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Copy-and-Paste: How Allegations of Plagiarism Became the Culture War’s New Frontier

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{shortcode-dff00239893dfc2f65d0d2901925e39f12f982db}lagiarism is a cardinal offense for academics. In December, it also became the latest cudgel in the conservative culture war on Harvard and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The development could not have come at a worse time for the University. Harvard was struggling to navigate public fallout from former President Claudine Gay’s now-infamous congressional hearing. The University was under a national microscope like never before, and politicians, alumni, and Harvard affiliates were calling for Gay’s resignation.

And amidst it all — as the Harvard Corporation met to discuss Gay’s future at the University — right-wing activist Christopher F. Rufo and journalist Christopher Brunet hit publish on a piece that would add a new element to the controversy: allegations that Gay had plagiarized large sections of her Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard.

The report was timed to make waves. Rufo, a prominent critic of critical race theory, boasted on X that their timing had been intentional. They had the tip for about a week, he wrote, and held it till “the precise moment of maximum impact.”

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Rufo’s report was quickly followed by an article by Aaron Sibarium in the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon, which unearthed additional allegations spanning Gay’s academic career.

The duo — Rufo and Brunet — had successfully hijacked the conversation, expanding a ballooning national scandal over antisemitism at Harvard to include both Gay’s academic credentials and the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, which they said were to blame for Gay’s presidency.

The Corporation, backed into a corner, could not ignore the new attacks. After a review of Gay’s work, they said that though Gay would submit seven corrections to add citations across her dissertation and published works, they found that she had not committed academic misconduct.

“Never did I imagine needing to defend decades-old and broadly respected research, but the past several weeks have laid waste to truth,” Gay wrote in a New York Times op-ed shortly after her resignation. “Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument.”

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But despite Gay’s defenses, in the public’s eyes, the damage had been done. Gay was pushed to resignation to the delight of Harvard’s most outspoken antagonists, Rufo included.

“Today, we celebrate victory. Tomorrow, we get back to the fight,” Rufo posted to X the day of Gay’s resignation. “We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America.”

Harvard had already found itself in the crossfires of the culture war. But with new software at their disposal and a trove of unscrutinized scholarship to dive into, the plagiarism allegations against Gay had opened up a new frontier.

‘Kindergarten Criteria’

The allegations might have ended with Gay’s sudden resignation. Instead, they took off.

The first three months of 2024 saw three more Black women at Harvard hit with anonymous plagiarism complaints, one after another: Chief Diversity Officer Sherri A. Charleston, Harvard Extension School administrator Shirley R. Greene, and Sociology professor Christina J. Cross.

As the allegations poured in, Rufo crowed on X about how the allegations discredited scholarship on race and diversity, what he called “grievance disciplines.” But some academics and experts said the string of complaints elide important distinctions between downright plagiarism and sloppy writing or even standard academic practices.

The complaints filed against Gay, Greene, and Cross, for example, did not contend with the papers’ findings. Rather, they scrutinized their definitions, methodological descriptions, and prose.

Sociology professor Michèle Lamont — who has studied what it means for academic writing to be original — said she felt that using line-by-line plagiarism checks to determine the academic integrity of faculty work was “a little bit like using kindergarten criteria to evaluate people who are experts at knowledge production.”

Charleston was accused in January of lifting several phrases in her 2009 Ph.D. dissertation. In many of the alleged cases, she cited the relevant author but did not use direct quotations, while in others the complaint alleged no citation.

A paper she co-wrote with her husband LaVar J. Charleston and Jerlando F.L. Jackson was also accused of reusing interview content and findings from a prior paper by her husband.

Greene faced allegations of lifting language from several other scholars, in most but not all cases citing the relevant scholar but not including quotation marks. A plagiarism expert consulted by The Crimson at the time said the complaint contained several frivolous allegations but that there were some warranting further review.

In Cross’s case, the most severe allegations reference public dataset or methodology descriptions — and the complaint was largely shot down by academics. The Sociology department published a statement defending Cross’s work, and several academics in charge of large public datasets said her use of standard descriptions was “simply good research practice,” not plagiarism.

“We find these bogus claims to be particularly troubling in the context of a series of attacks on Black women in academia with the clear subtext that they have no place in our universities,” the Sociology department wrote.

All three have not commented publicly on the allegations. The University has repeatedly said it would not comment on specific cases, citing the ongoing review processes.

