Thabo Msibi vs. The Daily Vox


Wed, Jan 25, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

25 January 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Prof Thabo Msibi and those of Nikita Ramkissoon, managing editor of The Daily Vox publication.

Msibi is complaining about a story in The Daily Vox of 10 January 2017, headlined UKZN rocked by plagiarism allegations against DVC. The text was edited and republished on January 12.

Complaint                                            

As a colleague of Prof Cheryl Potgieter and Prof Gregory Kamwendo at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Msibi complains (in his personal capacity) that the article falsely contained allegations of plagiarism against them. He says that the article was unbalanced, dishonest and misrepresentative – and as such it has unnecessarily tarnished their reputations.

He adds that the:

·         article falsely stated that the allegations of plagiarism were new; and

·         publication’s sources were not credible.

The text

The first three paragraphs of the article, written by Oliver Meth, are pertinent and important. They read:

“The University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) is facing scandal as allegations against the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Head of Humanities, Professor Cheryl Potgieter, and a former senior member of staff have emerged.

“Potgieter has been embroiled in a series of allegations of misconduct, racism and the latest – “a serious violation of scholarly standards” and fraud. A damning report reveals that Potgieter and former dean of Education, Gregory Kamwendo, plagiarised work in Alternation 21.2 (2014) Humanities, Knowledge Production and Transformation.

“Plagiarism checking website TurnItIn, which identifies the percentage of similarity to other articles based on a web algorithm, indicated that Potgieter and Kamwendo had plagiarised the introduction to a collection, which had the work of at least 12 contributors.”

The complaint in more detail

Plagiarism?

Msibi denies that Potgieter and Kamwendo have committed plagiarism. He says the text in question was an editorial, “which by design is meant to introduce the works contained” – as such, he argues, the editors drew freely on the work of other authors (which was published in the same edition as the one in which their work appeared).

He adds, “While the usual thing is to paraphrase the ideas, the two editors extracted abstracts from each individual article to introduce them. This is consistent with the policy of Alternation, the journal which produced the allegedly plagiarized paper.”

He also says Alternation permits editors to use abstracts in an editorial so that the voices of the authors are not lost. Therefore, it is not surprising that only the introduction and the conclusion appeared not to have been plagiarized as these were the only parts which reflected the views of the editors. Even though Potgieter and Kamwendo did not use inverted commas, he continues, they did consistently accredit an argument to the relevant authors.

He notes that, according to dictionary.com, plagiarism is an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorisation and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting – and argues that Potgieter and Kamwendo consistently attributed their work to the proper authors.

‘New’ allegation

Msibi adds the story falsely stated that the allegations of plagiarism were new, as Meth himself referred to the matter on 22 November 2015.

Credibility of sources

Msibi complains that the publication’s sources were not credible. He says in the earlier version of the story a staff member of the University of Pretoria reportedly wondered how Potgieter could continue to hold such a senior position of responsibility. This comment was removed a few days later. However, the revised version contained a statement from an unnamed member of the UKZN executive – who ostensibly did not know that the university did not have faculties. “This places serious doubts on the credibility of the source…” he says.

The publication responds

Ramkissoon says the publication has repeatedly asked the university for a copy of Alternation’s plagiarism code, but all its attempts either went unanswered or were met with an insufficient press release.

She adds, “All we…are asking, is for the actual Alternation policy to be given to us so we can verify that the editorial does not amount to plagiarism, and answers as to whether it is public knowledge. As of yet, the university has not provided The Daily Vox with Alternation’s plagiarism policy. As it stands, it is plagiarism, as all we have to go on is the word of the editor… a Turnitin report from one of the academics who had complained, and the university code of conduct.”

The editor says The Daily Vox saw the allegation of plagiarism as new to the media, as the publication has not been made aware of these allegations “until now”. She says it this matter poses a problem, she is willing to remove the word “new”.

Msibi replies

Msibi says the correspondence between UKZN and Meth is not relevant – what is relevant, is the (false) allegation of plagiarism against Potgieter and Kamwendo.

He welcomes the editor’s willingness to withdraw the word “new”. He argues, however, that this does not take away from the fact that The Daily Vox sought to create news by making up news – the “ructions” at the university only came after the publications of the story.

Analysis

Plagiarism?

Firstly, I note that there is a logical inconsistency in Ramkissoon’s argument. On the one hand she laments that she does not have a copy of Alternation’s policy on plagiarism (she asked for it in order to “verify” whether plagiarism had been committed or not) – and yet the story repeatedly states as fact that Potgieter and Kamwendo are guilty of plagiarism. Clearly, The Daily Vox must have used a definition of plagiarism other than the one it was looking for in order to reach its conclusion. In other words, the publication did not really need Alternation’s policy before “verifying” that the editors committed plagiarism – the “verification” was done in any case.

Secondly, the first part of the story merely referred to allegations of plagiarism, without stating the origins of these allegations. At first glance, this left the question dangling in the air of whether it was Meth himself who was making the allegations. Only much further down the story did Meth state that complaints had been laid against the editors, inter alia on the grounds of plagiarism.

