Case of sticky fingers against UJ professor

Students from the University of Johannesburg attempted to march peacefully today, but were met with resistance from the police.
Students from the University of Johannesburg attempted to march peacefully today, but were met with resistance from the police.

Police are investigating allegations of academic theft against a University of Johannesburg (UJ) professor, after a former doctoral student laid charges against her.

Late last year, Henry Iheanacho laid theft charges against professor Michelle van der Bank of the university’s faculty of botany and plant biotechnology, and fellow PhD candidate Ronny Kabongo.

Iheanacho accuses the two of stealing his work, alleging that Van der Bank passed it to Kabongo who then published it with Iheanacho as co-author.

Iheanacho said Kabongo got hold of his paper when he couldn’t present it himself at the South African Association of Botanists Conference in Cape Town, in January last year.

A car accident late in 2016 prevented him from speaking, and it was there, he claims, that Kabongo took his place and “hijacked” his work.

After that, his name was relegated to second author after Kabongo published in journals, which in effect made the work Kabongo’s.

Gauteng police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Lungelo Dlamini confirmed the case was being investigated and was “discussed with a prosecutor”.

“Once several outstanding documents have been submitted by the victim, the case will be taken back to the prosecutor for a decision,” he said.

The university held two hearings last year to try and ascertain the rightful owner of the research paper.

At the first hearing, Van der Bank claimed Iheanacho plagiarised the work and found him guilty.

But Iheanacho appealed and a second hearing cleared him of plagiarism, but he never got his work back. He then approached the police.

An extract of the findings by UJ’s appeals committee found Kabongo to be “evasive” and “at times not trustworthy”.

It also found that Iheanacho had not displayed “any conduct to suppress truth” and had “presented evidence which was corroborated by emails”.

The committee also acknowledged that “the abstract he presented was identical to the one he emailed to the [Cape Town] conference committee”.

Despite the police investigation, Iheanacho still wants a meeting with UJ management and hopes to complete his PhD.

He also wants the university to cover his fees, conduct an inquiry into Kabongo, and take action against Van der Bank.

Van der Bank declined to comment, referring questions to her lawyer, Anton van Zyl, who said they welcomed the police investigation and would be going to the high court for slander.

Kabongo said Iheanacho was talking “nonsense”, but declined to comment further.

UJ spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen confirmed that two hearings were held, to look into academic misconduct claims against Iheanacho by Van der Bank and Iheanacho’s plagiarism claims against her.

“Iheanacho formally made allegations of plagiarism against the academic only after the university’s student disciplinary committee found him guilty of academic fraud/plagiarism [last year],” he said.

“Even though he was found not guilty after the student disciplinary appeal committee had ordered a fresh hearing, the university stands by the academic’s assessment and the evaluation of other experts in the field.”

Esterhuizen said an investigation into Iheanacho’s allegations against Van der Bank found there was “no merit” in them, and that Van der Bank, “whose merits as an academic and researcher are beyond doubt, has successfully lead, of varying demographics, many postgraduate students to completion”.

Iheanacho said his troubles began when he met Van der Bank at UJ in 2013 and she persuaded him that she should be his academic supervisor.

But then, between 2013 and 2016, he claims she changed his research topic five times, reasoning that someone else was investigating his topic or that his data was irrelevant.

This after he had travelled the country for weeks, sourced his data and submitted chapters of his findings to her.

During his third PhD year, Iheanacho claims, Van der Bank introduced a fifth new topic.

He developed a proposal, conducted field sampling and collections in different provinces, and met her to update her on his findings in July 2016.

Then she told him to change the topic again.

“That is when I started getting hysterical and depressed and went through a lot of psychological trauma,” he said.

“One day after going for a jog I got into an accident and found myself in Helen Joseph Hospital.

“My family had also been affected by this. I was really always working and hardly at home. Sometimes I would take my son with me and he’d help me in the labs, but this was how I also spent time with him.”

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