Senior staff at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) have denied contriving a plot to shield a top professor, accused of plagiarism and failure to disclose an academic conflict of interest.

The move by council and management to have the case against Keolebogile Shirley Motaung heard internally has allegedly raised eyebrows at the institution.

It smacked of an attempt to “manage” the case, while also setting a bad precedent, said an employee critical of the decision.

Motaung, TUT’s assistant dean responsible for postgraduate studies, research and innovation, took the case to the CCMA last year.

She opted for an external hearing after the institution charged her.

The Star has seen a letter sent by the HR department to Motaung informing her that senior personnel had decided to have the university's ethics committee "handle" the matter.

A subsequent email sent to other officials said this was an instruction by the chair of council, Dr Bandile Masuku.

Motaung was initially suspended in December 2016.

A memo at the time said she was being suspended for alleged “misconduct relating to plagiarism, scientific fraud and infringement of copyright” in an article.

The article was published in the Journal of Ethnophar- macology. Its editor, Netherlands-based Professor Robert Verpoorte, raised the alarm about possible plagiarism.

He said her article contained a figure she had published in another study in a different journal.

Verpoorte warned that her papers could be picked up by publications that "mark" any paper demonstrating a large overlap.

“And it will stay there until you can prove that this is not plagiarism”.

In a separate charge, Bone SA, an external organisation that funds TUT’s Centre for Tissue Engineering, accused Motaung of failing to disclose a conflict of interest.

This stand-off was over a manuscript she had submitted to the Iranian Biomedical Journal.

“The lead researcher (Mota- ung) and co-author failed to declare a conflict of interest based on their collaboration with Bone SA and the funding and research grant provided by Bone SA,” said the body in August 2016.

Motaung’s suspension was lifted last year. This allowed her to report for duty, but she remained barred from continuing to supervise her postgraduate students.

“They are trying to quash the case. Look, bringing it back to be heard internally gives them a chance to appoint a panel,” an insider said about the redirection of the case.

“Masuku will have influence over those people. Why are they bringing the matter back only now, when it has to continue in the CCMA?”

TUT bosses denied that they sought to quash the matter.

“The intention is not to quash the complaint but to resolve the matter through institutional processes,” spokesperson Willa de Ruyter told The Star on Sunday.

“Furthermore, the so-called instruction is the outcome of an engagement and consultation between the university management, the executive dean of the faculty of science, as well as relevant members of the senate and chair of council.”

A rising star in academia, Motaung won R250000 and an all-expenses paid trip Finland last year for her prowess in FemBioBiz, a programme supporting women in biosciences.

She did not respond to The Star’s request for comment.