Assessing the Ethics of Stings, Including from the Prism of Guidelines by Ethics-Promoting Organizations (COPE, ICMJE, CSE)
- Published: 21 January 2021
- Volume 37 , pages 90–98, ( 2021 )
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- Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva 1
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In academic publishing, stings appear to be on the rise. Stings may involve a paper with nonsense or fabricated content, fictitious authors or affiliations, and may be supported by artificially created emails or ORCID accounts, the latter to offer a false impression of validation. In recent times, stings have been used to protest editorial policies or to challenge claims of peer review, with the objective of exposing flawed policies and procedures. While some hail stings as success stories in exposing poor editorial policies and publication flaws, and while others draw humor from them, very few academics have suprisingly assessed the ethics (or lack thereof) and/or criminality of such operations. Consequently, it is rare to find academic papers that are critical of such stings from an ethical and/or criminal perspective. An equally surprising fact is that ethics-promoting organizations (COPE, ICMJE, CSE), which have ethics guidelines for paper submission to a wide swathe of academic and scholarly journals and publishers, do not have ethics clauses specifically calling out sting operations, even though several of their stated ethics guidelines consider fake, false or falsified elements in an academic paper to be unethical. In this paper, some reflection on broad ethical, humor-related and possible criminal elements of sting operations in academic publishing are considered. In addition, the COPE, ICMJE and CSE ethics guidelines were scrutinized to identify any clauses that could support the argument that stings in academic publishing are unethical.
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The author thanks Marta Dynel (Department of Pragmatics, Institute of English Studies, University of Łódź, Poland) for insightful discussion about humor and deceit.
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Teixeira da Silva, J.A. Assessing the Ethics of Stings, Including from the Prism of Guidelines by Ethics-Promoting Organizations (COPE, ICMJE, CSE). Pub Res Q 37 , 90–98 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12109-021-09784-y
Accepted : 11 January 2021
Published : 21 January 2021
Issue Date : March 2021
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s12109-021-09784-y
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- Published: 23 March 2017
Predatory journals recruit fake editor
- Piotr Sorokowski 1 ,
- Emanuel Kulczycki 2 ,
- Agnieszka Sorokowska 3 , 4 &
- Katarzyna Pisanski 5
Nature volume 543 , pages 481–483 ( 2017 ) Cite this article
An investigation finds that dozens of academic titles offered 'Dr Fraud' — a sham, unqualified scientist — a place on their editorial board. Katarzyna Pisanski and colleagues report.
Thousands of academic journals do not aspire to quality. They exist primarily to extract fees from authors. These 'predatory' journals exhibit questionable marketing schemes, follow lax or non-existent peer-review procedures and fail to provide scientific rigour or transparency 1 , 2 , 3 .
The open-access movement, although noble in its intent, has been an unwitting host to these parasitic publishers. Bogus journals can imitate legitimate ones that also collect fees from authors. Researchers, eager to publish (lest they perish), may submit their papers with or without verifying a journal's reputability.
Crucial to a journal's quality is its editors. Editors decide whether a paper is reviewed and by whom, and whether a submission should be rejected, revised or accepted. Such roles have usually been assigned to established experts in the journal's field, and are considered prestigious positions.
Many predatory journals hoping to cash in seem to aggressively and indiscriminately recruit academics to build legitimate-looking editorial boards. Although academic pranksters have successfully placed fictional characters on editorial boards (see go.nature.com/2nbikpp ), no one has examined the issue systematically. We did.
We conceived a sting operation and submitted a fake application for an editor position to 360 journals, a mix of legitimate titles and suspected predators. Forty-eight titles accepted. Many revealed themselves to be even more mercenary than we had expected.
We study human behaviour, and conceived of this sting when working together at the University of Wrocław in Poland. Although our research rarely focuses on scholarly publishing, we became increasingly disturbed at the number of invitations we received to become editors or to review for journals completely outside our field. We learnt that some of our colleagues, mainly early-career researchers, were unaware of predatory practices and had fallen for these traps. It became clear that the problem was huge, yet had not been empirically examined.
So, in 2015, we created a profile of a fictitious scientist named Anna O. Szust and applied on her behalf to the editorial boards of 360 journals. Oszust is the Polish word for 'a fraud'. We gave her fake scientific degrees and credited her with spoof book chapters. Her academic interests included, among others, the theory of science and sport, cognitive sciences and methodological bases of social sciences. We also created accounts for Szust on Academia.edu, Google+ and Twitter, and made a faculty webpage at the Institute of Philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. The page could be accessed only through a link we provided on her CV.
The profile was dismally inadequate for a role as editor. Szust's 'work' had never been indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus databases, nor did she have a single citation in any literature database. Her CV listed no articles in academic journals or any experience as a reviewer, much less an editor. The books and chapters on her CV did not exist and could not be found through any search engine. Even the publishing houses were fake.
We sent Szust's application to 360 journals, 120 from each of three well-known directories: the JCR (journals with an official impact factor as indexed on Journal Citation Reports), the DOAJ (journals included on the Directory of Open Access Journals) and 'Beall's list' (potential, possible or probable predatory open-access publishers and journals, compiled by University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall; Beall took down his list in January this year for unknown reasons , after we had completed our study).
To be indexed by either the JCR or the DOAJ, journals must meet certain standards of quality, including ethical publishing practices. Journals listed on the DOAJ must also be fully open access. By contrast, Beall's controversial yet widely used blacklist identified potential predatory journals. It consisted of journals that, in his opinion, exploited researchers and failed to meet basic standards of scholarly publishing.
