Home News Neri Oxman, Harvard and the Need for New Rules on Plagiarism

Neri Oxman, Harvard and the Need for New Rules on Plagiarism


Photo: Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images; Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Last week, Business Insider published two articles accusing celebrity academic Neri Oxman of multiple instances of plagiarism in her 2010 Ph.D. dissertation. Oxman is an Israeli American artist, designer, and architect who left a tenured job at MIT in 2020 when she married billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman — a Harvard alum, a major Harvard donor, and one of the loudest voices calling for Harvard president Claudine Gay’s resignation. It appears that Business Insider launched an investigation of Ackman’s wife as some sort of karmic retribution.

The reporting revealed that Oxman had lifted text verbatim without quotation marks from Wikipedia, other scholars, and technical documents in her academic writing. Oxman has apologized, but the hunt for plagiarists is unlikely to stop with her. In fact, in response to the plagiarism allegations against Oxman, Ackman has now threatened to begin launching more plagiarism investigations of his own, including ones against MIT president Sally Kornbluth — whose ouster he has called for — and Business Insider.

The latest phase of plagiarism conversation began with the charges that eventually brought down Gay. That campaign was a right-wing hatchet job — and yet even hatchet-men sometimes say true things. Most of the allegations against Gay involved low-grade misconduct, like crediting sources but failing to put copied passages in quotes. In several instances though, Gay went further, reproducing more lengthy passages without any attribution at all.

If Gay were an ordinary academic, she might have been able to keep her job. But as Harvard’s president, she was ultimately responsible for enforcing academic rules, including plagiarism rules, on students. And Harvard’s sanctions for plagiarism are unsparing: As a student member of Harvard’s Honor Council wrote in a recent anonymous op-ed, for offenses similar to Gay’s, undergraduates can suffer suspension for an academic year and a permanent mark on their record. (Gay is remaining on Harvard’s faculty as a professor after stepping down from the presidency.)

The plagiarism drama around Gay and now Oxman (with the threat from Ackman of others to come) has been major news in its own right — but it should also be the beginning of a much-needed reassessment in how to think about plagiarism. As this magazine’s Jonathan Chait has pointed out, we apply that term indiscriminately to “a wide array of errors and crimes of vastly different scales.” The breadth of the conduct we identify as plagiarism, the dishonor we attach to the offense, and the stiff punishments meted out often do not reflect these vastly different scales — rather, relatively minor sloppiness and major intellectual dishonesty tend to get lumped together under this same descriptor. All of which makes plagiarism ideal for political weaponizationof exactly the sort we are seeing right now.

There have long been heavily politicized plagiarism attacks on nominees to important political jobs, including the federal bench (Neil Gorsuch faced plagiarism allegations during his confirmation process based largely on less than one page in a 320-page book that recapitulated a precise factual description of a particular medical condition and its treatment). Look for a lot more of this, from Ackman and others.

Of course, if plagiarism rules are going to be used to attack elites and not just powerless students, there is bound to be pushback. And once powerful people start looking closely at plagiarism rules, they’ll find plenty to push back against. The Claudine Gay debacle — and the politically driven plagiarism bounty hunts that may follow it — offers a valuable opportunity for universities to narrow anti-plagiarism rules, more carefully separating and distinguishing between different varieties of plagiarism-adjacent misconduct and bringing the entire apparatus more closely in line with the most important justifications that best support academic-integrity rules. (In so doing, they will also be protecting students and faculty alike.)

At a structural level, there are two key reasons we have rules against plagiarism. First, they protect authors’ interest in attribution. Second, they protect readers’ interest in not being defrauded. Both of these are worth protecting. But the actual content of anti-plagiarism rules extends far beyond these justifications.

Take my own institution, NYU. Its standard of “academic integrity” defines plagiarism as “presenting others’ work without adequate acknowledgement of its source, as though it were one’s own.” “Plagiarism,” the policy continues, “is a form of fraud. We all stand on the shoulders of others, and we must give credit to the creators of the works that we incorporate into products that we call our own.”

