The Claim

“I read the thesis, I examined him with an examiner, he defended his thesis very, very thoroughly. He had nobody else present, and I don’t think there’s any reason to think he didn’t do it himself.”

Lord Desai, quoted in The Times

The Background

While blood runs on the streets of Tripoli, it might seem odd that the precise wording of an obscure PhD thesis is grabbing headlines.

But the Saif al-Islam Gaddafi scandal is shaking the cloistered world of academia to its foundations.

Did Colonel Gaddafi’s son make a mockery of British education when he was awarded a PhD by the London School of Economics in 2008?

Accusations that the thesis was plagiarised – and the question of whether a respected British university should be accepting huge cash donations from Gaddafi regime – have forced LSE director Sir Howard Davies to resign.

An internal investigation into Saif’s academic work has been promised, but Lord Meghnad Desai, the man who signed off Saif’s doctorate, is still sticking up for his old pupil.

In a Times interview, the eminent and economist and Labour peer rubbished the claims of plagiarism.

Speaking to the BBC today, he again denied any impropriety: “We treated him like anybody else. We gave him a tough oral examination, we read his thesis, we then asked him to rewrite and add some bits which we thought were missing. So we did not treat him softly in any respect.”

The analysis

FactCheck has just finished poring over Saif’s 400-odd page doctorate, and it certainly gives a different perspective on the dictator-in-waiting’s personality.

The man who was last week filmed brandishing a Kalashnikov and promising his supporters more weapons in their brutal efforts to put down Libya’s insurrection emerges as a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure with a passionate interest in democracy and civil society.

He’s apparently a fan of the libertarian Guardian journalist George Monbiot, whose work he quotes at length.

Saif draws extensively on the work of such philosophical heavyweights as Kant, Hume and Aristotle.

It’s evidence of a towering intellect at work – an aspect of Saif’s personality we know escaped people who met him and even tried to teach him.

As Channel 4 News reported today, the economist John Christensen was approached to help the dictator’s son with his studies shortly after he arrived in the UK.

In his online blog, Mr Christensen recalls: “Saif was not, how to say this politely, the brightest of students. Not only was he totally uninterested in economics, he lacked the intellectual depth to study at that level, and showed no willingness to read let alone do course work.

“Worse, our tutorials were endlessly interrupted, either by the constant comings and goings of his retainers, or by his mobile phone, which rang every two or three minutes.”

He adds: “Without making it totally explicit, Mr Qadafi was expecting me to write his essays for him, and presumably to carry this through to preparing his thesis. I was not prepared to do this.”

There are many sophisticated pieces of internet technology that enable teachers to check whether students have been plagiarising the work of others.

Anyone suffering from insomnia can find Saif’s magnum opus here – it’s available to download free from the British Library.

The plagiarism was first reported here. Since then, a number of internet users have taken the time to comb through the thesis and claim to have found numerous passages that have obviously been lifted from other sources without acknowledgement. They’ve added their findings to this blog.

The collective research claims to show that some chunks of text have been slightly altered, like this:

The term is currently often used by critics and activists as a reference to sources of resistance and to that domain of social life which needs to be protected against globalisation.

Saif Gaddafi

The term civil society is currently often used by activists as a reference to the domain of social life which needs to be protected against globalisation

Miguel Braganza, “Government, NGOs, CSOs and CSWs: Understanding Who is Who and what is happening around you!”

But many others have apparently simply been cut-and-pasted.

The most shameless episode of alleged lifting sees a whole run of passages apparently copied from a paper written by the blameless Professor Joe Painter of the University of Durham.

The Verdict

Just how much of the thesis is Gaddafi’s is difficult to say.

If we chop out things like tables, appendices and notes in the margin, the PhD runs to just under 93,000 words. The sections that have either copied exactly or altered very slightly run to 5,446.

So just under 6 per cent of the whole thing is demonstrably the work of other people. But those are just the bits we know about, a few days into the mammoth task of checking every sentence in a text the size of a novel.

The other big question of course is whether Saif wrote any of it at all. We’ve heard that he was prepared to pay academics to do much of the work for him.

Did he find someone else less scrupulous than John Christensen?

Or did Saif, a man who recently urged his father’s supporters to fight to the death, grow up with a machine gun in one hand and the History of Western Philosophy in another?

In an odd twist, one man who could help clear up the mystery is Tony Blair, who Saif quotes in the paper on the fascinating subject of oil extraction in southwest Africa.

In the notes he attributes this to “comment from Tony Blair in private communication with the author of this thesis”.

So far the former Prime Minister’s been unavailable for comment on the issue. If he backs Saif’s recollection of their chat, that proves at least one paragraph of his masterpiece is genuine.

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