Appeal Court upholds university verdict on plagiarism

The Bangkok Criminal Court last Wednesday upheld the verdict of a lower court that had acquitted the president of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand of conducting an unfair investigation in the first ever case of the university revoking a PhD.

The university stripped Supachai Lorlowhakarn of his doctorate after finding that large parts of his thesis had been plagiarised. Supachai is the director of Thailand's National Innovation Agency, or NIA, and the case is likely to have major repercussions for the NIA.

On 21 June 2012, Chulalongkorn University's investigation board decided to revoke Supachai’s PhD, granted by the faculty of science, after taking over four years to investigate allegations of plagiarism. The board concluded that an extraordinary 80% of Supachai's thesis had been plagiarised.

This prompted Supachai to file both criminal and civil lawsuits against Chulalongkorn University, claiming that the investigation was against the ‘rule of law’. He accused Chulalongkorn President Professor Pirom Kamolratanakul of ‘malfeasance’. Supachai alleged that he was treated unfairly, improperly and maliciously during the investigation into his PhD.

As the facts of the investigation that led to the revocation of the PhD cannot be disputed – that is, whether plagiarism did or did not occur – Supachai’s lawsuit concentrated on the manner in which it was conducted.

An observer who would not be named said the accusation Supachai had levelled against Pirom was a serious one and amounted to accusing the university president of ‘corruption’ in conducting the investigation.

Both the lower court, which ruled in favour of Pirom, and the court that has now upheld the verdict, acted very swiftly. Normally such cases can take more than a year to be heard – an indication of the importance of upholding the university’s credibility.

Chulalongkorn University has so far made no statement on the verdict.

Supachai told University World News that Chulalongkorn University should have stopped his PhD examination before, when they first received complaints from Wyn Ellis, six months prior to doctoral examination.

According to Suphachai, the university behaved unfairly in first granting him the degree but withdrawing it later.

"If the Administrative Court ruled that Chulalongkorn University was right and I am truly guilty, then I would 100% resign from my position at the NIA," said Suphachai, adding that withdrawal of his degree would not affect his position since he used his masters degree to apply for the job.

He claimed that by accepting his complaint against the university president, the Administrative Court "accepted they have some basis". However, he added: "Everything has to follow its process so I would respect the results."

The case of Wyn Ellis

The ruling came just one day after the South Bangkok District Court upheld the verdict of a lower court that had found Supachai guilty of criminal forgery in the case of an employment contract for British agriculture researcher Wyn Ellis, who had been a consultant for the NIA.

Bangkok-based Ellis alleged that the content of Supachai's thesis, subsequently revoked by Chulalongkorn University, was taken from his research report on Strengthening the Export Capacity of Thailand’s Organic Agriculture. It was commissioned by the Geneva-based UN International Trade Centre, when Ellis was an employee of the NIA.

Last August the court said Supachai was responsible for forging Ellis's contract by shortening it from six months (January to June 2007) to three months (January to March 2007), making it appear that Ellis was not the main author of the disputed research.

“I am happy that the courts have upheld my complaint of forgery in a very emphatic way,” Ellis told University World News. “The court looked at the documents in some detail and even found that the revenue stamps attached to the contract had been forged,” he said.

The courts also found that internal memos Supachai had filed with the court in his defence had apparently been sent retroactively to staff.

“It is a very strong verdict and it would make it difficult for Supachai to go to the Supreme Court,” according to Ellis. A Supreme Court application must be made within 30 days.

If he is unable to go to the Supreme Court, then “Supachai is finished in government service, because if you have a criminal case against you, you have to be fired,” Ellis claimed, adding: “Who would have thought that after having his PhD revoked, he would still be at the NIA?”

In 2007, Ellis filed complaints with the Ministry of Science and Technology, which oversees the NIA, and called on the ministry to remove Supachai from his position as director.

Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Surasawadi said, however, as Supachai also has, that the revocation of Supachai's degree would not affect his position because he had used his master's degree to apply for the job, according to a report on the Thaipublica website last July.

The court verdicts could also determine whether a research paper by Supachai, published in 2008 as part of his PhD, would be withdrawn from the Thai Journal of Agricultural Science.

Irb Kheoruenromne, editor-in-chief of the journal, told University World News earlier that he would have to wait for a court order before he would retract the paper. Wageningen Academic Publishers, which holds the copyright for Ellis' research, alleged that the article concerned amounted to an infringement of copyright.

Ellis said he had asked Chulalongkorn University to investigate the journal publication, since two Chulalongkorn professors were co-authors of Supachai's paper based on the plagiarised thesis. However, he said that he had received no response from the university.

“I had asked the president [of Chulalongkorn] to launch an inquiry into why the faculty of science failed to act, even when they knew there was a problem, so they could not say they were unaware of it.

"It's astonishing, particularly considering the copyright infringement notification from Wageningen Academic Publishers,” said Ellis.

* This article was amended 01/11/2013 to include comments from Supachai.

* Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.