Conflict of Interest in the Appointment of Examiners - Guidelines

The guidelines are based upon the Conflict of Interest (COI) Guidelines that have been adopted by Universities Australia and the Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies in Australia (DDOGS).

The nomination and appointment of examiners is based on the principle that higher degree by research (HDR) candidates should receive impartial examination by high quality examiners in the field of research.  The purpose of these guidelines is to ensure the independence of the examination in both fact and perception.  The guidelines are designed to protect the candidate, examiner and the University against potential negative perceptions during and beyond the examination process. It is important to note that there is no presumption that any individual will behave inappropriately.

Supervisors and Sub Deans or Associate Deans should refer to this document when considering their recommendations/endorsement for the Appointment of Examiners.  Before accepting a thesis for examination, examiners will be asked to declare that they have no conflict of interest with the candidate, supervisor, or project.

Identifying and Managing Conflicts of Interest

There are a range of circumstances that can lead to a conflict of interest and potentially compromise the independence of thesis examination, in fact or in perception. A list is appended to this document to provide examples of different types of conflict of interest that may arise between the examiner and various parties including the candidate, the supervisor/advisor, the University, the subject matter itself and another examiner.  The list is indicative and is not to be considered exhaustive.

The list differentiates ‘major’ (potential) conflicts of interest that would normally result in the non-appointment of the examiner from ‘minor’ (potential) conflicts that should be declared and explained but which should not normally, independently of other considerations, inhibit the appointment of the examiner.

Where a potential conflict of interest has been identified and the supervisor proposes to proceed with nominating the individual as an examiner, the potential COI should be documented clearly on the [Appointment of Examiners] form and a clear justification for proceeding with the appointment included in the same document.

Common Concerns

Reproduced from the DDOGS COI Guidelines (DDOGS, 2011):

“The most frequent concerns raised by supervisors relate to conflicts of interest between an examiner and a supervisor/advisor, especially with respect to co-authorship (B6). There is occasionally a tension between the need to find an independent examiner and the need to find an examiner with expertise in the field of the thesis, especially where that field is considered to be particularly narrow. It may be useful here to keep in mind that specific expertise in the narrow field of the thesis is not the only (nor necessarily the primary) consideration in selecting a potential examiner. An examiner’s broad knowledge of the particular field of research, experience as a supervisor of HDR candidates and examiner of HDR theses, plus their broad familiarity with the expectations of Australian HDR courses are all considerations in the selection of appropriate examiners.

The most frequent concern raised by candidates is in relation to formal and informal contact between the candidate and potential examiners (A2). Candidates often ask if they should avoid attending conferences organised by a potential examiner or at which they may have contact with a potential examiner, avoid presenting papers in a department at which a potential examiner works, or avoid submitting papers to a journal edited by a potential examiner. No conflict of interest exists in these cases and it would defy common sense to consider proscribing such valuable activities. As a general rule of thumb, a conflict of interest exists where a potential examiner has worked with the candidate on matters of synthesis or analysis or has maintained a correspondence or other contact over an extended period in which the research has been discussed.”

Reference

Australian Council of Graduate Research in Australia Conflict of Interest in Examination Guidelines - September 2018.