We asked two postgraduate researchers, unaware of our study's purpose, to pseudo-randomly select 120 English-language journals that matched Szust's expertise from each list. We then e-mailed Szust's application for editor — a CV and cover letter — to these 360 journals and tracked responses for six months. Applications were identical, except that some contained an extra paragraph expressing Szust's enthusiasm for new open-access journals.
The aim of our study was to help academics to understand how bogus versus legitimate journals operate, not to trick journals into accepting our editor. For this reason, Szust was not a persistent applicant. If journals did not respond to her application, we did not e-mail them again, but coded them as 'No response'. Journals that responded initially but failed to follow up were coded as 'Rejected'. Any attempt by a journal to verify Szust's qualifications (for example, through a trial review of a manuscript or through an interview) was also considered a rejection, as were explicit rejections. We coded journals as 'Accepted' only if a reply to our e-mail explicitly accepted Szust as editor (in some cases contingent on financial contribution) or if Szust's name appeared as an editorial board member on the journal's website.
All too easy
In many cases, we received a positive response within days of application, and often within hours. Four titles immediately appointed Szust editor-in-chief. No JCR journal accepted Szust. By comparison, 40 predatory and 8 DOAJ journals appointed her as an editor (see 'Who embraced the fake?').
Szust was almost never questioned about her experience. No one made any attempt to contact her university or institute. One journal spotted that Szust's cover letter stated that becoming an editor would allow her to obtain a degree that she had listed as already having obtained. That journal nonetheless appointed Szust as editor.
Fifteen journals on Beall's list, 45 DOAJ journals and 48 JCR journals replied to Szust's application but did not make her an offer. These journals sent three broad types of responses: a short message acknowledging receipt; a condescending or discourteous rejection; or a longer, kinder explanation of how one actually becomes an editor (first you publish papers, then you become a reviewer, and so on).
At least a dozen journals appointed Szust as editor conditional on, or strongly encouraging, some form of payment or profit (see ‘Spot the predator’). In some cases, this was a direct payment, such as a subscription fee requested by one journal of US$750 (later reduced to “ONLY $650”), or a donation of $50 (although Szust was accepted without paying).
Others asked Szust to organize a conference after which the presenters' papers would be published (for a fee) in a special proceedings issue. One publisher suggested that the profits be split (“60% us 40% You”). Twice, Szust was offered the opportunity to start a new journal as lead editor. One e-mail proposed “30% of the revenue earned thru you” for launching a new journal, but 20% for joining an existing journal as editor.
Some journals granted Szust conditional acceptance if she submitted her own papers to be published for a fee. In some cases, these paid submissions could be submitted by Szust's “Friends/Colleagues/Associates and Fellow Researcher's”. Many journals were more eager for Szust to recruit paid submissions than for her to assess the quality of manuscripts. Two journals offered to waive fees for the publication of Szust's own paper in their journal. Another clarified that, “if you, your friends and colleagues have submitted papers successfully, just contact us, we'll pay attention to them”.
Of the 120 DOAJ journals included in our study, at least 39 have since been removed from the directory (in a purge last year, several hundred were delisted for suspected editorial misconduct, non-compliance with best practices, or simply failing to reapply to the directory). Of the 8 DOAJ journals that accepted Szust as editor, 6 remain on the directory as of March 2017; none of these was also on Beall's list at the time of sampling.
Predators and prey
In 2013, journalist John Bohannon revealed gaping holes in the peer-review system when his fictitious, purposely flawed research article was accepted for publication by 157 of 304 open-access journals to which it was submitted, contingent on payment of author fees 4 . His project did not include non-open-access journals nor did it explicitly compare titles that did or did not have an impact factor. Bohannon was criticized for targeting specific journals and for persistent correspondence with editorial boards.
We designed our study to explicitly compare whitelisted and blacklisted journals and limited our communication with them. Although some journals listed as predatory did act honourably (for instance, some sent Szust papers to review), such titles were by far the most likely to accept an unqualified candidate and to try to profit from her.
The number of active predatory journals has increased at an alarming rate 1 . By 2015, more than half a million papers had been published in predatory journals, and at the end of 2016, the number of predatory journals on Beall's list (about 10,000) approached the number indexed by the DOAJ and JCR 5 . Most are hosted by publishers (including some industry giants). Predatory publishing is becoming an organized industry.
One publisher suggested that the profits be split (“60% us 40% you”).
This rise of predatory journals threatens the quality of scholarship. Without a credible editorial board, flawed scientific papers become an increasing problem. These practices also threaten to give the open-access movement a bad name 6 .
The pressure on academics to publish contributes. Publication counts often form the basis for research funding and career advancement. For example, in Poland and many other European countries, at least one peer-reviewed publication (regardless of quality) is a prerequisite for obtaining a PhD.
Judging the quality of a journal is not always simple, but resources are available. In the absence of Beall's blacklist, there are the JCR and DOAJ whitelists. Scholars can also check whether a journal is indexed in reputable citation databases such as Scopus or the Web of Science. Criteria for assessing the quality of open-access publishers and journals also include those compiled by Beall, or through a collaboration of several community organizations, including the Committee on Publishing Ethics, the DOAJ, Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association and the World Association of Medical Editors.
A bigger problem
We hope that our sting brings further awareness to the problem of predatory publishing. However, a solution will require targeting the problem at its core by making publishing in illegitimate journals less attractive. Those who reward academics for publishing must make efforts to assess journal quality and to reward only best practices.
Our study, approved by an institutional ethics review board, necessitated deception. However, we made every effort to maintain a high standard of ethical conduct and transparency. We also resigned from the editorial boards that accepted Szust. We thank all editorial boards for their time.
In February 2017, we e-mailed the 49 journals originally coded as accepting Szust as an editor to inform them of our study and offer them a chance to respond. Nine replied. One journal simply acknowledged receipt, another declared having since improved its vetting process. Six journals denied accepting (or wrongly accepting) Szust as editor; one of these claimed to have rejected Szust after performing a background check on her. We re-coded this journal as 'Rejected' and the others as 'Accepted (later disputed)'. Several journals criticized our actions and Beall's list; one asked for a link to Beall's list. We also received a tenth e-mail — a threat from an alleged legal firm (which did not have a professional domain name), that claimed responsibility for the list's disappearance following a lawsuit for “1 Billion Dollars”.
We have not included journal titles in this article, in part because predatory publishers often choose names confusingly similar to reputable titles, and in part because we believe the problem is much larger than the journals we sampled. Details of the study, including all anonymized e-mail correspondence and how scholars may obtain full data for research purposes, are available (see Supplementary Information).
It is difficult to predict the future editorial career of Anna O. Szust. Although journals that accepted our fraud were informed that Szust “kindly withdraws her application”, her name still appears on the editorial boards listed by at least 11 journals' websites. In fact, she is listed as an editor of at least one journal to which we did not apply. She is also listed as management staff, a member of conference organizing committees, and ironically, a member of the Advisory Board of the Journals Open Access Indexing Agency whose mission it is to “increase the visibility and ease of use of open access scientific and scholarly journals”.
Spot the predator
Excerpts from e-mails from journals accepting and rejecting a fake, unqualified candidate.
Titles that accepted the fake
“... as an editor, you have to publish some of your research articles with the Journal”
“If you want to start a new journal...you will get 30% of the revenue earned thru you”
“It's our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for this journal with no responsibilities”
Titles that rejected the fake
“One does not become an editor by sending in the CV; these positions are filled because a person has a high research profile and a solid research record”
“The typical progression ... involves developing a track record of excellent service as an ad hoc reviewer which results in an invitation to join [ journal name redacted ] Editorial Board”
“... your field of research is not exactly fitting with the goals of [ journal name redacted ]”
Beall, J. Nature 489 , 179 (2012).
Article ADS CAS Google Scholar
Bartholomew, R. E. J. R. Soc. Med. 107 , 384–385 (2014).
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Xia, J. et al. J. Assoc. Inf. Sci. Technol. 66 , 1406–1417 (2015).
Bohannon, J. Science 342 , 60–65 (2013).
Shen, C. & Björk, B.-C. BMC Med. 13 , 230 (2015).
Beall, J. Learn. Publ. 26 , 79–84 (2013).
Authors and affiliations.
Piotr Sorokowski is head of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wrocław, Poland.,
Emanuel Kulczycki is head of the Scholarly Communication Research Group at the Institute of Philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.,
- Emanuel Kulczycki
Agnieszka Sorokowska is a researcher at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wrocław, Poland, and the Smell &,
Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Taste Clinic, TU Dresden, Germany.,
Katarzyna Pisanski is a researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, and the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wrocław, Poland.,
You can also search for this author in PubMed Google Scholar
Correspondence to Katarzyna Pisanski .
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Methods, procedures and results, e-mail correspondence with suspected predatory journals, e-mail correspondence with doaj journals, e-mail correspondence with journals on jcr list, ann o. szust faculty webpage, journal response data, related links, related links in nature research.
Controversial website that lists ‘predatory’ publishers shuts down 2017-Jan-18
Let’s make peer review scientific 2016-Jul-05
Predatory journals: Ban predators from the scientific record 2016-Jun-15
Open-access index delists thousands of journals 2016-May-09
Investigating journals: The dark side of publishing 2013-Mar-27
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Sorokowski, P., Kulczycki, E., Sorokowska, A. et al. Predatory journals recruit fake editor. Nature 543 , 481–483 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/543481a
Published : 23 March 2017
Issue Date : 23 March 2017
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1038/543481a
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The Legality of Sting Operation: Critical Analysis
The legality of sting operation | overview introduction types of sting operation indian scenario on sting operations role of media in justice delivery interpretation of indian courts on sting operation conclusion the legality of sting operations, which is a specialized form of investigative journalism differs from country to country. the ethical issues revolving sting operations has been a… read more ».
The Legality of Sting Operation | Overview
Introduction, types of sting operation, indian scenario on sting operations, role of media in justice delivery, interpretation of indian courts on sting operation.
The legality of Sting operations, which is a specialized form of investigative journalism differs from country to country. The ethical issues revolving sting operations has been a long part of the debate in a civil society. Whilst, its role in ensuring public accountability and order has been welcomed by the civil society; it is also subject to criticism on the basis of being an apparent unethical and immoral way.
Sting Operation is majorly believed to be transgressing into the right to privacy of an individual and a practice to damage the reputation and image of the concerned individual in public life. In India, since no statute or guideline is governing it, the admissibility of evidence from string operations has evolved through various case laws.
A sting operation is an investigative exercise typically undertaken by law enforcement agencies or the media against an individual or a group to uncover the malpractices occurring in society. The word ‘sting operation’ was first used in a 1973 movie named ‘sting’, which depended on a plot orchestrated by two men to trap a third individual into carrying out a wrong-doing.  It is illustrative of the power of law enforcement agencies and the media in a democratic setup to expose the evils. However, it is often blamed to infringe on an individual’s fundamental privacy rights or a potential entrapment for someone to accept a bribe, thereby indulging in corruption.
