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Critics see ‘double standard’ in Harvard’s handling of plagiarism allegations

Claudine GayHaiyun Jiang/Photographer: Haiyun Jiang/Bloom

More than a week ago, Harvard’s top board sought to quell a building controversy over plagiarism allegations against its new president, Claudine Gay, saying an independent review found several instances of inadequate citation in her writings but no violations of the university’s research misconduct standards.

But Harvard’s response addressed only a portion of the allegations against her, leading to an awkward second round of correctives to her academic writings this week that, far from settling the matter, brought new scrutiny and criticism to the revered school.

The controversy began with a conservative activist circulating the first allegations online, and entered new territory this week when a Republican-controlled congressional committee demanded Harvard turn over all documentation related to its review of Gay’s writings. The collision of partisan politics with a question of academic integrity has left some Harvard faculty members conflicted, and added to a sense of deep anxiety at a university that for two months has been roiled by debates and protests related to the Israel-Hamas war.

It also comes on the heels of another controversy, over Gay’s equivocal answer at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism about whether calls for genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s rules.

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On Wednesday, Harvard announced newly discovered instances of “duplicative language without appropriate attribution” in Gay’s PhD dissertation completed at Harvard in 1997, but said she had not committed “research misconduct.”

That left some on campus grumbling that a student found to have committed the same infraction might face suspension, in part because students and faculty are generally judged according to different rulebooks.

“I think there’s a clear double standard,” said Shabbos Kestenbaum, a Harvard graduate student who has sharply criticized Gay’s handling of reports of rising antisemitism on the campus in the midst of the war. Students are sometimes suspended for plagiarism, he said. But in Gay’s case, he said, “not only is there no discipline, but on the contrary the board unanimously expressed their approval and confidence in her.”

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On Dec. 12, following Gay’s congressional testimony and after the plagiarism allegations began circulating widely online, Harvard’s top board, known as the Corporation, publicly backed Gay. “Our extensive deliberations affirm our confidence” in her, the board said in a statement. It also acknowledged several instances of “inadequate citation” in Gay’s writings and stated that she was requesting corrections to two journal articles.

The public backing seemed to end a period of debate, including calls for Gay’s resignation, over whether she should remain the university’s president.

But the controversy was revived on Tuesday when an anonymous complaint was filed with a Harvard office that investigates research misconduct, raising questions about whether the Corporation’s reviews of the plagiarism allegations were thorough and consistent with the school’s policies.

The next day, a Republican-led congressional committee, the same one that convened the Dec. 5 hearing on campus antisemitism, announced an inquiry and demanded Harvard turn over all documentation related to its reviews of the plagiarism allegations. That inquiry adds to another one already initiated by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce into campus antisemitism.

“While the antisemitism and plagiarism investigations being conducted by the committee are separate and distinct, they both raise questions of hypocrisy in academia,” said Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and the committee’s chair. “In this case, how could a serial plagiarizer like Claudine Gay hold a student accountable for plagiarism ever again?”

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The controversy over Gay’s citation practices in the midst of what some see as opportunistic point-scoring by political partisans has left some Harvard professors and students conflicted.

“As scholars we need to do our absolute utmost to adhere to the practices that we very clearly tell our students they are to follow,” said Edward Hall, director of undergraduate studies of Harvard’s philosophy department. But the “noise . . . from political actors outside our walls,” he added, “makes it harder to have the right conversation about it.”

Hall said he is skeptical of lawmakers’ motives. “There is very little reason to think that prominent people in the Republican Party right now are pushing this issue because they care deeply about the quality of scholarship at Harvard and other universities,” he said.

Maya Bodnick, a Harvard sophomore, said she doesn’t have a strong opinion about the plagiarism allegations but insisted that “it’s really important Harvard does not succumb to nefarious right-wing actors.”

The plagiarism allegations were first circulated widely by conservative activist Christopher Rufo and amplified by Bill Ackman, a billionaire Harvard alumnus who has sharply criticized Gay in recent months.

But other Harvard faculty members say the political context notwithstanding, the substance of the allegations is serious.

Some of the accusations look “very credible,” and others “seem serious,” said Brendan Case, associate director of research at Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, which researches human well-being. He has been embarrassed by the Corporation’s response, he said, because it seems to undermine the school’s commitment to academic integrity.

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“Just speaking from my own corner of Harvard, there is no question in my mind [that] if we uncovered that pattern of academic dishonesty in any of our researchers, including myself, they would be dismissed immediately,” Case said. “It seems unavoidable to me that many people within and outside Harvard will infer they don’t take this kind of thing seriously.”

Gay has been accused of copying language from other scholars’ works without placing the words within quotation marks or properly citing the original sources.

On Wednesday, Harvard provided the Globe a detailed summary of the Corporation’s reviews of the allegations.

The document said that Gay’s alleged conduct was judged against a rulebook that generally applies only to faculty, and has a high bar for a finding of misconduct.

According to those rules, a transgression only amounts to research misconduct if it is committed “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.” That standard must be met by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

Referring to those rules, the Corporation concluded that Gay’s “inadequate citations, while regrettable, did not constitute research misconduct,” according to the summary.

Students are bound by a different set of rules. “Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College,” Harvard College’s plagiarism policy says.

Five sentences in her 1997 PhD dissertation closely tracked language from a 1996 paper by Bradley Palmquist and D. Stephen Voss with only minor changes of word choice and punctuation.

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In part of the passage, Gay wrote, “The average turnout rate seems to increase linearly as African-Americans become a larger proportion of the population. This is one sign that the data contain little aggregation bias.”

In the 1996 paper, Palmquist and Voss had written, “[T]he average turnout rate seems to decrease linearly as African Americans become a larger proportion of the population. This is one sign that the data contain little aggregation bias.”

The dissertation will now be updated to add quotation marks or a citation, Harvard said Wednesday.

In the acknowledgments of her dissertation, Gay used language that closely tracks that from a book by Harvard scholar Jennifer Hochschild. In the passage, Gay is praising a mentor for reminding her of “the importance of getting the data right and following where they lead without fear or favor.”

Hochschild, in her 1996 book, praised another scholar for showing her “the importance of getting the data right and of following where they lead without fear or favor,” according to the anonymous complaint sent to Harvard that compiled dozens of allegations of plagiarism.

Some scholars have pointed to a distinction between different types of plagiarism. One kind involves copying without proper attribution. The other includes stealing original ideas, and is much more egregious, several academics said in recent interviews. Gay’s alleged plagiarism, some said, falls into the first, and less severe, category.

However, others have taken a more unsparing view.

“There are few things more repellent than a top official getting and taking a pass for something they punish underlings for doing,” said Richard Parker, a Harvard Law School professor. He criticized the Corporation’s handling of the allegations as “irregular” and “opaque,” saying it was a departure from a typical plagiarism investigation.

“The contrast exudes contempt for our students and faculty and for Harvard itself,” he said.


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com. Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.