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South Africa considers affiliations crackdown for subsidy scheme


Omissions of foreign postings may have distorted payouts to universities

[SARIMA 2021] South Africa’s university publication subsidy, which rewards institutions based on their output of books, papers and conference proceedings, is considering cracking down on authors’ affiliations.

The move follows an observed increase in submissions that failed to disclose multiple affiliations, which may distort payouts from the subsidy system, a virtual seminar on research integrity heard this week.

The seminar on unethical practices in academic publishing took place on 25 October in the run-up to this week’s annual conference of the South African Research and Innovation Management Association.

It heard that the Department of Higher Education and Training wants to tighten up submission guidelines and raise awareness about dubious practices to stop researchers and institutions ‘gaming’ the subsidy system.

Rising omissions

Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, told the seminar that close scrutiny of submissions to the DHET’s subsidy system has revealed growing numbers that omit to mention multiple affiliations.

This becomes an issue when one or more affiliations are at a foreign university or a non-university South African institution such as a research council, neither of which qualify for the DHET’s subsidy, he said.

Mouton gave an example his team had found where an author had two affiliations, one from a South African university and one at a Thai university. The individual had submitted more than 80 publications to the subsidy system in 2020, and had disclosed their foreign affiliation in none of them.

In one paper from that individual, he said, the South African university claimed a full unit for the publication, which had two authors, the second affiliated to another South African university.

Mouton said that the university with the shared affiliation author should instead have claimed a third of a credit, the other university a third of a credit, and the remaining third credit should have been discounted as coming from a non-South African affiliation.

Clarity needed

DHET’s proposed crackdown would be part of a research quality framework for South Africa due to launch next year. That framework will try to curb a range of unethical publication practices including “salami slicing” (where researchers publish dozens of papers from the same project) and publishing in predatory journals.

However, several research administrators who attended the virtual seminar raised concerns with the examples of dubious affiliation-reporting given by Mouton. They said the practice he described as incorrect was in fact in line with the DHET’s submissions policy for the subsidy scheme.

Mouton admitted that the policy needed to be clearer on how to handle multiple affiliations. But he urged seminar participants to focus on the bigger picture: that growing numbers of submissions to the subsidy are omitting foreign, often primary, affiliations of authors.

Mahlubi Mabizela, who heads the DHET’s university policy and development support, said that the omission of foreign affiliations erodes the system’s ability to support South African research. “The credits that are not allocated [due to foreign or non-university affiliations] go back into the pot,” he explained, increasing the Rand value of each unit.

Mouton assured universities that the DHET would not immediately withhold credits claimed incorrectly in terms of author affiliation, and that he and the DHET were simply flagging the issue: “We are seeing something in the landscape emerging, which we think is problematic and the policy needs to be tightened up about that.”

In an email to Research Professional News, Daléne Pieterse, research information manager at Stellenbosch University, wrote that her university welcomes the DHET’s efforts to streamline its submissions policy and to root out questionable publication practices.

“There are important differences between various disciplines and their publication practices that need to be taken into account,” she wrote. “We look forward to forming part of further DHET-driven initiatives to discuss changes to the policy.”

Research Professional News and Pivot-RP are sponsors of SARIMA 2021.