A few of the countries like the UK, US, and Canada, have perceived sting operations done by legal enforcement agencies as a lawful means of gathering evidence. However, India has no legal setup and set guideline regarding the test for legality of sting operations except the judgments given by various courts which also fails to develop a nexus between the practices of the sting operation to its legality as admissible evidence.
Sting Operations are undertaken with an aim to look into the government’s working or acts of any individual if they are carrying out their functions against the public order. Based on the premise of purpose, the delegation of sting operations can be classified into two types, i.e. positive and negative.
The positive sting operation is exercised in light of a legitimate concern for the benefit of the public and planned to cover the government’s working procedure. On the other hand, the negative sting operation is not conducted for the benefit of the public, but with a sensationalized endeavour to build the TRP in the era of ‘breaking news’ by opting to encroach upon the privacy and sanctity of an individual or a body. 
India doesn’t have a specific law administering the lawfulness of sting operations and any judicial pronouncements laying down the guidelines for its regulation in the country.  So far the courts have decided sting operations related matter on the basis of actualities of the case. There are no hard and fast rules to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the evidence obtained from a sting operation.
The courts, while deciding on different cases, have come across different situation. Resultantly the courts have not been able to reach a consensus or draw a nexus between the decisions of various courts on similar situations pertaining to sting operations. However, on several occasions, there is a common judgment where courts have held sting operations as a legal method to obtain evidence  , while on other they have found in to be an inducement to crime  or an invasion of the individual’s fundamental right to privacy  .
The role of sting operations in the deliverance of justice in a country can’t be undermined, and the media plays a very significant role in the same. In India, media being the fourth pillar of democracy seeks to bring out transparent democratic society or malpractices if done by anyone to the general public’s knowledge. The public entrusts the media with its duty to acts as a regulatory mechanism for those in power. Though India’s Constitution doesn’t expressly guarantee freedom of the press as an FR, various interpretations by courts under article 19(1) (a) have enshrined it as one of the basic constituents of right to freedom of speech and expression. 
In the case of SP Gupta v. Union of India , the Apex court also gave the view that “No democratic Government can survive without accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that people should have the information about the working of the Government. ” 
However, no right is absolute to exercise in civil society; it must be done so with reasonable constraints.  In this respect, the media has a greater responsibility to ensure that every individual’s privacy and dignity are protected and respected. The right to privacy is one of an individual’s essential legal rights and is intrinsic to right to life and liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.  Therefore, any infringement to right to privacy will be deemed as nothing but the encroachment upon FRs guaranteed under the constitution.
The Delhi High Court in the case of Raja Ram Pal v. Hon’ble Speaker, Lok Sabha & Ors  (2007) upheld the legality of sting operations when the matter of misconduct of 11 MPs indulged in corrupt practices for taking bribe for unethical reasons was brought into the light. The case was determined as ‘cash for query’ case, and it laid down the parliamentary privileges of MPs in India. The Delhi High Court upheld the footage of sting operation to be solid evidence and not fabricated in any manner.
Further, in another case of Aniruddha Bahal & anr. v. State  (2010), two journalists Aniruddha Bahal and Suhasini Raj conducted a sting operation against a few parliament members, taking a bribe to ask particular questions in the parliament. The incident was of 2005, and the public was already aware of the corrupt practices of the political officials, but now they had documentary evidence gathered from a sting operation to back the matter up. However, the matter took a different turn, and the journalists were made the prime accused of the case, citing that, whether someone can offer bribes in this manner to trap and expose a public officer.
The court on this matter held that the fundamental duties of citizens enshrined under article 51A (b) makes it necessary to uphold the ideas of a freedom struggle to cherish our free nation. The right of journalists to conduct sting operations comes under the right to free speech and, therefore, the sting operation conducted by the journalists was held necessary and valid.
Notably, with no set guidelines and laws on sting operation regulation, courts have to come up with their own interpretation in many cases. A request to frame guidelines regulating sting operations conduct came up in R.K. Anand v. Registrar, Delhi High Court  (2009) . The case is popularly known as the BMW hit and run case where the accused who was from an influential family was driving the car at a reckless speed ran over 6-people including 3-policemen in an inebriated state.
In the sting operation by a T.V Channel, the prime accused’s defence lawyers were seen meeting the prime witness in the case and influencing him not to testify. The Delhi High Court declared them guilty, and the apex court upheld its decision. However, the request to put down guidelines for the media on conducting sting operations was refused to entertain, citing that, putting down guidelines would tamper the autonomy that media enjoys and it will be against their right to free press. A few isolated incidents of misuse of right don’t justify a complete ban on this manner of investigative journalism.
Unfortunately, there is no law in place to regulate sting operations in India, thus making it prone to misuse. It can be conducted to tarnish the image of particular persons, and in such situations, the conduct of sting operations will always mount the question of invading into the privacy of an individual. The most difficult thing then becomes to distinguish a real sting operation from a concocted one. Since media these days is very reluctant to do anything to increase their viewership, conducting a sting operation with that aim will defeat the whole purpose of this kind of investigative journalism.
Where the sting operations conducted by law enforcement officials are deemed valid and enforceable in court, the position of media and their purpose always remain in question, if it was a positive or negative sting operation. To conclude, there being no law or guideline, there is no effective regulation which will often lead to the exclusion of admissibility of evidence obtained through sting operations.
 Sherman v. United States, 356 U.S. 369 (1958).
