Research Ethics and Integrity – An Open Letter to Researcher Practitioners and Journal Editors
While I am the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Decolonising Disciplines, this Open Letter is written in my private capacity as a research practitioner in the South African academy. I wish, then, to begin by reiterating the opening line to the statement released by the Black Academic Caucus at the University of Cape Town re: the paper “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences”. I too am outraged. But let me be clear, my outrage should not be mistaken for surprise.
As the BAC has applied itself to the problematic nature of the article, I will not – here – concern myself with the internal workings of the argument or the logical/conceptual flaws of the paper. I do, however, want to address a more systematic and fundamental problem in the knowledge production economy, contextually. Firstly, as a decolonial scholar, I am concerned by the ways in which decolonisation has been treated in the country; taken to mean any and everything, with some scholars who write about decolonisation eliding the contribution of Black intellectuals such as JJR Jolobe, SEK Mqhayi, WW Gqoba, AC Jordan, Abner Nyamende, and countless others. This erasure gives rise to the claim that decolonisation “is so hard”, is an obscure intellectual tradition that requires inventions such that it is rescued by white scholars who trivialise and dismiss Black/Indigenous lived experiences. We have seen this before in the intellectual tradition of Ubuntu, where MB Ramose and MP More have been completely erased and rendered mute by white scholars writing in that same tradition. This logic is what makes it so easy for intellectuals like Nattrass to bastardise the efforts of decolonisation, dismissing them in conceptually lazy and flawed thinking whose disastrous effects are compounded by her very apparent racialised mode of thought. But this is nothing new, the knowledge economy is replete with racially problematic scholarship, and I will not recycle the arguments that surround this critique.
In the second sense, I want to address the knowledge production system. With a ‘respectable’ Journal like the South African Journal of Science, how was an article like this allowed through the peer-review system? What ethical regulation code governs the production of knowledge in Journals like the SAJS? As indicated, while I am outraged, I am not surprised. Why? Because colonial modes of knowledge production in this country continue to proliferate and define the academy. The dehumanisation of Blackness/Indigeneity in South Africa goes as far back as the 17th century, as noted by Coetzee in White Writing, wherein he notes how Blackness was considered to be idle and indolent – without thought, knowledge and lacking any ‘coherent’ epistemic tradition. This schema is what has inspired the idea that even traditions like Ubuntu have to be rescued and reappropriated with certain (white writers of ubuntu) calling for “circumcisions” that would allow the tradition to have something meaningful to contribute in a “postfunctionalist” world; what exactly this circumcision means – kudela owaziyo!My claiming no surprise then, seeks to underscore my disgust and outrage at the continuing racialised modes of knowledge production that are allowed to pass and be considered scholarship by Journal Editors.
In the simple sense, I submit that in allowing such a paper to be published, the Editors of the South African Journal of Science have absconded from their duty; a duty to ensure ethical practices and integrity in the knowledge production economy of South Africa. An objection that can be levelled against my claim of the Editors’ ‘dereliction of duty’ would possibly highlight that maybe the Editor(s) was truly convinced that this was a worthy piece of scholarship to be published by such a prestigious Journal i.e. the SAJS. If this objection holds, there is something to be said about the inherent, and maybe implicit, racism that characterises the thinking of some who hold the title of ‘disciplinary experts’, the gatekeepers of knowledge production (some members of the professoriate in the country). This reality, once again, reiterates why I am not surprised by this paper, but rather disgusted. The dereliction of duty exhibited by the Editors of the SAJS should inspire the South African academy to think deeply about the ethics of knowledge production in this country and the integrity of the research we produce.
Lastly, I wish to turn my attention to the failure of the ethical checks and balances of the knowledge system – the Ethics Committee that approved this research. As we all might be aware, decolonialists have decried the residual coloniality that defines Historically White Universities in the country, and this is an argument I will not recycle here. Rather I want to pay attention to the case in point, i.e. that a research ethics committee approved such research. The concern raised in the second point above re: the dereliction of duty might be applied once again here. Progressive institutions in this country claim to be decolonising and advancing the objectives of redressing past inequalities through scholarship that champions justice and is socio-culturally and socio-politically aware. The fact that this research passed the vetting process of the UCT ethics committee suggests the superficiality of claims of decolonisation and institutional transformation. Was there truly no objection to this study? Or, was it that scholars that sit on that ethics committee were so intent on rubbishing decolonial efforts that they saw this as a worthwhile research endeavour? Again, I am disgusted.
In the same breath, I have to warn institutions and researchers unreservedly. With the pursuant investigation that has been initiated into the process that allowed this research to be passed, I am cautious and weary of how the mechanisms that will be instituted – following said investigation, will be used to police, intellectually bully and intimidate researchers that are producing work that is actually in accordance with the principles of scholarship that serves the purposes of advancing social redress and justice. In simple terms, I am afraid of the inevitable outcome. The consequences of this irresponsible and intellectually trite research will be felt most by those who are already marginalised in our institutions. This is to say that with the University – turned City State – executive power, managerialism and bureaucracy are consistently used to encroach on the principle of academic freedom. This encroachment, frustrates – mostly – the responsible researcher who takes care to think through their research endeavour and produce research that is responsive to the country’s needs.
In closing, the fact that this research passed the ethics committee, was conducted, passed the review process and was published by a reputable Journal is deeply troubling as it reveals how racist beliefs still abound in higher education in South Africa. But more importantly, it is embarrassing; embarrassing to the community of scholars, i.e. the South African academy, embarrassing to the University, as institution, and is symptomatic of the epistemic arrogance that still defines knowledge production not only in South African but globally. It is for this reason that I call upon the community of scholars and the general public in South Africa to support the retraction of this article from the SAJS, through signing this petition. This case of exposed racist ‘scholarly’ thinking underscores the need for vigilance among knowledge practitioners in South Africa. This is to say that we cannot hide behind academic freedom while spewing racist vitriol guised in the garb of scholarship. I call upon the Editor-in-Chief and disciplinary Editors of the South African Journal of Science to reflect deeply on their internal ethical governance mechanisms. The fact that this paper was published in the Journal should facilitate our questioning the integrity of research practices observed by Journals in the country.