The Formal Investigation Committee (FIC), appointed by Stellenbosch University (SU) to investigate various aspects related to the research article, Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women, has requested an extension until the end of November 2019 to complete their task. This request was granted to allow for all processes to be followed.
SU came under the spotlight in May this year after the article was published in an international scientific journal, Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition. Stellenbosch University subsequently acknowledged in a statement that the particular article caused offense and injured the human dignity of many South Africans, and apologised unconditionally for the severe trauma, pain and anger among members of the general public, Stellenbosch communities, University stakeholders and its campus community. The editors and publishers of the journal in consultation with the authors afterwards retracted the article – a step strongly supported by SU.
SU's Research Integrity Officer (RIO), in consultation with Prof Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, appointed the FIC in accordance with the SU Policy for Responsible Research Conduct, as well as the SU procedure for the investigation of allegations of breach of research norms and standards.
The FIC has been tasked to investigate a formal complaint lodged against the authors of the article, related to the alleged breach of research norms and standards, as well as the related institutional policies, processes and practices. It was initially expected that the investigation would be concluded by the end of September, but due to the complexity and public nature of the case, it took some time to clarify various legal issues related to the FIC membership. This has caused unforeseen delays. The outcomes of the investigation will be shared with stakeholders as indicated in earlier statements.
GLOBAL RESEARCH STANDARDS
In a statement released in September, Stellenbosch University announced that two Senate committees have recommended that the institution formally adopts the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings (www.globalcodeofconduct.org) at its next Senate meeting in November 2019. The Research Ethics Committee of Senate made this recommendation at its scheduled meeting on day 30 August 2019 after the Research Committee of Senate earlier adopted a similar recommendation at its meeting on 14 August 2019.
“Although a single piece of research can in no way reflect the quality, ethics and values of SU's stellar research programme, the incident has sparked serious discussions on our campuses about how individuals and communities are treated in research about them – not only at SU, but at all South African universities, and for some time already in academia globally," Prof Cloete said.
“The improvement of global research standards has been on the international research agenda for more than a decade. African communities have in fact played a significant role in highlighting the exploitation of vulnerable communities, which contributed to the compilation of the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Research-poor Settings. In 2018 it was announced at a European Parliament workshop that the TRUST* Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings would become a reference document for the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Support for SU adopting the Code has been expressed in Senate committees and various other structures, and it will be tabled for formal adoption at the next Senate meeting in November 2019," Prof Cloete added.
Since May 2019, Senate and its sub-committees have thrown their weight behind a focused and concerted long-term institutional response to the issues brought to the fore by the article and related responses, for example interventions on SU campuses to address relevant themes like the role of race in scientific research and the transformation of the institutional culture of SU.
In a motion that was passed unanimously at the Senate meeting in May specific SU structures were tasked with attending to certain concrete proposals.
The Academic Planning Committee (APC) of Senate was requested to give consideration to offering a module on anti-racism, democracy and critical citizenship to all first-year students, and to determine whether some SU academics may already be focussing their research on gender and critical race studies. The objective would be to build a network of experts in these fields. A draft report is being compiled and will be tabled at the meeting of the APC on 30 October 2019.
Other proposals by Senate included:
That “consideration be given to instituting a campus-wide mechanism dedicated to transforming research and science" at SU.
That “a suite of short courses be offered by the Research Office for all staff members" at SU on topics such as “the use of human categories in research and science". Research integrity is already covered in existing short courses, but the possibility of prescribed training in research ethics is being considered. In the meantime existing training initiatives would be expanded with a view to raise greater awareness.
In addition, the Research Committee of Senate made further recommendations at its meeting in August 2019:
That a process should be created for all SU social impact projects go through an ethics review.
That compulsory training should be provided to members of the research ethics committees, staff and students, which should include awareness-raising initiatives around ethics code of conduct and SU policies and processes.
That the institutional awareness of the risks of unethical behaviour in research should be raised via focused online training programmes and initiatives.
The theme of ethical guidelines for social impact was subsequently discussed at the annual social impact symposium on 6 September 2019, which also included valuable input by stakeholders from civil society. A newly-constituted task team will develop a formal set of ethical guidelines for social impact initiatives.
“*TRUST was a pluralistic project, which aimed to foster adherence to high ethical standards in research globally and to counteract the practice of “Ethics dumping" or the application of double standards in research, by co-developing with vulnerable populations tools and mechanisms for the improvement of research governance structures. The TRUST project closed in December 2018. However, the TRUST consortium continues to be involved in efforts to reduce ethics dumping around the world. Visit: Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings."