A Hong Kong University inquiry has completely cleared a senior academic of any wrongdoing or dishonourable conduct, three years after he was found guilty of plagiarism in the High Court.
The finding that Lam Tai-Hing did not steal or copy a questionnaire by two of his colleagues has plunged the university into fresh controversy over the long-running and bitter case as it contradicts the court judgment on all points.
It has, however, been greeted with delight by many of Dr Lam's colleagues who believe it has reversed a serious miscarriage of justice.
Announcing the findings of the 16-month inquiry by the university's committee on personnel matters, vice chancellor Wang Gungwu said he had concluded there were no grounds for dismissing Dr Lam from his post as a reader in community medicine.
Professor Wang denied that the finding showed contempt for the court decision. "We totally respect their decision, that is a decision made by the courts in a civil litigation case," he said. "We are not retrying the case; we are not judging the judges."
Professor Wang said the committee, which comprised six senior academics, considered new evidence as well as evidence not allowed to be presented before the court.
It also applied the stricter standard of proof used in criminal cases - that of beyond reasonable doubt - rather than basing its decision on the balance of probabilities as in civil cases.
"It is a very serious matter to dismiss a person, to ruin his career," Professor Wang said.
In 1992 the High Court found that Dr Lam, who was researching lung cancer among Chinese non-smoking women, plagiarised a questionnaire by Linda Koo, a lecturer in his department, and John Ho of the department of surgery, who were also studying the same subject At the time, the court judgment was hailed as the first to find copyright in a scientific questionnaire in the world.
The judgment was upheld by the Court of Appeal in 1993 although the three appeal judges disagreed with the trial judge's finding that Dr Lo "surreptitiously" obtained the questionnaire.
Dr Koo claims that the questionnaire was in a locked filing cabinet in her office and that she held the only copy.
The university inquiry found "no evidence that Dr Lam's conduct was disgraceful or dishonourable" or that he stole the questionnaire or obtained it in "any underhand manner".
It found that the Koo/Ho questionnaire could have been in the possession of Dr Koo's research assistant, who did not appear before the court but was flown from Britain, where she now lives, to give evidence to the committee. The assistant, Nancy Lee, said she was friendly with Dr Lam's assistant and they helped each other.
The inquiry said that 26 of the world's most eminent epidemiologists - including Richard Peto, professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Oxford University - agreed there was "little similarity" between the questionnaires beyond what could be expected given the similarity of their research.
The committee noted that there was "a clear majority view" among the epidemiologists that in the 1980s, when the issue first arose, there was no copyright of confidentiality in questionnaires and the practice was of free exchange and use of such material.
However, some felt that they should be treated as confidential before the results are published if confidentiality is claimed by the author.
Dr Koo has condemned the inquiry as "an absolute joke" and "a whitewash" and claims it was not run by an impartial body.
But Tony Hedley, the head of the department where both Dr Koo and Dr Lam work, said many of his colleagues were delighted with the finding. "It confirms what they have believed all along - that he (Dr Lam) did not do the things he was accused of doing."
The finding is the latest development in a bitter dispute lasting more than nine years. In that time, Dr Koo alleges that the university has supported Dr Lam, promoting him twice and giving him positions such as acting head of the ethics committee.
For its part, the university said it did all it could to settle the dispute before it went to civil litigation. It has strongly denied that it favoured Dr Lam or that the committee inquiry was not impartial The 41-page confidential report has been made public. "We are not trying to cover up, we are being transparent," Professor Wang said.
Dr Koo says she intends to take the matter further and is considering what legal options are open to her, such as applying for a judicial review.
Questions are also likely to be asked in the legislative council, Hong Kong's equivalent of parliament.