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A test of intellectual integrity

Previously unpublicised accusations of intellectual dishonesty on the part of a high-ranking bureaucrat have the potential to shake academia and rattle confidence in Thailand's IP regime.

Published: 7/06/2009 at 12:00 AM Newspaper section: Spectrum

Charges of intellectual property theft are common enough in Thailand, although most often they are made over pirated DVDs and handbags - rarely do they touch scientific circles and the hallowed halls of academia, or involve organic asparagus.

Yet those familiar with the accusations against Supachai Lorlowhakarn - that he stole the IP rights to a technical report published by Thailand's International Trade Centre (ITC), and copied and pasted nearly all of his May 2008 dissertation to satisfy requirements for a PhD from Chulalongkorn University's's Agricultural Technology programme - say this case merits special attention because of his role at the helm of a national agency that specialises in innovation and intellectual property. Since 2004, he has been the director of the National Innovation Agency (NIA), under the Ministry of Science and Technology (Most). The NIA's mandate is to support both financially and technically the development of innovation within Thai industry, business, government and society. In addition, the NIA houses an Intellectual Property Management Unit which advises Thai enterprises on issues related to the creation and value of IP. The previously unpublicised plagiarism charges first came to the attention of Spectrum after Wyn Ellis, a British agriculture consultant and also a Chulalongkorn PhD candidate, submitted the case to the National Anti-Corruption Commission and petitioned the Administrative Court to revoke Mr Supachai's doctoral degree.

SUPACHAI LORLOWHAKARN: The director of the National Innovation Agency has been accused of plagiarism. Mr Wyn is a principal author of one of the works he claims Mr Supachai's dissertation was lifted from, an ITC report published in August 2006 which is essentially a national action plan for organic agriculture in Thailand. The report - "Strengthening the Export Capacity of Thailand's Organic Agriculture" - was co-funded by the European Commission in cooperation with the NIA, Most and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand. A PDF version of the report is still available at the ITC's website, along with a copyright notice stating that "none of the materials provided on this web site may be used, reproduced or transmitted, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means ..." In 2008 the report was published again - identical, but for a handful of changes in the text and the inclusion of two new lead authors, Mr Supachai and NIA Project Manager Kunawut Boonyanopakun. The changes included a 15-page appendix translated into Thai, and the report's copyrighting by the NIA. The text was modified minimally and oftentimes, ungramatically in a handful of paragraphs, largely in the acknowledgements and introductory text.

THE ORIGINAL: Technical report published by Thailands International Trade Centre (ITC).

The document is also marked with ISBN 978-974-229-701-5, which through an application by its new authors at Thailand's Central Library made it eligible for commercial sale (250 baht) at Chulalongkorn University. The "NIA's official version", as Mr Supachai calls it, is also available, in PDF version, at the NIA's website. In email correspondence given to the Bangkok Post, Dr Alexander Kasterine, the ITC project manager in 2006, said authorisation for the report's modification and republication was never granted, and he was concerned, particularly as the "content appears to be exactly the same as the work carried out by the four authors of the original action plan". He also states that ITC contracted two consultants in Thailand, Mr Ellis and Vitton Panyakul, to complete the project, and who served as the report's principal authors. He wrote: "ITC considers any output from these two consultants is the copyright of ITC."

MODIFIED: Version of ITC report with minimal differences, including the inclusion of two new authors names. Mr Supachai said the matter was "complicated", and contends the "project was initiated, implemented, and concluded by NIA - especially its director". He adds that NIA provided a large part of the funding. While Mr Ellis concedes the NIA initiated the proposal to the EU/ITC, he says the NIA and its staff had, at most, a minimal role in the technical aspects and writing involved in the final report, and aside from in-kind contributions, provided no funding. "ITC and the EU have testified to my role as the main author and ITC has expressed its claim to copyright of the final report many times to the NIA," he added. DISSERTATION DISPUTE

SWIFT REPORT: One of several allegedly plagiarised works. The text of the report also found its way into a third publication - Mr Supachai's dissertation: "Establishment of Thailand's National Organic Agriculture Strategies: A Case Study in Organic Asparagus Production", which was published in May 2008, the same month he earned his PhD from Chulalongkorn. In the dissertation, the work was cited as Mr Supachai's own. The dissertation is 161 pages with appendixes, and was reviewed and approved by seven members of Chulalongkorn's Faculty of Science. Mr Ellis contends there are only 14 pages of original work in that dissertation. (Spectrum has reviewed these documents and can vouch that it appears to be a largely word-forword reproduction from other texts). Large chunks of the dissertation apparently come from four documents that Mr Ellis alleges are other people's work, including the ITC report and a 185-page, NIA-funded report entitled "Challenges and Opportunities of Organic Asparagus Production: Implication for Thailand", which was prepared by the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) and Swift Company and published in December 2007. The AIT/Swift report, which received roughly 2 million baht in NIA funding, includes the requisite field trial data and research component of Mr Supachai's dissertation.

PHD WORK: Mr Supachais May 2008 dissertation. According to AIT Prof Athapol Noomhorm, who coordinated the project with NIA, his student Weena Srisawas did most of the research for this study. He could not comment on the involvement of Mr Supachai or other NIA personnel, and Ms Weena was unavailable for comment. Mr Supachai denies any accusations of plagiarism, saying he used proper citation format and that he was largely referring to his own work and made acknowledgements where needed in the dissertation. He added that Chulalongkorn conducted an investigation into the issue before his graduation and concluded that the allegation was groundless. While Mr Ellis says it's plagiarism and theft of intellectual property, Mr Supachai says it's a personal conflict. REPUTATIONS ON THE LINE The case has added significance because Mr Supachai is considered the leading candidate to become the next director-general of Thailand's Office of Small and Medium Enterprises Promotion (Osmep). The Osmep board postponed making a decision about the appointment last month. A handful of NIA board members and insiders at Most, long frustrated by the slowness and suspension of internal investigations, are also anxious to settle the matter for the sake of their collective reputations and simply to establish the truth. "This is the director of the NIA - that's why we've taken this case so seriously and asked for an investigation," said a former adviser to Most, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the case. He was active when Mr Ellis sent his complaint to Most, and though he says he initially doubted Mr Ellis' claims, after he saw the evidence he said the dissertation is "cut, copy, paste. There's no originality at all".

YELLOW PAGES: Allegedly copied passages in Mr Supachais dissertation. He added: "When foreigners want to invest here, they are very concerned about IP. We have set up many organisations to give them confidence in us and make them feel comfortable. We have copyright courts, IP agencies, many regulations and laws, all so we can communicate to the world and make them comfortable with IP protection here. It's very dangerous to the country and innovation in Thailand if the director of this agency is up to this." He added that he and others at Most don't have personal issues with Mr Supachai, but would simply like a fair and complete fact-finding investigation to protect the ministry. "Right now, we're not sure what happened. We just need to make sure official protocol is followed." Mr Ellis, who has 25 years experience consulting on agriculture and rural development in the region, said he first talked to Mr Supachai's academic adviser in November 2007. He began sending letters to Chulalongkorn faculty members concerning academic ethics and the alleged plagiarism of his work in January 2008, after he learned in an email from Mr Supachai that he intended to use the ITC report in his dissertation. (Prior to that, said Mr Ellis, Mr Supachai had submitted an NIA-commissioned paper prepared by Mr Ellis to an agriculture journal and claimed lead authorship.) In May of that year a Chulalongkorn vice-president notified him the case would be investigated. Mr Supachai graduated several weeks later. Mr Wyn also sent Most permanent secretary and NIA board chair Dr Suchinda Chotipanich letters expressing concern about Mr Supachai's conduct and the unauthorised republication of the ITC report in June 2008, and sent letters to the NIA board members in late August. He received a response in late October informing him that an investigation into the matter had been launched. But as internal investigations were developing, so were a handful of legal cases - some pending, some withdrawn - that have complicated or stalled the internal investigations of various organisations. Ironically, none of these legal cases have directly addressed plagiarism or theft of intellectual property.

Now pending in the Criminal Court are charges Mr Ellis filed in April against Mr Supachai for falsification of official documents which had been submitted as court evidence. Mr Ellis alleges that Mr Supachai manipulated official documents to enhance his case in two defamation suits he brought against Mr Ellis in October 2008. The libel suits, which were withdrawn in a pre-trial hearing in March 2009, relate to the two letters of concern that Mr Ellis sent to Chulalongkorn University and Most, alleging that Mr Supachai had plagiarised his work. Mr Supachai denies these allegations and is preparing a counter-suit. There are also several papers - some published and some which had publications cancelled - which have come under dispute about their true authorship. While none of these legal cases have directly addressed the allegations of plagiarism and IP violations, fact-finding investigations at Chulalongkorn and Most were suspended because of them. Some perceive this as a reluctance to move forward with the investigation, but Dr Charas Suwanwela, president of Chulalongkorn's University Council, says the case is complicated and the university intends to defer to the judgement of the court in the matter. He maintains that Chulalongkorn takes plagiarism cases seriously and considers academic thievery and lying to be cardinal sins at the institution. The pending criminal case will not resolve issues surrounding the authorship of Mr Supachai's dissertation. Meanwhile, Most reportedly relaunched an investigation last week after the issue was brought up at an NIA board meeting. Besides settling intellectual property issues surrounding the ITC report, those close to the matter hope several other issues will finally be resolved with Most's investigation. Among them are Mr Supachai's enrollment in the full-time, 3-year PhD course, and the use of NIA-funded work (whether authored by him or not) in his personal academic work. None of the NIA board members, Chulalongkorn faculty or Most advisers interviewed were sure whether his dual director-student role, or the links between government-funded work and personal scholarship, constituted a conflict of interest. Apirux Wannasathop, an NIA board member for one year, is among those hoping to settle the facts, "He was a full-time student before I joined the board, so I'm not sure. But, I don't think it's appropriate. When you hire a person at a high salary, you expect them to spend their full time and energies there. I don't think any organisation anywhere would allow that, but if it was authorised, then fine." (The NIA differs from most government agencies in that it is autonomous, and its director functions like a CEO, receiving a salary many times that of a typical bureaucrat.) Mr Apirux added that it is important to settle the details with an academic committee at Chulalongkorn on whether NIA-funded work - both the ITC report and the Swift report were fair to use in personal scholarships. "This all needs to be checked so there is no

doubt. People are saying different things, maybe others are doing the same thing. We need to settle points and make the regulations clear. "I feel neither one way nor the other," added Mr Apirux, "but as the board of an organisation, it is our obligation to give fairness to all concerned - employees, stakeholders, and both Mr Supachai and Mr Ellis. We need a fair investigation to gather all the facts. "I don't know how the chairperson looks at it, but in my opinion this case should be made public. It's not confidential - it has been filed in court. I have not seen the case, but it should be up for debate. We need to see the facts and settle them. If it's all ok, that's good and we know. If it's illegal, it's malpractice and it will be a lesson for others." Note: The Ministry of Science and Technology would not provide comment for this story.

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Writer: Erika Fry