Plagiarism controversy raises questions over academic integrity

Controversy over plagiarism in the PhD thesis of Supachai Lorlowhakarn, director of Thailand’s National Innovation Agency, or NIA, has highlighted concerns over academic integrity and a widespread culture of plagiarism. Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University revoked the PhD – for the first time in the institution’s history.

On 21 June 2012, after a year-long investigation, the Chulalongkorn University council withdraw Supachai’s PhD in science, in a move that stunned the academic community in Thailand.

In response, Supachai threatened to file a lawsuit against Chulalongkorn’s executive board and the council for abuse of power. He insisted that he had ownership rights to the disputed research used in the PhD, as he was the main author of the work.

The investigation came after Thailand-based agricultural researcher Wyn Ellis claimed that Supachai had plagiarised most of his research, word for word, for his thesis.

According to Ellis, he is the main author and project owner of the disputed research on “Strengthening the Export Capacity of Thailand’s Organic Agriculture”, which was commissioned by the Geneva-based UN International Trade Centre.

The NIA served as counterpart agency with a role of facilitating the technical assistance team”, which was led by Ellis. "NIA and Supachai had no role in the research," Ellis told University World News.

Supachai, however, insisted that Ellis was merely a “translator” of the research. He admitted during a 25 June press conference in Bangkok that he had undertaken “partial research", but said he had formed "new knowledge in the last chapter”.

Ellis told University World News that the original report had been written in English by him and three other members of the UN team, and was later translated into Thai. "ITC informed NIA and Supachai by email several times of its claim of copyright over the report, which is published in ITC’s online library," Ellis claimed

It was "extraordinary" that NIA, as a government agency, should disregard such a claim and republish the same report two years later under the NIA director’s lead authorship, he argued.

After the NIA director’s PhD was awarded in 2007, Ellis filed plagiarism complaints with Chulalongkorn University. In an interview with the investigative news site Thaipublica, Ellis said he had also laid complaints with the Ministry of Science and Technology – where the NIA is based – and with the parliamentary committee on science and technology, but both failed to make progress on investigating.

Chulalongkorn University set up an inquiry into the case in August 2009 and in April 2010 reported that Supachai has committed plagiarism in 80% of the 205-page thesis.

The decision to revoke Supachai’s PhD did not come until much later, after the university set up another committee to probe the facts of the case in 2011. This came after much criticism in the international media over Chulalongkorn’s failure to deal with the Supachai case. The PhD was finally withdrawn in June this year.

Supachai, who maintains his executive position at the NIA, sued Ellis and then Bangkok Post journalist Erika Fry in 2009 for defamation, prompting Fry to flee Thailand.

The case was dismissed, although Supachai recently received a six-month suspended sentence and a 6,000 baht (US$200) fine for criminal forgery in a 2009 case sued by Ellis over changes in his contract with the NIA, as reported by Thailand-based journalist Andrew Drummond on his website.

Ellis told University World News that he had also called for retraction of an academic paper by Supachai and his academic advisers, published in 2008 in the Thai Journal of Agricultural Science, "on grounds of plagiarism and its flawed science".

He alleged that the journal had refused to withdraw the paper without a court order, and had "failed to comply with a ‘Final Notice of Copyright Infringement’ issued by Wageningen Academic Publishers on 20 September last year."

Associate Professor Soraj Hongladarom, a philosophy professor and president of the university’s academic committee, said the decision to revoke Supachai’s doctorate degree was “a step in a right direction”.

He said the university was installing software to tackle plagiarism and other academic misconduct. A more serious problem, however, was a widespread culture of plagiarism in the Thai education system, he said.

“The way students do their papers in primary and secondary schools is really pathetic. Teachers don’t teach their students that cutting and pasting is wrong. Term papers are not for cutting and pasting, but are a place where students can explore thoughts and ideas of their own, on their own,” he told University World News.

“The problem is that it is so widely practised that no one seems to think that it is wrong. Or it is because no one thinks it’s wrong that it is widely practised. Any way, the Thai educational authorities should be doing something to combat this”