An academic article, “Age and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in coloured South African women", published by researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU) in April 2019, has caused serious offense. It has however also led to a number of investigative and preventative steps taken by the University.
At the time, SU apologised unconditionally for the trauma caused to various stakeholders, while the article was retracted – a step strongly supported by SU.
Various parties asked why the University's Research Ethics Committee (REC) did not pick up on the contents of the article and was hence implied as not doing its job with the necessary care. The REC does not have jurisdiction over the publication of articles and assumes that researchers would act in accordance with the approved protocol and would be guided by the ethical guidelines of the discipline and the journal. It is not part of the mandate (or compatible with the capacity) of the REC to monitor the content of articles, nor the eventual products that may emerge from a research project. The REC has to assign the ethical responsibility for the publications that emerge from approved studies to the researchers. The REC expects of researchers to comply with the ethical guidelines within their own disciplines when they publish in a particular journal.
A Formal Investigation Committee (FIC) was therefore appointed to investigate various aspects related to the article. The FIC concluded that the article was not aligned with the Research Ethics Committee (REC) approved protocol. While the research methodology submitted for the purpose of ethical clearance was compatible with the stated aims and objectives of the research project, the eventual published article was NOT based on the appropriate methodology to make population-based inferences about “coloured South African woman". The FIC furthermore concluded that there had been no indication to the REC that the results of the study would be presented in terms of racial generalisations, and they had not approved the study as such. This exonerated the REC from any wrongdoing and/or negligence.
The FIC could not find any deliberate intent to mislead the relevant role players, nor any malevolence behind the writing of the article – the researchers naïvely regarded the content of the article as compatible with the research trends in their discipline.
The FIC thus recommended that SU should follow a broad educational and preventative approach to prevent such an unfortunate incident from happening again.
Subsequently, the report was presented and accepted by:
- The SU Council
- The SU Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences
- The SU Institutional Forum
- The Department of Sport Science in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences
- The SU Senate
- The Chairman of the REC that had approved the study
- The SU Research Committee of Senate
- The SU Audit and Risk Committee
- The SU Rectorate
- The SU Ethics Committee of Senate
- The National Research Foundation (funder of the study)
The University has furthermore responded in full to a request for information from the Human Rights Commission, following a complaint lodged with them.
An audit of research processes at SU requested by the Audit and Risk Committee of Council was undertaken by the University's internal auditors in late 2019, and this audit report with its recommendations was finalised early in 2020.
Given the very unfortunate series of events, the following recommendations of the FIC regarding the way forward were accepted:
Preventative steps undertaken by SU include the following:
- The University formally adopted the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings.
- The development of consensual guidelines for researchers regarding research dealing with racial categories and other social constructs.
- The development of a set of short online videos aimed to raise awareness of Research Integrity and Ethical Research Conduct
- The adoption of a motion by Senate to implement training and raise awareness related to anti-racism, democracy and critical citizenship; and mandatory training for SU staff and students on responsible research conduct.
- A decision that social impact projects would in future also be subjected to ethics review.
- Strategic funds were made available to aid efforts to raise awareness about research ethics and to improve education processes at SU.
Prof Eugene Cloete
Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies