Plagiarism case kept under wraps at Wits

Wits University’s most senior executives appear to have colluded in hushing up one of academe’s deadliest sins: plagiarism. They convicted and dismissed the high-flying professorial sinner last year, but have never announced it.

Until, that is, this week, after the Mail & Guardian told Wits management it had a copy of the confidential, 100-page arbitration in the plagiarism case it brought against Professor Abebe Zegeye, at the time director of the prestigious Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).

Vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa said the university had exerted “the rigour and integrity appropriate for a matter of this seriousness”.

But his detailed answer confirmed that the university had made no announcement about the plagiarism charges and its resultant dismissal of Zegeye.

For his part, Zegeye did not so much deny his plagiarism to the M&G as concede to “minor lapses”.

These “lapses” are described differently in the arbitration by advocate Gilbert Marcus SC, who concluded that they comprised 140 instances of academic theft from more than 30 scholars in nine academic publications spanning eight years.

High academic flyers thickly populate the drama that Marcus’s arbitration says began when three of the most eminent humanities scholars worldwide wrote to Nongxa in August 2009 accusing Zegeye of plagiarism.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, novelist, cultural theorist and Princeton University professor of philosophy; Stuart Hall, doyen of British cultural studies and now emeritus professor at the Open University in the United Kingdom; and David Theo Goldberg, professor and director of the University of California’s Humanities Research Centre, wrote in “stark and blunt terms”, the arbitration says.

Their letter to Nongxa “accused Zegeye of having ‘blatantly, repeatedly and extensively misrepresented published work of a range of authors [including themselves] as his own’”, Marcus wrote. “He was alleged [by the three luminaries] to have ‘continued such plagiarising practice despite having been warned explicitly in the past of its unacceptability’.”

The three included for Nongxa’s perusal “a file setting out the complaints in relation to four separate articles published by Professor Zegeye, concentrating on an article published in 2008”, Marcus describes.

On that 2008 article, Marcus quotes Appiah, Hall and Goldberg: “You will notice that Professor Zegeye occasionally alters a word here or there, and in a couple of instances curiously quotes one or two short phrases between copying large bodies of text without attribution.

“Had he indeed properly quoted the unattributed copied work, it would have revealed just how derivative and so unpublishable for the most part his work would be.”

When Nongxa received this letter in August 2009 Zegeye had been director of Wiser for less than two months.
Some details of his high academic flying are given in his online biography at the University of South Australia’s Hawke Research Institute, which he now heads.

His doctorate in sociology was from Oxford University, he held visiting professorships at Yale (2008/09) and California (1995-98), and he was professor of sociology at Unisa for 10 years before joining Wits.

‘Flawed process’
His biography on the Hawke institute’s website made no reference to Wiser when the M&G checked it last week and again this week. He became director of the institute on January 1 this year, after his dismissal from Wits on November 26 following Marcus’s arbitration two weeks earlier.

“The university decided that any investigation into a matter of this seriousness would need to be informed by very thorough research,” Nongxa told the M&G this week of his response to the letter.

The university informed Zegeye of this and a “meticulous and confidential investigation, spanning several months, followed”, Nongxa said. “[T]wo senior and highly respected academics (one internal and one external) were commissioned to consider the evidence gathered and to advise the university on whether there was indeed a prima facie case to be made against Professor Zegeye.

“This investigation and an assessment did indeed arrive at the decision that the university had grounds for pursuing a disciplinary case against Professor Zegeye.”

Zegeye sees it differently. Stressing that he was talking to the M&G “with great reluctance” because “there is an agreement between Wits and me that the matter stays out of the public domain”, he sent the M&G two responses totalling more than 3 000 words. He wanted to be investigated by his academic peers, he said, but was denied this “basic and inalienable right”. “Thus with a single display of power and an intractable approach, Professor Nongxa gave us a process that was deeply flawed.”

Marcus’s arbitration confirms that Zegeye proposed a “panel of ‘credible social scientists’” to consider the allegations, but that “the matter was referred for final and binding arbitration”.
The arbitration quotes from evidence led at a hearing in October 2010 by lawyers acting for Zegeye and for Wits, as well as from two letters the social scientist wrote to Nongxa when the vice-chancellor showed him the letter from Appiah, Hall and Goldberg.

In the letters Zegeye had “emphatically denied” the allegations, Marcus writes.

‘Too-perfect paraphrase’
But at the hearing his lawyers submitted a statement in which Zegeye “now admitted ... to having ‘used the language of other academic writers in the body of my articles in an inappropriate manner’”.

Marcus quotes Zegeye’s full statement, in which he said his reliance on a research assistant had resulted in the transgressions, for which he now apologised.

“However, I cannot be accused of cogently borrowing any intellectual capital from other writers, although, as admitted, their text was sometimes reproduced in my works,” the statement said.

But it is not “the complete failure to acknowledge the source of ideas or words” that Marcus finds in nine publications of Zegeye’s. It is the variety of plagiarism called the “too-perfect paraphrase”, Marcus writes, quoting Zegeye’s own citing of this genre in one of his letters to Nongxa.

In this, “The writer properly cites a source, but neglects to put in quotation marks text that has been copied word-for-word, or close to it. Although attributing the basic ideas to the source, the writer is falsely claiming original presentation and interpretation of the information.”

Finding “too-perfect paraphrase” throughout the publications he analysed, Marcus concluded that Zegeye was “guilty of plagiarism” and recommended his dismissal.

Nongxa said: “It is not usual practice for the university to announce dis-missals or divulge judgments pertaining to internal processes. However, the university undertook to disclose fully the outcome of the arbitration process to anyone who might approach Wits for a reference for Professor Zegeye.”

Zegeye told the M&G he had “nothing to hide. My lapses, insofar as there were some, were minor. The rest of the complaints are merely [about] choices [I made] not to have repetitive references, which is a preference and not a compulsory scholarly requirement. This I will gladly illustrate to your reporters and in public if required.”

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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