Governor Healey attends the Inauguration of Claudine Gay as the 30th President of Harvard University - Maura Healey - Flickr

Permission to Plagiarize

Sorry, academics, but you can’t excuse away plagiarism by seeking permission after the fact from the party you copied.

March 25, 2024

Elite academia has had a rough stretch in recent years due to a string of academic misconduct scandals. Claudine Gay, the now-former president of Harvard, resigned in January amid mounting evidence of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation and academic works. She follows in the footsteps of Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who left his post as president of Stanford last year after coming under scrutiny as a co-author of several papers containing falsified data.

A string of similar scandals hit the Ivy League especially hard in the wake of Gay’s resignation. Earlier this month a Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI) administrator at Columbia faced accusations of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation. The latest allegations involve Harvard sociologist Christina Cross, who appears to have copied several lines of text from another author in her 2019 dissertation. It’s the fourth plagiarism allegation to emerge from Harvard in recent months, and occurs amid another scandal at the university involving claims of data fabrication by a prominent faculty member.

Most elite institutions take a strict line against plagiarism in their own classrooms. Harvard’s policy, for example, defines “mosaic plagiarism” as the act of copying “bits and pieces from a source (or several sources), changing a few words here and there without either adequately paraphrasing or quoting directly.” It also takes a strict stance against borrowing another author’s words without acknowledgment: “If you do want to use some of the author’s words for emphasis or clarity, you must put those words in quotation marks and provide a citation.” Princeton’s policy is similarly unambiguous, stating that “Any quotations, however small, must be placed in quotation marks or clearly indented beyond the regular margin.”  Columbia requires students to sign a pledge indicating they will not plagiarize, which they define as “Failure to cite or otherwise acknowledge ideas or phrases used in any paper, exercise, or project.”

By the letter of these policies, the use of “duplicative language” or “careless cutting and pasting”—both euphemisms used to defend Claudine Gay—qualifies as textbook plagiarism insofar as it borrows the work of others without the required quotation marks or acknowledgments. Almost all of the recent plagiarism scandals share another characteristic. They implicate high-profile faculty and administrators on the political left. As such, other leftist academics and journalists responded to the allegations not by evaluating the evidence of plagiarism but by attacking the motives of the accusers, who mostly hailed from the political right.

One of the strangest responses could be called the “Permission to Plagiarize” defense. In these cases, a sympathetic journalist or academic writer will seek out the person whose work was improperly lifted and ask them to weigh in on the charges. Georgetown University professor Don Moynihan took this approach when defending Cross by contacting one of the parties she copied in a near-verbatim passage: “I also reached out to Marcy Carlson, of the Carlson et al. that Cross is accused of plagiarizing.” Carlson responded, “This is far from academic plagiarism” and dismissed the evidence of borrowed language because “she cites our paper in the very same paragraph!”

Claudine Gay’s supporters similarly invoked the “Permission to Plagiarize” defense by reaching out to the victims of her copying and pasting. Gary King, who also served as Gay’s thesis adviser, told the press “There’s not a conceivable case that this is plagiarism,” even though Gay lifted several near-verbatim passages from King’s book A Solution to the Ecological Inference Problem. In another instance, Gay appears to have plagiarized the acknowledgments section of a book by fellow Harvard professor Jennifer Hochschild. When the press asked Hochschild about it, she dismissed the lifted passage by stating, “boy, these are cliches” and then announced her fury at what she called a “deliberate campaign to destroy [Gay’s] career and maybe destroy her personally.” In each case, the faculty in question were more upset over the political views of the people who discovered the plagiarized passages than they were at the culprit for copying and pasting their own work. But perhaps that’s to be expected in today’s hyper-politicized university system, where the overwhelming majority of faculty hail from the political left.

I experienced a similar reaction in 2022 when I uncovered evidence of inappropriately borrowed passages in the writings of Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse. Like Gay, Kruse lifted multiple passages from other works without quotation marks or proper attribution. One of the most egregious examples involved a paragraph that Kruse copied from historian Thomas Sugrue’s book about race relations in Detroit. Kruse made near-verbatim use of Sugrue’s words in framing the thesis statement of his doctoral dissertation, except for one significant change. Kruse moved its location to Atlanta, the focus of his own work. In another passage, Kruse copied multiple sentences from an earlier book by Ronald H. Bayor.

While investigating this evidence, I reached out to Bayor and presented him with an anonymized comparison of the two texts to confirm that the original came from his book. He responded by email the same day, “Yes, these sentences come from my book. Are there any other that I should know about?” Bayor stated that he was unsure if a single sentence from his book alone demonstrated a pattern of plagiarism. He nonetheless expressed concern that “If the Ph.D. candidate did this however, I would look closely at the dissertation in regard to other copying issues.” As I replied at the time, there were indeed other copying issues, suggesting a larger pattern.

Bayor’s response suddenly changed after I published my investigation and named the culprit, documenting multiple other examples across almost 20 years of Kruse’s scholarship. When Bayor learned his work had been copied without citation by Kruse, an academic friend, he suddenly dismissed the evidence as “politically motivated attacks on good scholarship” and insisted “there is not a story here.”

It’s no small irony that Kruse himself has spent the better part of the last week flooding social media with “Permission to Plagiarize” defenses of Harvard’s growing list of the accused. In Kruse’s version, conservative activist Chris Rufo’s assessment of the evidence should be ignored because the many left-wing professors giving their sanction to plagiarism “know more about academia” than him. It’s a pronounced shift from Kruse’s stance in 2017 when he invoked his own status as a professor to announce that he’d “expel” a former Trump adviser who was accused of plagiarizing part of his master’s thesis. The allegations in that case consisted of neglecting to include quotation marks around an otherwise cited passage—a less severe transgression than his own, and the many emerging cases from Harvard.

So what are we to make of cases such as these, where the culprit lifts text from another author in violation of the letter and spirit of the university’s plagiarism policy, but that author then gives them a pass post hoc? It’s noteworthy that in almost all of the cases mentioned here, the culprit and victim were academic friends and colleagues. More often than not, they also shared each other’s politics. And while the spirit of forgiveness might apply to their personal relationships after the discovery of plagiarism, it does not materially alter the evidence of that act. Nor does it supersede university policies defining plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct.

I’d liken the “Permission to Plagiarize” defense to the case of a student who gets caught cheating on an exam by copying a classmate’s answers. Imagine if the classmate then went to the teacher and stated, “It’s okay. She’s my friend, and I give her permission to copy my answers.” This excuse would not absolve the guilty party, and it may even further implicate the classmate in cheating.

The reason is not difficult to discern. The problem with cheating on a test extends beyond the harm of simply appropriating another person’s answers. It is also a violation of the integrity of the examination, which seeks to evaluate the student’s individual mastery of the subject. The harmed parties include not just the copied classmate but every other student in the classroom and the institution administering the test.

Just the same, the harm from plagiarism extends beyond mere theft of another author’s work. It also undermines the integrity of scholarship by falsely presenting the borrowed text as one’s own original contribution. The harmed parties also include the reader who is deceived by the act of plagiarism and the scholarly process that produced and published the plagiarized text. Sorry, academics, but you can’t excuse away plagiarism by seeking permission after the fact from the party you copied.

Phillip W. Magness is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and the David J. Theroux Chair in Political Economy. He has served as Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, and as Academic Program Director at the Institute for Humane Studies and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy in the School of Public Policy and Government at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy.
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