Appendix I: Examiner conflict of interest guidelines

Conflict of interest guidelines for the nomination of higher degree by research thesis examiners

In developing these guidelines we acknowledge, with thanks, the Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies in Australia (DDOGs) Conflict of Interest Guidelines.

The use of independent thesis examiners is an important indicator of the quality of an institution's examination process, requiring examination and classification to be undertaken independently and free of bias. To ensure independence of the examination process, an examiner should not be nominated if there is the potential for a conflict of interest with the student, supervisor, university, subject matter or with another examiner. There are a range of circumstances which have the potential to introduce bias and compromise the independence of the examination. It is important to note the conflict of interest can exist in fact or in perception.

In dealing with potential conflicts of interest it is important to:

  • Distinguish between major conflicts which generally result in non-appointment of the examiner and minor conflicts which should be declared and explained, but don’t necessarily inhibit the examiner's independence; and
  • Consider mitigating factors associated with conflicts of interest arising from collaboration on publications and/or research grants, or board memberships. The size of the team or the relative independence of some members have the potential to shift a major (potential) conflict of interest to a minor one.

Below is an indicative, but not exhaustive, list of examples of different types of conflict of interest which should be considered when nominating examiners for higher degree by research theses:

Conflict of interest with the student

Personal and/or legal relationships between the potential examiner and the student which would constitute a conflict of interest:

  • Proposed examiner is related to the student;
  • Proposed examiner is a friend or mentor of the student or has a social relationship (e.g. co-trustee of a Will, god-parent, etc.) with the student;
  • Proposed examiner has a personal relationship of enmity with the student;
  • Proposed examiner and the student have an existing or a previous emotional relationship of de facto, are co-residents or are members of a common household;
  • Proposed examiner is or was married to the student;
  • Proposed examiner is legally family to the student (e.g. step-mother, brother-in-law, etc.);
  • Proposed examiner is a legal guardian of or has power of attorney for the student;
  • Proposed examiner is a legal dependent of the student;
  • Proposed examiner has had personal contact with the student that could be perceived as the proposed examiner dealing with the student in a less than objective manner.

Working and/or professional relationships between the potential examiner and the student which would constitute a conflict of interest:

  • Proposed examiner has co-authored a paper with the student within the last 5 years;
  • Proposed examiner has worked with the student on matters relating to their thesis (e.g. previous member of the supervisory team);
  • Proposed examiner has provided funds to the student;
  • Proposed examiner is, has been in the past 5 years, or is negotiating to be in the future, the student’s direct employer or employee;
  • Proposed examiner is or has been in a business relationship with the student in the last 5 years (e.g. business partner);
  • Proposed examiner has acted as an employment referee for the student;
  • Proposed examiner has a professional relationship with the student (e.g. shared membership of a Board Committee).

Conflict of interest with the supervisor

Personal and/or legal relationships between the potential examiner and the supervisor which would constitute a conflict of interest:

  • Proposed examiner is related to the supervisor;
  • Proposed examiner is a friend of the supervisor or has a social relationship (e.g. co-trustee of a Will, god-parent, etc.) with the supervisor which could give rise to a conflict of interest;
  • Proposed examiner has a personal relationship of enmity with the supervisor;
  • Proposed examiner and the supervisor have an existing or a previous emotional relationship of de facto, are co-residents or are members of a common household;
  • Proposed examiner is or was married to the supervisor;
  • Proposed examiner is legally family to the supervisor (e.g. step-mother, brother-in-law, etc.);
  • Proposed examiner is a legal guardian of, or has power of attorney for the supervisor;
  • Proposed examiner is a legal dependent of the supervisor;
  • Proposed examiner has had personal contact with the supervisor that could be perceived to cause the proposed examiner to deal with the student in a less than objective manner.

Working and/or professional relationships between the potential examiner and the supervisor which would constitute a conflict of interest:

  • Proposed examiner has co-authored a paper with the supervisor in the last 5 years*;
  • Proposed examiner was a student of the supervisor in the last 5 years;
  • Proposed examiner holds a current grant with the supervisor**:
  • Proposed examiner has co-supervised with the supervisor in the last 5 years;
  • Proposed examiner holds a patent with the supervisor granted no more than 8 years prior and which is still valid;
  • Proposed examiner is, has been in the past 5 years, or is negotiating to be in the future, the supervisor’s direct employer or employee;
  • Proposed examiner is or has been in a business relationship with the supervisor in the last 5 years (e.g. business partners);
  • Proposed examiner has a professional relationship with the supervisor (e.g. shared membership of a Board Committee).

* Note potential mitigating factors, e.g. a large authorship of the paper in question could allow for no direct collaboration between the proposed examiner and the supervisor.

** Note potential for mitigating factors, e.g. the grant in question could be held by a large consortium of relatively independent researchers.

Conflict of interest with the University

The following situations would constitute a conflict of interest:

  • Proposed examiner is a current member of staff or has a current Honorary, Adjunct, Emeritus or Visiting position with the University, or has had such a position during the enrolment of the student or in the last 5 years;
  • Proposed examiner is currently in negotiation with the university for a work contract;
  • Proposed examiner is currently working for the university pro bono;
  • Proposed examiner has examined for the university more than twice in the past 12 months, and/or 5 or more times in the past 5 years***;
  • Proposed examiner holds a current professional relationship with the university (e.g. membership of a board or committee);
  • Proposed examiner has received an honorary doctorate from the university within the past 5 years;
  • Proposed examiner has graduated from the university in the last 5 years;
  • Proposed examiner has a current or had a formal grievance with the university.

*** Note potential mitigating factors, e.g. the examiner may have examined students across different schools or academic units.

Conflict of interest with the subject matter

The following situations would constitute a conflict of interest:

  • Proposed examiner has published work critical of the student's approach (naming the student/supervisor);
  • Proposed examiner has a direct commercial interest in the outcomes of the work;
  • Proposed examiner has spoken publicly in a critical way about the student's approach (naming the student/supervisor).

Conflict of interest with other examiners

The following situations would constitute a conflict of interest:

  • Proposed examiner works in the same department and/or institution as another examiner;
  • Proposed examiner is married to, closely related to or has a close personal or professional relationship with another examiner.

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