 Ethics of Media Sting Operations, I.A.S. G.S (April 5, 2017), www.iasgs.com/2017/04/ethics-of-media-stingoperations.
 Ahkam Khan & Parimal Kashyap, Sting Operations: The Role of Media as a Vigilante, https://docs.manupatra.in/newsline/articles/Upload/F02F6FB8-9560-4F94-BE8E-EC9DC6D82B7C.2-D__Media and Communication.pdf.
 Raja Ram Pal v. Hon’ble Speaker, Lok Sabha (2007) 3 S.C.C. 184; R.K. Anand v. High Court of Delhi, (2009) 8 S.C.C. 106.
 Rajat Prasad v. C.B.I., (2014) 6 S.C.C. 495.
 Labour Liberation Front v. State of A.P., (2005) 1 A.L.T. 740.
 Bennett Coleman v. Union of India, A.I.R. 1973 S.C. 106; Sakal Papers v. Union of India  3 S.C.R. 842.
 A.I.R. 1982 S.C. 149.
 The Constitution of India, art 19(2) (1950).
 Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) v. Union of India (2017).
 (2007) 3 SCC 184.
 ( 2010 ) 172 DLT 269.
 ( 2009 ) 8 SCC 106.
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Deepshikha is a law student from National Law University, Odisha.
Sting Operations as Evidence in India
By Palak Jain, NLIU Bhopal
Editor’s Note: Sting operations can be classified into positive and negative sting operations based on their purpose. Positive sting operation takes place in the interest of the society, which helps to lift the purdah of the working of the government. On the other hand negative sting operation harm the society and its individuals. It unnecessarily violates the privacy of the citizens without any benefit to the society.Freedom of press in India has been derived from freedom of speech and expression. Media has a right to impart information to the public in a fair manner, thus playing an important role in a democratic society. Journalism shall always be in public interest and sting operation for exposing corruption serve public interest. A sting operation with genuine motive to create awareness or bring forward the ongoing corruption should not be prohibited.A line has to be drawn between sting operations that invade privacy and those which exposes corruption and like others in order to protect the very essence of the Constitution of India. The author attempts to elucidate on this issue in detail.
A sting operation is an operation designed to catch a person committing a crime by means of deception. Typically, a sting operation involves an investigative agency such as the police or the media, who lure a criminal to commit a crime in order to trap them red-handed. They might pose as a criminal themselves, and thereby set up a trap in terms of an alluring offer, often known as a honey trap. Once the target takes the bait, the trappers “sting” them by way of arrest or publication.
In more refined terms, it can be called Investigative Journalism or Undercover Journalism.
Such journalism has been raising issues regarding law and ethics and has resulted in various questions; whether deception is legitimate when the aim is to tell the truth or can journalists use false identities to gain access to information. The critical question is “to what extent can the media go and to what extent should a person be informed?”
Sting operations in India
Sting operations in India have been majorly undertaken with a view to look into the working of the government or to see whether the acts of any individual are against the public order. These operations have been rightly termed as positive sting operations as they make governments accountable and responsible. However, there is another category of such operations which do not benefit the society rather unnecessarily violates the privacy of an individual and is conducted, most of the times, for profit-making and sensationalism.
These operations can again be classified as legal entrapment or illegal entrapment.
A sting operation can constitute a legal entrapment only in certain cases. An e.g. of a legitimate trap would be where the bribe has already been demanded from a man, and the man goes out offering to bring the money but goes to the police and brings them to witness the payment, it will be a legitimate trap.
On the other hand, where a man has not demanded a bribe, and he is only suspected to be in the habit of taking bribes and he is tempted with a bribe, just to see whether he would accept it or not and to trap him, if he accepts it will be a illegitimate trap. Such an act unless authorized by an Act of Parliament will be an offence on the part of the persons taking part in the trap. All such persons will be “accomplices” whose evidence will have to be corroborated by other evidence before the bribe taker can be convicted[i]. However, in India the distinction between the two is not very clear. There is no law on the validity of sting operations hence the confusion persists.
Do we really need sting operations?
Justice Mathews ruled in the case of State of UP v. Raj Narain , ‘ The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. Their right to know is derived from the concept of freedom of speech’.
In Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. and Ors v. Union of India , the Court emphasized that the freedom of press and information were ‘vital for the realization of human rights’ and relied upon Article 19 of Universal declaration of Human Rights. The heart of journalism has to be public interest and sting operation serve it, most of the times.
Problems with Sting Operations
Every liberty if left unchecked, can lead to disorder. Sting operations may be an expression of freedom of press but carry an unavoidable duty to respect privacy of others. TV channels in the bid of increasing their TRPs resort to sensationalized journalism. Freedom of expression is not absolute but is qualified by certain clearly defined limitations under Article 19(2).
The individual who is the subject of a press or television item has his or her personality, reputation or career dashed to the ground after such a media exposure. His fundamental right to live with dignity and respect and a right to privacy guaranteed to him under Article 21 of the Constitution is violated. ‘Right to privacy’ is ceasing to have pragmatic value where ‘sting operations’ define the order of the day. Despite the growing invasion of privacy, there is no Indian legislation that directly protects the privacy rights of individuals against individuals.
The classic ethical problem which haunts all sting operations is whether you can hold somebody liable for a crime that he would not have committed if not encouraged. It may, hence, come under the purview of Article 19(2) (public morality and decency).
The 17 th Law Commission in its 200 th report has made recommendations to the Centre to enact a law to prevent the media from interfering with the privacy rights of individuals.
