Reputation at risk
DR Lam Tai-hing today takes over as acting head of Hong Kong University's Department of Community Medicine. This seems strange, for yesterday he lost an Appeal Court action to clear his name of plagiarising the work of two colleagues. Yet the university has decided to take no action against him until he decides whether to appeal to the Privy Council.
This, in turn, is strange for plagiarism - effectively stealing the results of someone else's work - is no trifling matter. The academic world knows no greater sin than plagiarism of another's research. For a university, research is the key to the advancement of knowledge - one of its basic roles. For the individual academic, research is critical to success, standing and promotion. To take credit for a colleague's work not only benefits the career of the plagiarist, but undermines the career of the victim.
If Dr Lam cannot clear his name, his career will be in ruins, and few serious academics would accord him any sympathy. Yet, even now, after two rulings against him, much of the medical faculty appears to support Dr Lam against the two researchers vindicated by the courts, Dr Koo Chih-ling and Professor John Ho Hung-chiu. Hiding behind a university ordinance which prevents it acting against the culprit until court proceedings are complete, the university hierarchy is acting as if nothing has happened.
The university and the vice-chancellor have been praised in the judgments for trying to bring the two sides together. But if a university inquiry had been held when the matter first came to light seven years ago, the whole affair might have been properly settled outside of the courts.
Whatever the personal relationships involved, there is no reason to be tolerant of plagiarists. Plagiarism, once established, must lead to dismissal. In this case, if the matter cannot be examined by the university before any Privy Council hearing, Dr Lam should at least be suspended until the inquiry can be carried out. If the Privy Council then clears him, he can be reinstated without further ado. But by failing to suspend him the university further undermines its reputation and standing.
The Department of Community Medicine's reputation has already been tarnished by the admission in court of the then Head of Department, Professor Jan Kleevens, that he had tried to get Dr Koo to put his name on her research papers and several times had asked her to leave when she refused.
The university, however, is an internationally respected institution. If it cannot take decisive action to punish plagiarism from the moment it is discovered and verified, this is a status it will lose.