An external assessor who advised failing a thesis that took ideas from others' work, including her own, has been relieved of her duties. Phil Baty reports
Leeds University has replaced an external examiner after she highlighted extensive copying in a PhD thesis and insisted that it must be failed, The Times Higher has learnt.
Anita Prazmowska, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, said her removal from examining duties set a precedent that undermined the role of external examiners as the sole independent check on academic standards.
Leeds insists that its decision was entirely in accordance with its procedures and was designed to ensure the student's work was judged solely on its academic merits, after doubts were raised that the copying amounted to "deliberate plagiarism".
Professor Prazmowska, together with internal examiner Martin Thornton, of Leeds School of History, wrote to Jackie Findlay, the university's senior assistant registrar, late last year.
They said the student, whom The Times Higher agreed not to name before a judgment on his thesis had been reached, "appropriated the ideas" of a London university thesis written six years ago and other work carried out by Professor Prazmowska herself.
"This thesis has gone beyond what we find acceptable in the presentation of a PhD thesis," they wrote.
Professor Prazmowska's official report says that "the degree to which sections of (the London) thesis has been used, copied and paraphrased makes it impossible for me to recommend that the candidate should be awarded the degree of PhD."
Last month, Ms Findlay said that an independent "screener" had examined the thesis under plagiarism procedures.
The screener "completely concurred" with Professor Prazmowska and found "that much of the material in the thesis was derived from the work of others and the method of referencing and the general level of acknowledgement in the text fell short of accepted scholarly standards".
But the screener found that there had been enough acknowledgement of other sources to raise doubts about whether the work could be seen as "deliberate plagiarism" under Leeds rules, which define this as "the copying of ideas, text, data or other work without permission and due acknowledgement".
The screener, whom Leeds would not name, concluded that the university should not invoke its full plagiarism procedures and that the thesis should be "judged upon its academic merits".
Ms Findlay said: "The chair of the graduate board accepted this recommendation and, in order to avoid any possibility of unfairness to the candidate, requested the appointment of a new team of examiners."
The new examiners have not yet reported their decision.
Professor Prazmowska told The Times Higher : "External examiners are the only people providing an independent guarantee of quality, standards and parity with other institutions.
"If that person is not safe in their position once appointed and once the examining process begins - if their status is not sacrosanct - then the very idea of independently validating standards is under threat."
She also raised questions about definitions of plagiarism at Leeds, especially as the university had agreed that there was insufficient acknowledgement.
"Are the rules on plagiarism so lax and unspecified that they can be reinterpreted as the occasion arises?"
A spokesman for Leeds said that, in the original report to the university, the examiners had recommended the withdrawal of the thesis.
However, the withdrawal and subsequent resubmission of the work with the "offending passages redressed" was impossible under Leeds rules, unless it was determined that the student had not been properly informed about plagiarism rules.
The spokesman added: "In line with normal university procedures, a new team of examiners - internal and external - was appointed to ensure that there could be no perception of bias, and specifically that there could be no perception that a decision had been made in advance of an oral examination.
"The appointment of a new team of examiners is standard practice, but there is a further consideration in this case, in that one of the scholars whose work appears to have been used by the candidate is the original external examiner herself."
Two weeks ago, Leeds vice-chancellor Michael Arthur wrote to Professor Prazmowska, stating that "in all probability" new examiners would reach the same conclusion as she had on the thesis, "but if carried out by the same examiners it runs the risk of appearing to be a foregone conclusion".