Another major problem is against whom should the sting operation be allowed? Some are of the opinion that it must be allowed against public servants[iii]. Then, again the problem arises whether a sting operation can be conducted on a public servant when they are not in course of their duty.
Position of sting operation in India
In India we don’t have a specific law governing sting operations but a person can go to the court under different laws to protect his rights and freedom. A private action for damages may lie for an unlawful invasion of privacy under Torts. They also violate the right to privacy guaranteed under Article 21 according to Supreme Court and such a violation is protected under Article 19(2) . A person who welcomes media interest in his life will not be able to claim a right to privacy as easily as a private individual. The apex court, however, has always upheld the importance of an informed citizenry.
The Indian position on entrapment and sting operations was explained by the Delhi High Court in the case pertaining to a “Live India” sting operation[iv]. Television news channel “Live India” carried out a sting operation which showed Ms. Uma Khurana, a teacher with a Delhi government school, purportedly forcing a girl student into prostitution. Subsequent to the telecast, a crowd gathered around the school and demanded for Ms. Khurana to be handed over to them.
In the chaos that followed, some persons physically attacked the teacher and even tore her clothes. When the incident was published in popular newspaper Hindustan Times, the court drew up proceedings on its own motion. The court ordered an investigation into the matter and it was found that Ms. Khurana was not involved in any organized prostitution racket involving school girls as shown in the sting operation and that a part of the sting operation was stage managed.
The court observed that while there is no doubt or second opinion that the “truth” should be shown to the public in public interest whether in the nature of a sting operation or otherwise, but entrapment of any person should not be resorted to and should not be permitted. In this connection, the Court referred to the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Keith Jacobson v. United States (503 US 540). In the said decision, it was held by the Supreme Court of the United States that “in their zeal to enforce law, law protectors must not originate a criminal design, implant in an innocent person’s mind a disposition to commit a criminal act, and then induce commission of the crime so that the government may prosecute.”
The Delhi High Court held that the principles of the U.S. Supreme Court decision can be extended to the media. The Court held that inducing a person to commit an offence, which he is otherwise not likely and inclined to commit, so as to make the same part of the sting operation is deplorable and must be condemned by all including the media.
In the very controversial cash-for-queries scam, the Delhi High Court in September 2010 upheld the legality of the sting operation conducted by journalists Aniruddha Bahal and Suhasini Raj in 2005 to expose corruption in the Union Parliament[v]. The Delhi Police had previously charged the journalists under the Prevention of Corruption Act for seeking to bribe the MPs. The prime issue which arose in this case was whether any citizen of this country can carry out such an operation and offer bribe to a public officer to expose corrupt practices.
The single Delhi High Court judge opined that such a right flowed from the fundamental duty to cherish the noble ideals which inspired the freedom struggle as under Article 51A(b), and creating a corruption-free and independent India is one such ideal. As regards offering bribes by the journalists is concerned, the learned judge was of the opinion that in the instant case, the intention of the journalists must be seen, which was clearly to expose corruption amongst the top brass of the government.
It is not just the executive and the legislature which have come under the Media’s eye. Supreme Court in its judgment in Vijay Shekhar v. Union of India [vi]uphold that warrants obtained against certain eminent persons (including former President Dr. Abdul Kalam and Former Chief Justice of India, Mr. Y.K. Sabharwal) in pursuance of a sting operation to expose corruption in the subordinate courts of Gujarat were illegal. Mr. K.G. Balakrishnan even asked the journalist who had conducted the operation to tender an unconditional apology.
Another case which deals with a sting operation showed former environment minister Dilip Singh Judeo receiving a bribe from an Australian firm for mining rights in Chattisgarh. It was argued on behalf of the journalists that the media acts as ‘whistleblowers’ in public life and thus cannot be prosecuted. However, the CBI on the other hand contended that even journalists involved may be prosecuted where there is an active inducement to commit a crime by such persons or where there are other vested interests involved and not just public interest. It argued that law enforcement is solely within the ambit of powers of government. Others can merely assist, but cannot take law in their own hands. The journalists in the instant case, they said, should have informed law enforcement agencies either prior to or immediately after carrying out operation. Though media acts as a guardian of the fundamental rights, it must do so responsibly.
The petition by Rajat Prasad evoked contrasting views from a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court — Justice Markandey Katju holding sting operations to be a just means to expose the corrupt, while Justice Altamas Kabir reminding all about the goofed-up Uma Khurana sting. The Bench had issued notice to CBI seeking its response to Prasad’s plea seeking discharge from the case
Sting operations and their admissibility as evidence
One of the major issues we face today is whether or not evidence gathered by way of sting operations is admissible. Some would argue that such evidence has been acquired by way of inducement or in a sense, even by way of fraud and is hence inadmissible. While there are others who believe that when there exists compelling evidence against an accused or suspect the same must be admissible irrespective of the method by which it is obtained. The position remains unclear as Indian courts have adopted divergent views. Previously, the courts did not concern themselves with the method by which the evidence in question was obtained. Their position was that evidence remained evidence even if the methods prescribed in CrPC were not complied with[vii].
Of late, however, Indian courts have looked at evidence obtained through sting operations with more caution. The general standard employed is to disregard evidence if it has been obtained by luring the defendant into committing a crime or incriminating himself. However, there have also been instances where courts have admitted evidence against a person lured into committing an offence upon observing that there would be an increase in corruption if people who help unravel acts of corruption in an institution are prosecuted. In such cases courts have ignored the factum of entrapment keeping in mind the larger public interest[viii].
