman for three years during 2004-2007, there were lot of discussions to make it online. Though I was technically savvy among the members, I was the person who strongly protested against this. The reason was three fold: (a) the number of students taking GATE is much higher than exams like GRE (For GATE 2010, the numbers have crossed 4 lakhs) (b) creation of question banks with several questions in each subject area (c) the unwillingness to outsource it to a separate agency.

Unlike GRE/CAT etc, GATE has multiple papers and, therefore, large question banks have to be developed for each subject. Further, levels of each question should be established because if different students take the exam on different days, the level of the exam should be similar. Setting up these questions takes time and willingness of several faculty involved.

Many people in the committee felt that the exam should not be outsourced but be conducted locally and that IISc/IIT should conduct the exam for around 2 lakh students over 10 days (like CAT) but not outsource it. This would mean creation of huge infrastructure, security features etc. done by people whose expertise is not in this area. Now, because of the debacle of CAT online exam, we know that outsourcing it to a good company also does not work all the time.

Of course, the long term solution is to have an online exam. This year, GATE will conduct online exam for two small papers (textile and mining). These papers have very small number of students taking the exam and can be conducted in only the IITs/IISc (eight centers). I do not envisage any problems with this. But as numbers increase and it becomes impossible to conduct the exam on a single day, the issue of question banks and thousands of computers come in. Maybe the next step for IIT/IISc is to conduct JMET (single question paper, lesser students) online, learn from this and then try to conduct any other major exam like GATE/JEE online. I repeat what I said in 2005, "Hasten slowly."