Bid to hold thesis advisor legally liable for PhD ‘errors’

The thesis advisor of a prominent Thai academic is among those being held legally liable for several reference ‘errors’ in a history PhD thesis after a descendant of the Thai royal family referred to in the thesis’ historical research filed civil lawsuits against the thesis author, his book publisher and his thesis advisor.

The lawsuit claimed errors appearing in the thesis were repeated in books published up to a decade later and caused damage to that branch of the Thai royal family. The lawsuit also demanded the printed books be destroyed and banned from sale.

Mom Rajawongse Priyanandana Rangsit, granddaughter of Prince Rangsit, son of Thailand’s previous King Rama V, filed the initial lawsuits in March 2021 against thesis author Nattapol Chaiching, now a lecturer at Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University in Bangkok; his thesis advisor and former Chulalongkorn University professor Kullada Kesboonchu-Mead; and Thailand’s Same Sky Publishing House, demanding THB50 million (US$1.5 million) compensation for damage to the family’s reputation allegedly caused by the 2009 thesis and two books published in 2013 and 2020 based on the thesis.

On 11 March, the civilian court in Bangkok proceeded with the lawsuit, to review the witness lists from both sides.

The additional targeting of the thesis advisor to hold her legally liable has raised academic freedom concerns over the extent a thesis advisor shares responsibility with the student, and whether lawsuits are the best way to challenge views in an academic debate without jeopardising academic freedom in reviewing PhD research.

The case also highlights academic processes within universities in Thailand.

“The false citation by the author in the PhD thesis intentionally fabricates and misrepresents history which is not based on academic principles. The author’s actions are prejudicial to the monarchy through intentional and gross negligence to defame the monarchy,” according to court documents and the Rangsit lawsuit seen by University World News.

“The fact that the thesis advisor failed to recognise the errors is gross negligence of her duty. Failing to check the facts in the thesis and allowing it to be published – which, as a result, later led to it [the thesis] being barred from public access, affects the academic integrity of Chulalongkorn University,” the lawsuit says.

Following complaints from pro-royalists and mounting pressure from a group of influential alumni in 2020 and 2021, the university permanently barred public access to the original thesis and in February 2021 set up a fact-finding committee comprised of external academic reviewers and academics from the university to review the 2009 thesis. Their findings have not yet been made public.

“As a universal principle, the thesis is the sole responsibility of the thesis author,” Kesboonchu-Mead told University World News. “If Chulalongkorn University is an international academic institution as it claims, it should also abide by such principles within the institution. It should have a role to play in protecting me in doing my righteous duties as instructed by the university.”

She said it was regrettable that Chulalongkorn University does not accept or act in accordance with this universal principle. “It [the university] did not protect me as a faculty advisor. Chulalongkorn University instead appointed a committee to investigate my role as the advisor.”

She noted that since the thesis examination committee had in 2009 unanimously awarded Nattapol’s thesis very good marks, which required multi-layered approval from the faculty, graduate school and university council, the latest investigation into the thesis “cannot help but raise doubt” about the university’s internal academic processes.

Thesis revisions

Titled “Thai politics during the Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram’s government under the United States’ world order (1948-1957)”, the thesis submitted more than 13 years ago analyses the role of the United States in Thai politics, in which royalist factions compete with pro-democracy factions for power.

When Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, discovered the alleged errors in 2017, he asked Nattapol to revise his thesis. According to the court documents, Chaiyan also informed the Rangsit family about the thesis and subsequent books.

Nattapol later requested Chulalongkorn University amend the thesis. However, the university stated that the published thesis could not be revised anymore. Nattapol then later removed the errors in his subsequent book, The Junta, the Lords, and the Eagle, published by Same Sky Publishing House.

In one example from the thesis, it was suggested that Prince Rangsit interfered in parliament following the Siamese revolution in 1932.

Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai historian and professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, checked and verified over 30 alleged errors identified by Chaiyan. He said the thesis author had “over interpreted” some evidence. However, even if such statements were removed, it would not affect the thesis conclusions.

“As for the rest of the errors in the thesis [that were] criticised by the ‘academic thought police’, they were verified and no error was found,” Thongchai stated in the foreword of The Junta, the Lords, and the Eagle.

“At most, they are statements that could be interpreted according to each individual’s ideology and perspectives.”

The role of thesis advisor

Kevin Hewison, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Contemporary Asia and emeritus professor of Asian studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US, said he was unaware of any similar case in his more than 40 years of academic work in various regions of the world.

He pointed out that when there are debates in the social sciences, whether on arguments or interpretation of facts, these should be undertaken in the usual academic manner, where alternative positions are proposed and are also subject to peer review and publication.

“This is how social science progresses,” he told University World News. “If Chulalongkorn University is not willing to defend their own academic process for PhDs, then they are implying that the university’s processes are flawed, trashing their own reputation [by setting up the fact-finding committee].”

Hewison said that, in his role as an editor-in-chief of an academic journal on Asian studies, he is already seeing a climate of fear among academics writing and publishing on sensitive issues in Thailand, such as the monarchy, for fear of lawsuits.

In November 2021, a group of 23 Chulalongkorn University political science lecturers published a statement calling on the university’s administrators to take a clear stance to protect academic rights and freedom, in particular of the thesis advisor as well as students and faculty.

“Chulalongkorn University should explain publicly what the roles and duties of thesis advisors are and explain the process of thesis writing to the public, so that the rights of students and thesis advisors are protected in future,” they said.

Nitihub, a group of legal scholars, law academics and activists, submitted a letter on 3 February to the vice-rector for academic affairs and deans of the graduate school and faculty of political science at Chulalongkorn University, urging the university to review its stance, respecting academic freedom of students and faculty.

Through an online campaign by Nitihub during November 2021 to January 2022, the letter gathered 2,270 signatures.

This article was amended on 13 April 2022 to further clarify Kevin Hewison's comments.