Evidence by way of sting operations has been treated as extra-judicial confession in certain cases and thus, admissible. The extra-judicial confession cannot be sole basis for recording the confession of the accused, if the other surrounding circumstances and the materials available on record do not suggest his complicity. However, if it is voluntary, truthful, reliable and beyond reproach, it is an efficacious piece of evidence to establish the guilt of the accused, and it is not necessary that the evidence should be corroborated on material facts. [ix]
In State of Haryana v. Ved Prakash[x] , Supreme Court held that tape-recording of confession denotes influence and involuntariness and hence are inadmissible.
In the famous Godhra train carnage case, the court of Additional Sessions Judge P R Patel observed that a sting operation carried out by a person without authority cannot be accepted or permitted to be put as an evidence especially when the Supreme Court has deprecated such sting operations. Ashish Khaitan, a journalist working for Tehelka magazine, had done a sting operation on many people, including witnesses of the Sabarmati Express train carnage and people suspected to have played a role in the communal riots of 2002. In the secretly recorded video, two star witnesses of the train burning case, Prabhatsinh Patel and Ranjit Patel, were shown as saying that they were given money to give a statement that six accused of the case had come to get loose petrol from Kalabhai petrol pump on the night of February 26, 2002.
However, in the Naroda Patiya massacre case, the same sting operation by Ashish Khaitan was considered as a reliable and valid piece of evidence. In the opinion of the Court, extrajudicial confession in this case possessed a high probative value as it emanated from the person who commited a crime, which was free from every doubt. Ashish Khaitan (PW-322) before whom the confession was given by Babu Bajrangi (A-18), Prakash Rathore (21) and Suresh Richard (22) was an independent and disinterested witness who bore no eminence against any of the accused. This extra judicial confession, in case of all the three accused was relevant and admissible in law under Sec.24 of the Indian Evidence Act . Believing the footage of sting operation, which had passed close scrutiny of the CBI and court through various FSL tests, special judge Jyotsana Yagnik also held, “The court has also considered this extra-judicial confession as corroborating evidence against other accused. In this manner, roles played by Naresh Chhara, Dhanrao Sindhi, Kishan Korani, Kodnani, Manoj Kukrani, Bipin Panchal and Dinesh Barge also came into scrutiny. The court used the sting operation as evidence against all these. Except Sindhi, all others have been convicted.
In India, sadly, the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act is the only legislative authority in place which discusses sting operations to a certain extent and upholds the validity of the same for the purposes of the Act. Thus, a definite statute or regulation must be enacted, setting out standards which must be followed by the media, without affecting the freedom of press to a great extent. Courts must formulate clear principles as to the admissibility of evidence in such cases, keeping in mind the facts and circumstances. While there has been a fair degree of uncertainty, Indian courts, of late, seem to have taken the position that entrapment, in the event it helps combat corruption, is not impermissible.
While the ability of an entrapment to give rise to legal (and in particular, criminal) proceedings needs to be reconsidered, a more immediate concern is ensuring that certain procedural safeguards are implemented to ensure that false and fabricated sting operations are not publicized. In this regard, the Delhi High Court, in the Uma Khurana case[xi], provided certain guidelines for channels/newspapers proposing to publish sting operations. A channel proposing to telecast a sting operation should be required to obtain a certificate from the person who recorded or produced it saying that it was genuine to the best of his or her knowledge. The channel should also obtain permission from a committee appointed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to telecast the sting operation by producing unedited tapes. Reports should not be such as to create alarm or panic or amount to incitement to commit any crime and the media should avoid overplaying certain parts and underplaying others. Media is to observe general standards of decency, having regards of the sentiments of viewers, particularly that of children. However, it becomes imperative that these guidelines are carried out, in fact.
Formatted on 13th February 2019.
[i] In re M.S. Mohiddin AIR 1952 Madras 561, Rao Shiv Bahadur Singh v. State of Vindhya Pradesh AIR 1954 SC 322
[ii] Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras; Bennett Coleman and Co. v. Union of India
[iii] Section 2(c) of Prevention of Corruption Act
[iv] WP (Crl.) No.1175/2007)
[v] Aniruddha Bahal v. State 2010 172 DLT 269
[vi] 2004 4 SCC 666
[vii] Pushpadevi M. Jatia v. M.L. Wadhawan, AIR 1987 SC 1748
[viii] Sri. Bhardwaj Media Pvt. Ltd. v. State, (W.P. (Crl.) Nos. 1125 and 1126/2007
[ix] Section 24 (Comments section)
[x] 1994 Cr LJ 140 (SC).
[xi] Court on its own motion v. State, 146 (2008)DLT 429
3 thoughts on “Sting Operations as Evidence in India”
Thought provoking.very few work have been done in this regard.right to privacy should not be overridden in guise of right to expression.well done sir .pl keep it up
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nicely written but what about the admissibility of the the video tapes or audio recordings? Would such recordings be admissible or not and under what circumstances would the court accept them as evidence.
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A Scholarly Sting Operation Shines a Light on ‘Predatory’ Journals
By Gina Kolata
- March 22, 2017
The applicant’s nom de plume was not exactly subtle, if you know Polish. The middle initial and surname of the author, Anna O. Szust, mean “fraudster.” Her publications were fake and her degrees were fake. The book chapters she listed among her publications could not be found, but perhaps that should not have been a surprise because the book publishers were fake, too.
Yet, when Dr. Fraud applied to 360 randomly selected open-access academic journals asking to be an editor, 48 accepted her and four made her editor in chief. She got two offers to start a new journal and be its editor. One journal sent her an email saying, “It’s our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for the journal with no responsibilities.”
