CSIR too slow to punish plagiarist

The country’s elite research institute is being accused of dragging its feet in acting against plagiarism claims involving one of its researchers.

Vusumzi Mema was found to have copied and passed off as his own work research initially produced by another employee at the CSIR, David Norman*.

Despite this, the CSIR allegedly failed to act against Mema. The CSIR describes itself as “a world-class African research and development organisation”.

Mema was doing his PhD at North-West University (NWU), which instituted disciplinary proceedings for plagiarism and expelled him in May last year.

He resigned from the CSIR in March last year, when he was about to face a disciplinary hearing for plagiarism.

Mema declined to comment to City Press.

Norman said he had worked on a scientific project as part of his master’s dissertation and was contracted for three more years to further research in his field of study, after completing his MSc degree. His research was into ways to generate renewable energy and fast-track digestion of solid waste at municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Norman said he developed an automated anaerobic digester system to produce biogas. He could not publish his research because the CSIR “needed to protect its intellectual property”, he said.

His research involved collecting buckets of sludge from municipal wastewater treatment plants and taking them to the CSIR campus, where he filtered out undesirable and non-organic material. The product was used as a feedstock in a technology that Norman developed with input from some colleagues. The technology was licensed under the CSIR’s name.

“The aim of the research experiments was to test the performance of the technology against products that currently exist. Mr Mema submitted the results of the experiments as his own.

“I did all the dirty work, literally and figuratively, to produce the results, just for someone else to put it forward as his own without my knowledge, but with the knowledge of the CSIR.”

He said he raised the alarm in 2016, after he discovered on ScienceDirect – a website that provides subscription-based access to scientific and medical research – that Mema had misappropriated his work.

“After I left the CSIR, Mr Mema was allowed to publish, not only the experimental results as his own, but also the technology as his own design, and unhindered by his supervisors.

“There is information in the public domain with the patent number and Mr Mema’s name is nowhere as a co-inventor. I also have certificates from the department of science and technology thanking me and the co-inventors for our contribution to technology development in South Africa. Again, nowhere is Mr Mema mentioned,” Norman said.

In emails in possession of City Press, Mema’s supervisor at NWU, Professor Sanette Marx, who is also chair of biofuels research at the National Research Foundation, confirmed that her student had plagiarised. Marx said Mema registered as a PhD student in 2013, a year after Norman left the CSIR.

Mema’s PhD was titled: Setting the basis for the development of a national standard for the grading of biogas.

Marx said the idea behind Mema’s PhD was to evaluate the potential of different sources of waste for biogas production.

He would then use that data to establish a framework for legislation to grade biogas based on the composition of the feedstock that produces it, for commercial use in South Africa.

Marx revealed how Mema got perks for the research he did not do. In 2015, he presented a paper at a conference in Romania, which was later published in the journal Clean Energy. Later that year, Mema presented a second paper at an international conference in India.

Last year, Mema attended a conference in Japan where he presented a third paper with the same topic as the second.

NWU spokesperson Louis Jacobs said Mema was expelled after a disciplinary hearing for four counts of plagiarism.

CSIR spokesperson Tendani Tsedu said Mema was under investigation for plagiarism before he resigned.

Science and technology spokesperson Taslima Viljoen said the department allocates money to institutions such as the CSIR. Asked whether the CSIR could be accused of having mismanaged state resources after Mema got the perks, Viljoen said such claims had not been formally raised with the department.

Tsedu would not respond to claims that the CSIR had mismanaged state resources.

*Not his real name

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
When a Covid-19 vaccine for under 16's becomes available, will you be taking your children to get it?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, immediately!
36% - 1853 votes
I'll wait to see how others respond
27% - 1396 votes
No, I don't think they need it
37% - 1877 votes
Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo