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Stellenbosch reviews research following ‘racist’ paper outrage

Stellenbosch University is reviewing thousands of projects underway at the university to check for racial insensitivity, following a furore over a ‘racist’ journal article.

Editors of the journal Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition earlier this month retracted a paper by authors from the university that claimed to show “cognitive impairment” in coloured* women in South Africa. The paper sparked academic and public outcry, with critics saying the science was underpinned by flawed colonial ideas and reproduced harmful stereotypes.

Eugene Cloete, the university’s vice-rector for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, is now reviewing thousands of research projects in the humanities, business and medical faculties. “There are probably other articles in the public domain that we might not know of with negative implications,” he said.

Cloete added that the incident has put the university back years in terms of its transformation agenda. One-fifth of students and 14 per cent of staff at the university, which was once exclusively designated for white people, are coloured.

Speaking on 21 May, vice-chancellor Wim de Villiers said that the university must make sure that such an incident never happens again and that “our investigations will reveal possible shortcomings in our processes”.

He added that one desirable outcome would be a protocol detailing how Stellenbosch researchers should deal with the issue of race in research in an ethically sound way: “This would ideally be an important contribution that Stellenbosch University can make to the South African higher education sector.”

The controversial paper purported to show that coloured women had an increased risk of “low cognitive functioning, as they present with low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours”.

However, a petition to have the paper retracted, with more than 10,000 signatures, claimed that the article “draws on colonial stereotypes of African women, and ‘coloured’ South African women specifically, as intellectually deficient”. It says the article “relies on flawed methodology and science, perpetuating harmful, racist stereotypes”.

The study included 60 self-identified coloured women from a township in the Western Cape. They were separated into age groups and asked to perform cognitive function tests that drew on United States norms. The study found that the cohort showed low cognitive functioning, which it attributed to low education levels and risky lifestyles.

The authors acknowledged that the study, funded by the government’s National Research Foundation, was limited by the small sample size. Corresponding author on the paper, Elmarie Terblanche, told Research Africa that she was not allowed to comment as the matter was under investigation.

But Barbara Boswell, an associate professor in English literature at the University of Cape Town who started the petition to have the paper retracted, says there was a problem at every level of conceptualising the study, “from thinking through the research question to the approvals [the authors] were given”.

She says that scientific racism, which claimed to use scientific methods to show differences between races, had been used to justify racist policies such as apartheid: “It was used to make an argument about the inferiority of black people, indigenous people, and why they needed stewardship because they were not fully capable of looking after themselves and the land.”

Others query how the study managed to pass quality and ethics checks both at the university and the journal. “The study is based on ideological assumptions that are deeply rooted in a racialised and racist history, and those assumptions are overlaid with a set of scientific methods that are themselves fatally flawed,” says Garth Stevens, president-elect of the Psychological Society of South Africa, based at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In its retraction statement, the journal acknowledged that, although the article was peer reviewed, it contained serious methodological flaws and unsubstantiated assertions.

The university has launched an investigation into the research that led to the publication. Cloete said that the university’s ethics review committee approved a broad project, looking at health outcomes in low socio-economic settings and that racial categorisation was not included in the ethics application.

Cloete said the university will add an explicit clause in its research ethics policy stipulating that no research is to impinge on people’s human dignity: “We can talk about academic freedom, freedom of speech, human rights, ethics, peer review. For me, the test is how do we impact on human dignity?”

*Coloured is one of the four formal racial classifications used in South Africa, along with white, black/African, and Indian.