Little did they know that they had fallen for a sting, plotted and carried out by a group of researchers who wanted to draw attention to and systematically document the seamy side of open-access publishing. While those types of journals began with earnest aspirations to make scientific papers available to everyone, their proliferation has had unintended consequences.
Traditional journals typically are supported by subscribers who pay a fee while authors pay nothing to be published. Nonsubscribers can only read papers if they pay the journal for each one they want to see.
Open-access journals reverse that model. The authors pay and the published papers are free to anyone who cares to read them.
Publishing in an open-access journal can be expensive — the highly regarded Public Library of Science (PLOS) journals charge from $1,495 to $2,900 to publish a paper, with the fee dependent on which of its journals accepts the paper.
Not everyone anticipated what would happen next, or to what extent it would happen. The open-access business model spawned a shadowy world of what have been called predatory journals. They may have similar names to legitimate journals, but exist by publishing just about anything sent to them for a fee that can range from under $100 to thousands of dollars.
The fee often is between $100 and $400, said Jeffrey Beall, scholarly communications librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, as the journals compete for paying customers. Of course, it is easier for predatory journals to have low fees because their expenses are minimal.
The researchers decided not to list any of the fake journals that they uncovered in the sting, saying that some have names so close to those of legitimate journals that it would be confusing.
There are now thousands of fake open-access journals, about as many as legitimate ones, according to one of the creators of Dr. Fraud, Katarzyna Pisanski, a researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex in England, and her colleagues.
It was that alternate world that Dr. Fraud tapped into. The legitimate journals rejected her application out of hand, but many fake ones did not hesitate to take her on.
The investigators, writing about their sting operation in Nature, said they had seen young colleagues fall for the blandishments of predatory journals, not realizing that the emails they received were from publications that only wanted their money. Dr. Pisanski and her colleagues wanted to help researchers understand how fake journals operated.
“The emails can be very flattering,” Dr. Pisanski said, telling the recipients they are “eminent researchers” and “inviting” them to contribute. When researchers respond and send in papers, “they are published at lightning speed, often without peer review,” she said.
But not everyone who publishes in these journals is an innocent dupe. Mr. Beall, who until recently published a list of predatory journals, said he believes many researchers know exactly what they are doing when they publish there.
“I believe there are countless researchers and academics, currently employed, who have secured jobs, promotions, and tenure using publications in pay-to-publish journals as part of their credentials and experience for the jobs and promotions they got,” Mr. Beall said.
And it can require real diligence on the part of employers to ferret out those questionable publications, Mr. Beall said.
“Examining someone’s publications now requires close scrutiny,” Mr. Beall said. “Merely eyeballing a C.V. is insufficient now.”
David Knutson, the manager of communications at PLOS, said that young researchers may feel relentless pressure to publish, at all costs.
“These authors are shopping around their papers,” he said. “There is so much pressure to publish.”
As for Dr. Fraud, she got some lucrative offers. One journal suggested she organize a conference, whose papers would then be published; she would get 40 percent of the proceeds. Another invited her to start a new journal and offered her 30 percent of the profits.
Dr. Pisanski and her colleagues told the journals that accepted Dr. Fraud that she wanted to withdraw her application to be an editor. But it was not easy to withdraw.
Dr. Fraud remains listed as a member of the editorial boards of at least 11 of those journals. She is also listed as a member of conference-organizing committees. At least one journal she did not apply to also listed her as an editor.
And, Dr. Pisanski and her colleagues wrote, Dr. Fraud is even listed as an advisory board member of the Journals Open Access Indexing Committee. Its mission? To “increase the visibility and ease of use of open-access scholarly journals.”
An article on Thursday about open-access publications that publish articles for a fee referred incorrectly to Jeffrey Beall, a scholarly communications librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver. He holds no medical degree or a Ph.D., and therefore is not “Dr. Beall.” (He has two master’s degrees.)
An article on Thursday about open-access publications that publish articles for a fee misspelled the given name of a scholarly communications librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver. He is Jeffrey Beall, not Jeffery. The error was repeated on Friday in a correction about Mr. Beall’s credentials.
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Indian Journal of Law and Legal Research ISSN: 2582-8878 | PIF: 6.605 Indexed at Manupatra, Google Scholar, HeinOnline & ROAD
Indian Journal of Law and Legal Research
- Mar 23, 2023
Sting Operations As Evidence In India
Amrita Tiwari, B.B.A. LL.B., Svkm’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, School of Law, Indore
Sting Operation is a covert operation designed to stop criminals from using deception to perform a crime. A challenging confidence game that was carefully prepared and carried out. It wouldn't be incorrect to claim that a healthy democracy in the world depends on an independent as well as truly free media. One such technique utilized by the media to ensure openness as well as accountability and provide individuals with a perspective on social, political, as well as economic concerns affecting the nation at large is sting operations. An information-gathering technique called a "sting operation" seeks for information that are either difficult to find through routine requests as well as inquiries or that are actively being omitted, hidden, or misrepresented. Although sting operations were intended to strengthen society, recent examples of profit and sensationalism have led some to doubt their purpose. The question of whether such operations are legally admissible as evidence must therefore be addressed in order to avoid a mockery of the justice system. This research paper will discuss about moral propriety and judicial interpretation of the subject of the admission of evidence collected unlawfully.
- Volume V Issue I
Abbreviation : IJLLR
Accessibility: Open Access
License: Creative Commons 4.0
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