The journalists amplifying the complaints said that the scholars — particularly Gay — violated the Harvard College Writing Program’s Harvard Guide to Using Sources, an online resource for undergraduates engaging in academic writing. The guide states that all language used from other scholars must either be paraphrased and cited or directly quoted and cited.

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In a Dec. 31 Crimson op-ed, an anonymous Harvard College Honor Council member argued that plagiarism complaints similar to the one filed against Gay “often” lead to year-long suspensions for undergraduates.

“There is one standard for me and my peers,” they wrote, “and another, much lower standard for our University’s president.”

But Lamont said that scholarship produced by faculty should not be conflated with that of students. Faculty research integrity is regulated by a different policy: the Interim Policies and Procedures for Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct, which the Corporation said Gay had not breached.

“The kind of work we produce has nothing to do with the term papers that undergrads produce,” Lamont said, comparing the standards for students and faculty. “I mean, what they’re doing is super important in their own apprenticeship but that’s not what research is about.”

Lamont argued that Harvard — and other institutions — need to clarify differences between the policy for faculty members and undergraduates to ensure that policies are tailored to the levels of expertise of each group.

“I think if universities take very firm stances to defend their faculty, certainly this may contribute to delegitimizing these attacks,” she said.

The ‘Common Thread’

Typically, leveling an allegation of plagiarism is supposed to defend the scholarly record and the contributions of the allegedly plagiarized author. But from the get-go, Rufo emphasized that his aims were much bigger.

“Let’s talk prestige, scholarship, degrees, DEI, affirmative action. Let’s have a full-blown plagiarism war,” Rufo posted to X shortly after Gay’s resignation. “The more attention focused on elite academia, the more people will see the incompetence, the psychopathologies, and the ideological rot.”

He ended his post with an unambiguous call to action: “Accelerate!”

And accelerate they did. Both Rufo and Sibarium have made plagiarism complaints against DEI administrators or researchers into a kind of miniature beat, expanding their focus beyond Harvard to academics and administrators at MIT, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Columbia University.

At Harvard, the fixation on Black female scholars who study issues of race and equity has led many academics to criticize their reporting as racially motivated.

Jennifer L. Hochschild, a political scientist at Harvard from whom Gay was accused of plagiarizing, said the string of allegations suggested a “targeted” attack on Black women in service of the conservative push to discredit institutions of higher education and DEI initiatives.

“There’s obviously a highly selective, very targeted attack on precisely the people who are most vulnerable, who have traditionally historically forever been most vulnerable, who represent what a very large proportion of the country resents, fears, envies, mistrusts. The combination of race and gender and high status is a very volatile one,” said Hochschild.

Hochschild previously faced backlash for saying Rufo had misrepresented his masters degree from the Harvard Extension School in comments that were perceived as belittling HES students. She later apologized for her remarks.

Rufo has rejected the notion that his work has racial motivations, as have Sibarium and Brunet. Still, he was startlingly candid about the demographics of those he had accused.

Rufo wrote in a post on X that a source of his had “investigated white social-justice scholars at Harvard, but did not find plagiarism in their work” — suggesting Black scholars could be more likely to plagiarize.

In response to a request for comment for this article, Rufo wrote that a source of his “ran some of Professor Hochschild’s papers through the detection software and did not find any plagiarism.”

“So, in a real way, she herself is responsible for the plagiarism disparities within Harvard’s African-American studies faculty,” Rufo added.

Hochschild responded by saying she was “delighted that Mr. Rufo’s helpers found no plagiarism in my writings,” adding that she had no further comment.

To Sibarium, the initial set of allegations against Gay was “frankly, just a compelling story on its own terms.” But he also could not ignore the trend.

The “common thread here is DEI,” Sibarium said. The identity of those accused, he added, followed a trend because it is “more a function of the composition of DEI officers than anything else.”

Brunet said he found the original tip and brought it to Rufo while he was reporting on academic fraud.

“I think the plagiarism speaks for itself,” Brunet said, referring to Gay’s corrections. “I’m just an academic scandal guy and sometimes race gets caught up there.”

That the allegations targeted DEI administrators and scholars of race was, to Brunet, simply an ironic illustration of the intellectual bankruptcy of liberal institutions.

