Commentary: Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?

The publication of a Commentary in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS; vol 116 5/6) by Professor Nicoli Nattrass, entitled ‘Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?’, has generated heated public debate about the author’s approach, methods and findings about the possible reasons for lower representation of black students in the biological sciences.

 The SAJS welcomes the vigorous public debates that have emerged in response to the article. Given that the next available issue for responses to the article would be published only in September 2020, the SAJS has decided that the urgency of the matter requires publication of a special compilation issue in early July that gives space to rebuttals in the form of social and intellectual criticism of the published work with an opportunity for response by the author.  

The SAJS believes that this collection of articles – the original article, the rebuttals and the author’s response – will perform an important educational function in universities and also in the broader society, and inform editorial processes. 

The SAJS is also attentive to the concerns about the decision to publish the article. The SAJS wishes to affirm that the article had received ethical clearance from the university concerned (UCT) and was published with that confidence. The SAJS is reviewing its existing policy for publishing ‘Commentaries’ – which do not require peer review – to distinguish more clearly between ‘views regarding scientific challenges or opportunities that have arisen out of research experiences’ and those that ‘present the summarised results of research projects, or comments on such research findings, that have direct policy implications and/or immediate social value’. 

The SAJS has always upheld, and will continue to uphold, the principle of academic freedom, as enshrined in our Constitution, in the publication of scientific research, and will always preserve the right to respond from academic peers and the broader community. 

The SAJS expresses its continued commitment to publish research of high quality in line with internationally acceptable norms and with particular attention to ensure that published work does not discriminate or cause harm on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation. The SAJS therefore welcomes any constructive opinion as to how it could improve its endeavours in this regard. 

Prof. Jane Carruthers, Editor-in-Chief 

Prof. Johann Mouton, Chair: Editorial Advisory Board 

11 June 2020