The University of Wales is to investigate allegations that a PhD was granted at Lampeter University even though examiners viewed its thesis as "a shoddy piece of work" and suspected that sections of it had been copied.
Lampeter examiners began to scrutinise the work by Badr Al-Shaloub in 1996 after they discovered that a fellow student, a Saudi prince, had plagiarised large sections of his own thesis.
They alleged that the prince was given sections from a book to copy into his thesis by his dean, Mashuq Ally.
Dr Ally, who was also Dr Al-Shaloub's supervisor at the time, denied the claims. But he was later forced to resign over the incident, and the prince did not receive his PhD.
Lampeter and the UoW kept the events secret until this year, when documents detailing the plagiarism investigations were acquired by the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards (Cafas), which called for an inquiry.
A key document to be considered by the inquiry panel when it begins work on September 30 is a letter written to Dr Al-Shaloub's internal examiner, Dawoud El-Alami, from Paul Badham, professor of theology and religious studies at Lampeter, who was chair of the examining board for the PhD.
In the letter, Professor Badham tells Dr El-Alami that he has discussed Dr Al-Shaloub's thesis with Lampeter vice-chancellor Keith Robbins, who has agreed they should "go ahead" with it.
He asks Dr El-Alami to give the thesis his signature of approval and advises: "I don't think it's worth bothering" to write a different internal examiner report about it.
He suggests that "where easily possible we make such changes as can eliminate the worst errors" in the thesis. Enclosing three pages of the thesis, he adds that he will "ask Marlene to do this tidily in the text with such other changes as you wish to make".
Professor Badham concludes: "This is a shoddy piece of work and I think what we can do for the future is to ensure that no work like it is passed in the future. But it isn't worth the hassle of trying to take back a degree already awarded."
Professor Badham has confirmed that he penned the hand-written letter. He told The THES that since he was not the examiner for the thesis, he did not see it until the PhD had been awarded.
The letter was written after weeks of detective work at Lampeter, searching for the source of the alleged plagiarism. Professor Badham said he thought the thesis was suspect, but it could not be proved. In the end, no changes were made to the text.
"It did seem to me that there were features of the thesis that led to some suspicion. But since we could not prove it, we could not take away the degree," he said.
The inquiry, which will begin next month, will take evidence from Professor Badham, Dr El-Alami, Dr Al-Shaloub, Dr Ally, Professor Robbins, the external examiner Zahid Parvez and Cafas.
It will be asked to consider whether there is a case for investigating plagiarism or "procedural irregularities", whether Dr Al-Shaloub completed the requirements for his PhD, what steps should be taken and what lessons have been learnt from the case.
Cafas case coordinator Colwyn Williamson has complained that the UoW, which awards degrees at Lampeter, has ignored calls for a member of the Welsh Assembly's education committee to be included on the inquiry panel. The panel is to be made up of two UoW academic board members and a theology tutor from Oxford University.
He said: "The university has a poor record when it comes to dealing with matters such as this. We have drawn their attention to three previous examples of theses that we believe to have contained copied material, and on each occasion their response has been inadequate."
A UoW spokeswoman said: "The university is conducting the investigation because we like to get to the bottom of anything like this. We are keen to ensure that everything is done by the book and there are no grubby corners."
Professor Robbins said that with an inquiry pending, he could not comment.