This is poor reporting – which, by the way, does not by default constitute a breach of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct.

Given the fact that such complaints existed, The Daily Voice was justified to report on the matter as it was in the public’s interest. But – and this is a big “but” – then it had to be clear that these were allegations. In a news report, such as the one in question, a publication cannot be the carrier of news and simultaneously be the judge and the jury. Which is exactly what Meth has done…

Let me now take a careful look at how the story unfolded.

The introductory sentence read, “A damning report reveals that Potgieter and…Kamwendo plagiarised work in Alternation…”

The (damning) “report”, I have discovered to my surprise, was not authored by some concerned party writing about Potgieter and Kamwendo – it referred to their own work. Their report, itself, was said to be “damning”.

Moreover, the source of that word was Meth himself. He did not attribute the word “damning” to somebody else – it was his word, his judgment.

Careful! All the lights start to flicker, dangerously close to red.

Having stated “damning” as fact, the onus was squarely on the reporter to explain just why this was the case.

I suppose he tried to do so with his next sentence: “Plagiarism checking website TurnItIn, which identifies the percentage of similarity to other articles based on a web algorithm, indicated that Potgieter and Kamwendo had plagiarised the introduction to a collection, which had the work of at least 12 contributors.”

For a second time he concluded that “plagiarised” was fact, basing his judgment on the programme TurnItIn. But this programme, by the very nature of Potgieter’s and Kamwendo’s text, was not suitable to establish whether this specific work was plagiarized or not. Of course their text would reflect other people’s work – but that was the intention of the authors (namely, to introduce other authors’ work), which was carried out with consistent attribution to the original authors.

Meth has put petrol in a car that runs on diesel.

As if that was not enough, Meth continued relentlessly:

·         “The Daily Vox has discovered that the chapter by Potgieter and Kamwendo borrows heavily from other scholars, and uses large sections of work from other academics. This renders the article 79% plagiarized”;

·          “All the references to what were cited as ‘student papers’ refer to the various Alternation articles in the collection. All of the sections (highlighted in red in a link to the report itself) are copied directly from the other articles, with only a few ‘filler’ words added to make it appear as if it was written by Potgieter and Kamwendo themselves. The only original part is the first page”; and

·         “This amounts to a serious violation of the university’s plagiarism policy and fraud, as both authors accepted funds for the article.”

Meth has created a straw man, and then proceeded to shoot it down in flames. There is no need for UKZN to investigate the allegation – Meth has done it for the institution.

And all the while Potgieter’s and Kamwendo’s work did not amount to plagiarism at all – certainly not in the “damning report” referred to by Meth.

This office is very strict on plagiarism, as it is a deadly “sin” in the world of media.

Having repeatedly stated as fact that the editors had committed plagiarism, and even accusing them of fraud, the onus rests on The Daily Vox to prove its case – or to apologise for its mistakes and to withdraw all the statements in the article referring to plagiarism.

In the total absence of any evidence to this effect, and having used “petrol” instead of “diesel”, I find Meth’s reportage not only unsubstantiated but also recklessly irresponsible.

Few issues will erode an academic’s credibility and professional reputation more than an allegation of plagiarism – which is exactly what Meth has succeeded in doing.

‘New’ allegation

I am not too concerned about the use of the word “new”. The editor has undertaken to remove that word, and as far as I am concerned that is the end of it.

Credibility of sources

I am not in a position to make any claim as to the credibility of The Daily Vox’s sources, as Msibi does. I do have my suspicions, yes – but that is not sufficient for any concrete finding.

General comment

The initial story did not contain any comment from the UKZN. This is unfortunate. I am pleased, therefore, to see that The Daily Vox has included comment from the university in the republished story.

Finding

Plagiarism?

The statements of fact that Potgieter and Kamwendo have committed plagiarism are unsubstantiated and, in the absence of any concrete supporting evidence, patently unfair, recklessly irresponsible and unnecessarily damaging.

This was in breach of the following sections of the Code of Ethics and Conduct:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving…reputation.”

‘New’ allegation

I leave this to the editor, who has indicated her willingness to remove the word “new”. So be it.

Credibility of sources

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

Having repeatedly stated plagiarism as fact without any credible evidence, and with regard to the serious, unnecessary harm this has done to Potgieter’s and Kamwendo’s professional reputations, I have no option but to decide that this is a Tier 3 offence.

Sanction

The Daily Vox is directed to:

·         apologise to Potgieter and Kamwendo, without any reservation, for consistently stating as fact the unsubstantiated and unfair allegation that they have committed plagiarism in their “damning” report, and for the serious and unnecessary damage that this had done to their reputations; and

·         retract the offending statements.

The text should:

·         be published on the same page / in the same space as that used for the offending article;

  • start with the apology;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and
  • be approved by me.

The headline should contain the words “apology” or “apologises”.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud