AUSTRALIA-SA: Plagiarising academic loses job twice

A senior African academic has lost his job for the second time after an Australian university that appointed him in January belatedly discovered he had been forced to quit his South African post the previous November following charges of serial plagiarism.

The case raises questions about the secrecy surrounding disgraced academics who are found guilty of academic misconduct and why other universities planning to hire them are not informed.

Professor Abebe Zegeye (pictured) was forced to resign as Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witswatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg last November when an investigation found he was involved in 140 instances of plagiarism, although the first accusations against him had been made in August 2009.

Why it had taken more than a year for the claims to be investigated and confirmed is unclear.

Zegeye then applied for and was appointed Director of the University of South Australia's Hawke Research Institute despite the university claiming this followed "an extensive competitive international search". That search did not reveal the reason he left Wits because the university never disclosed the circumstances surrounding his departure.

The Hawke Research Institute was established in 1997 and named after former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. It conducts public policy research, employs 60 staff and has an annual research budget of more than US$2 million. Hawke is a member of the institute's advisory board along with several prominent academic and public figures.

The university said it only became aware of Zegeye's "attribution problems" after a report by South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper on 15 April accused Wits University of trying to cover up the affair.

"Zegeye has subsequently resigned from his position at the University of South Australia. Professor Zegeye does not wish to comment," a university spokesman told The Age newspaper in Melbourne on Thursday. The Age broke the story in the Australian media.

Mail & Guardian education editor David MacFarlane revealed that Wits University's most senior executives appeared to have colluded "in hushing up one of academe's deadliest sins: plagiarism.

"They convicted and dismissed the high-flying professorial sinner last year but have never announced it," MacFarlane wrote. "That is until after the Mail & Guardian told Wits management it had a copy of the confidential, 100-page arbitration in the plagiarism case it brought against Zegeye.

"Vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa said the university had exerted 'the rigour and integrity appropriate for a matter of this seriousness'. But his detailed answer confirmed that the university had made no announcement about the plagiarism charges and its resultant dismissal of Zegeye."

Nor, it seems, was there an explanation why it had taken so long to act when three prominent international academics had written to Nongxa 15 months earlier accusing Zegeye of plagiarism.

According to MacFarlane, what Zegeye claimed to be 'minor lapses' were shown by advocate Gilbert Marcus during the arbitration to include 140 instances of academic theft from more than 30 scholars in nine academic publications spanning eight years.

The Mail & Guardian report said the "accusations came from Kwame Anthony Appiah, a novelist, cultural theorist and Princeton University professor of philosophy; Stuart Hall, doyen of British cultural studies and now an emeritus professor at the Open University in the UK; and David Theo Goldberg, professor and director of the University of California's system-wide Humanities Research Centre. They wrote in 'stark and blunt terms', the arbitration report says."

"Their letter to Nongxa accused Zegeye of having 'blatantly, repeatedly and extensively misrepresented published work of a range of authors [including themselves] as his own'," Marcus stated. "He was alleged [by the three luminaries] to have 'continued such plagiarising practice despite having been warned explicitly in the past of its unacceptability'...When Nongxa received this letter in August 2009, Zegeye had been director of the institute for less than two months."

Zegeye told the Mail&Guardian he had "nothing to hide. My lapses, insofar as there were some, were minor. The rest of the complaints are merely [about] choices [I made] not to have repetitive references, which is a preference and not a compulsory scholarly requirement. This I will gladly illustrate to your reporters and in public if required."

A biographical note on Zegeye is still on the Hawke Research Institute website. It says his doctorate in sociology was obtained at Oxford University, that he had held visiting professorships at Yale (2008-09) and California (1995-98), and was Primedia Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a professor of sociology at the University of South Africa for 10 years before joining Wits.

According to his accusers, he had been plagiarising other academics for most of the time he was a member of the professoriate at the University of South Africa. But no-one seems to have revealed his habit of using other academics' words and claiming them as his own.