Editorial: Shame academic frauds

Given our Constitution’s powerful commitments to education, we take it for granted that any assaults on this sector constitute serious offences. In higher education, plagiarism is one of the worst possible assaults on a university’s traditionally sacrosanct values. Yet an article we publish this week shows plagiarism is evident in 68% of 371 articles published within one year (2011) – all in 19 peer-reviewed, South African and government-accredited academic journals. What sense are we to make of this?

That becomes both more difficult and imperative to answer given the article’s finding that the state spent R34.4-million in subsidies to universities for articles published in these 19 journals. These findings signal more than an assault: they suggest a fatal attack on every ideal of “the university”, as well as on students and their families. In the light of the various recent scandals about faked or imagined qualifications (from the disgraced ex-chairperson of the SABC to the ANC’s revered Pallo Jordan) and, on top of endemic corruption, this plagiarism story makes South Africa look like a nation of frauds.

Targeting the perpetrators is likely to be the natural instinct of many appalled observers. But would doing this, by itself, get anyone close enough to the causes of this killer disease even to heal it, far less render the system immune? No. The authors of those 371 articles presumably knew what they were doing (they aren’t children, after all – and not students, either). And, to adapt Karl Marx, they can claim they acted “under circumstances existing already” – that is, the present state and academic system, including some journals’ laxity. This is true.

The subsidy system for academic publications began in 1982 and was updated in 2003. Government cannot claim to be unaware of its crippling problems: it has been cogently critiqued for at least a decade. But universities, which put great pressure to publish on their staff, are also responsible.

Changing the subsidy system radically and funding universities far better overall – as last year’s report commissioned by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande pleads – will have major curative results. But this will take a long time. We suggest an interim measure: Could Nzimande, who has a (real) doctorate, all 26 vice-chancellors and every faculty dean in the country please declare publicly their views and policies on plagiarism by academics? Doing this should take each of them about 30 minutes – at most.

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