Paper cited by New York Times for key stat gets retracted

the-new-york-times-logoA paper that had served as the key aspect of an April New York Times article about a recent surge of violence against immigrants in South Africa has since been retracted for plagiarism.

The research, which appeared in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, had served as the source of the newspaper’s statement that the country is “home to about five million immigrants.” That figure was later quoted in other media outlets about the issue.

However, a 2011 census put the number closer to 2.2 million immigrants, according to the non-profit fact-checking organization Africa Check. After issuing a report about the discrepancy, which also quotes experts who say the numbers are unlikely to have doubled by 2015, Africa Check contacted the Times. As Africa Check reports:

Following the release of this report we wrote to The New York Times to seek a correction. The paper replied saying that they were “confident that no correction is required”.

In a followup report, Africa Check said an assistant to the senior editor for standards sent the journal article that served as the basis for the New York Times‘s five million figure: “Factors Determining International Migrants’ Involvement in Illegal Trade in South Africa,” published in 2014 in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences.

The journal is published by the Mediterranean Center of Social and Educational Research, which made the list of Jeffrey Beall’s “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.”

There’s more to report, according to Africa Check:

…we discovered that two of the journal authors were facing tender irregularity charges in South Africa, in a separate matter. Oludele Akinloye Akinboade and Mandisa Mokwena are due to stand trial in the Pretoria High Court on 5 October, accused of being involved in corruption, racketeering and fraud.

Africa Check then tried to uncover how the authors came up with their estimate. They “tracked down the University of Pretoria (UP) academic whose name appeared in a table summarising immigrant number estimates”:

Mike Hough is now an emeritus professor in the politics department of UP.  He said the estimates were not from a study he had conducted but were based on a range of estimates in the media that he summarised in a presentation to a border control conference in March 2011.

Africa Check then ran the paper through Turnitin to check for plagiarism:

The results revealed that large sections of the journal article appeared to be copied directly from other sources.

So they took the results to the journal:

Dr Lisa Licata, from the journal’s editorial office, told Africa Check that the article “was checked and was found to contain plagiarised content”.

The paper has now been retracted. Here’s the note:

This paper is retracted due to plagiarism issue!
We are thankful to our collaborators for their indication.

Authors have denied any wrongdoing, according to Africa Check:

Both Akinboade and Mokwena denied they had plagiarised any of the article’s content. “If a citation was inaccurately quoted and not acknowledged this would be an oversight and not tantamount to plagiarism,” Mokwena told us.

Incorrectly inflating the number of immigrants has a larger impact, according to Loren Landau, former director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, who spoke to Africa Check:

As things now stand, officials, business associations, and even some migrant associations and service providers benefit from these inflated number. Whether it is to justify militarising the border, explaining joblessness, or protecting businesses interests, the more we feel threatened the better.

We’ve reached out to the editor of the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences and last author Wynand CJ Grobler. A representative of Africa Check said they “don’t have anything extra at this point, beyond what is in our reports.” We have been unable to find valid contact information for first author Akinboade.

Philip Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times, told us that he had “forwarded the query to editors on the international desk to review.” He added:

As always, if we determine that a correction is warranted, we will run a correction; if not, we won’t.

Update 7/17/15 2:15 eastern: We’ve heard from last author Grobler:

Prof Akinboade a well respected scholar in his field who contributed to more than 60 journal articles etc. and who wrote a chapter in a well known book “zumanomics” edited by Raymond Parsons in South Africa asked me at the beginning of 2014 to look at section 4 of the article, which is the statistical interpretation. At that time I did not receive any part of the article further. There were no reason to suspect that they will so called copy work. I edited a paragraph or two in section 4. Kate Wilkonson of Africa Check and myself got the evidence that I contributed only to section 4 where no “Plagiarism” were found.  Up to the date of publication I never received any other part. Therefore I were added as third author, a well known practise all over the globe.
But I would like to comment on the first parts. When looked at it myself and also the turnit-in report i could find only a paragraph or two in section 1 not referenced in a professional way. The rest were sourced and referenced in the correct way. That brings me to the debate of simmilarity versus plagiarism. However I was not part of this at all. This is about a challenge between New York Times and Africa Check. Certainly when New York Times gave this as evidence, a natral outflow will be to detroy the paper. Discredit it and then there are still no evidence etc.

Update 7/18/15 2:01 p.m. eastern: We’ve received a statement from Marco Pontrelli at the Editorial Office of MCSER:

Thank you very much for your email, we decided to remove the article immediately after the email from Africa Check and after we check it with iThenticate software. From the report results that 30% of the paper was plagiarized from another paper. We published last year this article and it was checked only with free software but the free software did not find any problem. We purchase iThenticate only in 2015. Sometimes ithenticate which is professional do not find plagiarized papers. We are thankful to all our collaborators and we will also check all papers published in the last year.

Hat tip: Jeffrey Beall

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