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The anatomy of plagiarism

Written by World News

Nothing beats post-Songkran holiday news in Thailand like the exposé by iLaw, the local law reform and free expression advocacy group, of an incumbent senator allegedly copying parts of other academic works and media journals of a similar nature for his doctoral dissertation topic, which revolves around the suitable form and process of acquiring senators for Thailand’s context.

The exposé comes as pro-democracy forces count down to the end of the five-year term of the current 250-strong military junta-appointed senate, due on May 11, with another political battle set to begin with the country’s first senate elections since the 2014 military coup d’état, due in June.

iLaw’s April-18 Facebook post, also published on the organization’s website in greater detail, recounts Senator Somchai Sawangkarn’s questionable dissertation that earned him the PhD title in 2022.

Evidence suggests that parts of other academic works and an iLaw report itself were copied and pasted without proper attribution and reference to sources in his own paper.

It also implies a close relationship between Somchai and his research paper’s advisor, former dean of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law, Prof.

Udom Ratamarit, who is a current constitutional court judge, and whose approval was granted by the senate of which Somchai is a member. The report has garnered 2.1k likes, 242 comments, and 567 shares as of April 25.

Moreover, one would not have expected a local legacy media giant like Thairath to be prompt, and the first, to report on this exposé, which is entirely based on iLaw’s April 18 post.

For the giant media outlet, what it reports, particularly on this highly politicized topic, could either have a huge impact or risk its reputation if things go wrong. Thairath online’s Facebook post about this exposé had about 4.9k likes, 792 comments, and 596 shares as of April 25.

Thairath is among the top 15 local media outlets that earned a good score of brand trust in a digital news report of 2023 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and in two consecutive years before.

With the digital disruption of the news market, the once-largest mass circulation print has made a strong online presence and embraced younger, internet-savvy readers who uphold liberal democratic views, forming a significant support base of the pro-reform Move Forward Party (MFP).

Setting aside the question of Thairath’s motivation, a short-term impact of this exposé informs the changing media landscape since the May 14 general elections last year—where a line of partisan media has been blurred, with both legacy and online native presses becoming more ideologically aligned in favor of democratic change.

The dominance of MFP-related stories in the local press coverage of the elections are indicative of how the deeply polarized local press, much like the rest of civil society, embraced the last elections as a game-changer.

A clash of Titans

Over the past six days, a number of news media outlets, regardless of their political partisanship, have pursued this high-profile case with different angles, as has iLaw.

From Somchai’s rebuttal of plagiarism accusations to a press statement by Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law, which conferred Somchai with the PhD title on the administration of justice process, that the investigation into the flawed dissertation case has already been commissioned prior to the iLaw exposé, it shows how cautiously, if not selectively, each news media outlet navigates the issue. Nevertheless, silence from the pro-conservative media agencies, such as Top News, its think tank arm Thai Move Institute, is to be expected.

Somchai defended his research paper, stating that it is in line with the professional code of conduct of academic research but admitted to some publication errors.

He has already made corrections with the inclusion of footnotes and a bibliography in the problematic parts after receiving permission from the university to do so.

The senator also threatened to sue iLaw for its misleading reports, but the media outlets that reported on it will be spared if they issue a retraction.

Interestingly, Than Setthakit, the business daily with strong political coverage, described iLaw’s exposé as the trigger for a war with Somchai.

Still, this case needs a serious non-partisan investigation because plagiarism in academic research works alone is a serious professional misconduct, no matter who the accused person is or who the accuser is.

On the one hand, iLaw is at the forefront of the civic movement against military coups and has initiated a people’s legislative reform track to pressure the senate-strong parliament for a drastic reform of the 2017 constitution to abolish the appointed senate, and reform the monarchy and the army.

Over the last decade, it has been successful in using advocacy journalism and its law research arm to set the agenda for change.

On the other hand, Senator Somchai, a several-time political appointee to the interim legislative bodies and the senate between the two military coups in 2006 and 2014 and afterwards, has been instrumental in the current Senate in blocking key reform legislations pushed by the people’s movement and the opposition over the last five years.

Somchai is also an influential figure in the media itself as a one-time president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association and holding executive and advisory positions in several media houses and professional media organizations.

The outgoing senator has been a leading voice in trumpeting a conspiracy theory of “foreign interference,” targeting iLaw and other pro-democracy media and civil society organizations for receiving financial support from the US administration to sabotage the elections and to undermine the Thai democratic system with the monarchy as head of state.

With this political complexity at play, it is the role of the press to shed light on and lay bare the facts, context, and circumstances in which this episode came about.

Just so, the public will not be held hostage to the ever-present filtered bubble and will be well-informed ahead of the senate elections.

Finally, just before the 2024 international press freedom ranking reports flood the news in the coming week, and with Thailand’s ranking unlikely to move up due in part to the standing lese majeste-related media censorship, the pursuit of truth on this plagiarism case would at least offer a breath of fresh air.

(Kulachada Chaipiat is Thailand-based media consultant and a former journalist at The Nation newspaper. She contributes this article for ThaiPBS World.)

The post The anatomy of plagiarism: Whom to trust? first appeared on Thai PBS World : The latest Thai news in English, News Headlines, World News and News Broadcasts in both Thai and English. We bring Thailand to the world.


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