It’s “funnier than if a biology professor got hit, or if a physics professor or an English professor,” Brunet said. “They’re not real scholars. It’s a fake profession to begin with. So, when it’s fake and plagiarized, it makes it double funny.”

Sibarium separated his reporting from Rufo’s ongoing campaign against DEI, instead offering a conjecture about Rufo’s motivations. Rufo, he argued, “latched onto” plagiarism allegations “as a powerful weapon” because “the plagiarism allegations provide an almost objective referee in the culture war.”

Brunet said that he felt “conservatives have a duty to weaponize” plagiarism allegations “as much as possible.”

“Liberals would be weaponizing it as much as possible, if they could,” he said.

Hochschild likewise said plagiarism allegations were simply the most novel tool in a much longer ideological tradition.

“This is just, in some ways, another manifestation of the same old same old American political culture around race, gender and class. Very effective,” Hochschild said. “Christopher Rufo and his allies are really good at what they do.”

A ‘Low Bar’

Plagiarism and academic dishonesty scandals are nothing new. In the 1980s, a falsification crisis hit the life sciences as researchers were under increased pressure from universities and biopharma companies to show significant results, while the 2010s saw the rise of the replication crisis in social psychology.

But while previous research controversies mostly played out in university halls and the pages of academic journals, the current string of academic misconduct complaints has a distinctly public nature, bolstered by the ubiquity of software like Turnitin and other, artificial intelligence-powered plagiarism detection tools.

With such a low barrier to entry for alleging plagiarism, some academics said, anyone — regardless of expertise — can make career-altering accusations against scholars, whose fate may largely be decided on social media before any technical review process is even conducted.

Lamont, the expert in original scholarship, challenged the integrity of plagiarism allegations that have been made online, saying that “these criticisms are produced by people who have zero understanding of what research is about.”

Ruben Enikolopov, chairman of the Board of the Review of Economic Studies, similarly agreed that making academic data widely available online has caused the overall quality of checks on academic integrity to deteriorate.

“We realized that this crowdsourcing is a low bar, and we have to push it higher and introduce our own data editors to make sure that everything is kosher,” said Enikolopov.

But Brunet, the journalist who reported on Gay, offered a counterpoint: institutions’ reviews are “so broken,” he said, that “there’s no other choice than to play it out in the public arena.” Brunet argued that schools are biased actors, with “every incentive to sweep” allegations against faculty and administrators “under the rug.”

Government professor Theda Skocpol, a former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said she believes universities need to review how they’ve dealt with high-profile plagiarism cases in the past and then determine an effective process to use going forward.

“I know some very prominent people who are still on the faculty were accused. It’s not as if people said, ‘Oh, no, we’re not going to look at this.’ It’s also not as if they were fired,” Skocpol said. “That’s the kind of process that we should have and we need to have it ready now.”

“High profile people are going to be like sitting ducks for externally motivated actors in the current period,” she added.

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In January, a few weeks after Ackman — the billionaire and former donor — helped promote the allegations against Gay, Business Insider published an exposé on his wife Neri Oxman, formerly a professor at MIT. Ackman called the move retaliatory and vowed revenge in a post on X, saying he would launch AI-powered plagiarism reviews of faculty members at MIT and its peer schools.

“Why? Well, every faculty member knows that once their work is targeted by AI, they will be outed,” Ackman wrote.

“No body of written work in academia can survive the power of AI searching for missing quotation marks, failures to paraphrase appropriately, and/or the failure to properly credit the work of others,” he added.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Sheila S. Jasanoff ’64 cautioned against plagiarism reviews like the one Ackman had proposed, noting that software could often mistakenly flag scholarship as having been plagiarized.

“The statistical tools, though very powerful, may be in the business of over-detecting, creating false positives in a way that the older cases did not actually allow for,” said Jasanoff.

And four months later, Ackman’s proposed plagiarism review has made no public progress. The news cycle, Ackman, and others interested have moved to more contemporary issues, such as the wave of pro-Palestine encampments that have emerged at universities across the country.

While the threat of such reviews — and their subsequent politicization — looms larger than ever, Brunet said he believes plagiarism stories don’t have much left in the tank.

“I see the public getting tired of it eventually,” Brunet said.

“I think there’ll be one big wave eventually and maybe continued stories here or there, but I don’t think it’s going to be a consistent theme for the next five years,” he added.

—Staff writer Angelina J. Parker can be reached at angelina.parker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @angelinajparker.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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