So far, so good. But when the NYU plagiarism statement gets down to specific examples, things get dicey quickly. Among other things, the policy bars the use of “a sequence of words incorporated without quotation marks” or “an unacknowledged passage paraphrased from another’s work.” These prohibitions purport to be categorical — any sequence of words reproduced without quotation, or paraphrased without citation, is plagiarism. But in reality, whether such conduct amounts either to fraud on readers or unacknowledged shoulder-standing that hurts writers depends on the particular words involved.

Imagine a student takes these words without quotation or citation: And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. These words are the entirety of Anaïs Nin’s poem “Risk.” But a reader who doesn’t know the poem might credit the student with Nin’s genius. That person has an interest in not being fooled. Meanwhile, the original author — or her estate, in this case — has a legitimate attribution interest here precisely because this particular sequence of words is special.

Now imagine a second student takes these words: When he lived in Chicago, Mojica sang in punk bands, ran a record label, and owned the Jinx Café and a video rental shop called Big Brother. These words were part of a plagiarism scandal involving former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, who was accused of copying in her book short passages from several articles. Abramson cited most, but not all, of the articles she used, and sometimes she failed to put language that she copied or paraphrased in quotations. She was publicly flayed.

But why exactly? No reader is going to give Abramson credit for the words she took. They report facts; the expression has little value. Abramson is not standing on another writer’s shoulders — at most, she’s perched on a very small footstool.

In the end, that’s what many plagiarism disputes are about: mere reproduction of words. That is also what copyright law is about, and it’s fair to wonder why we extend plagiarism norms beyond their core when we have copyright to police word-taking.

Copyright law is more sophisticated, in general, about both potential harms and potential benefits of copying. That is why copyright leaves us free to copy facts and even bits of expression necessary to accurately report facts — because it is socially beneficial for facts to be available for use. Plagiarism rules efface those distinctions in favor of a maximalist approach to citing and quoting. The rule is that if you can quote and cite, you must.

Those rules have some obvious costs. One is it helps to make much academic writing frankly awful to read. A categorical rule requiring citing and quoting makes for clunky writing, which impedes the transmission of knowledge from the academy to the public at large. A categorical rule also gives firstcomers quasi–ownership rights over basic facts and technical descriptions that they neither discovered nor expressed in a way that has independent value. Copyright holds that facts do not originate with any particular author — they are part of the reality that we all share — and therefore cannot be owned. Anti-plagiarism rules take the opposite approach, acting as if the first person to put a fact on paper has a moral claim to it powerful enough to bring down serious punishments for uncredited use. Copyright in the kind of technical descriptions that a lot of academic work traffics in — descriptions of processes, systems, scientific theories, historical narratives, medical conditions, mechanical devices — is thin and can be avoided by rewording the description. In contrast, anti-plagiarism rules condemn light paraphrasing to avoid quotation and require citation in any case.

An easy way to improve plagiarism rules would be to limit the core offense to uncredited uses that readers would actually care about and that writers would have a legitimate interest in protecting. Not mere collections of words but valuable collections of words.

Plagiarism of valuable words we could treat as a kind of “felony” — and punish it accordingly. Then we would identify a set of lesser “misdemeanor” offenses and sanction them less harshly. Those might include things like citing but failing to quote substantial verbatim passages, uncredited light paraphrasing, or the uncredited use of facts or basic technical definitions. Students committing these lesser offenses might be punished with a warning or a lower grade on an assignment. Writers outside the academy might be subject to social sanctions, as they are now, but without the same deep and enduring dishonor that an undifferentiated plagiarism allegation currently implies. Because honorable people make mistakes too.

So in the example of Claudine Gay, the first question we would ask is whether any of her citation misconduct was related to the core intellectual contributions of her academic work. Every academic article or book offers (or at least should offer) a core idea or argument — what academics refer to as the work’s “contribution to the literature.” In the academic world, failing to credit someone else’s work in the supposed core contribution of your article is the absolute worst form of plagiarism.

None of Gay’s citation misconduct involved her core contributions; the essence of her work is unmarred, and this should take her out of the “felony plagiarism” category. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Gay should have kept her job — representing Harvard’s commitment to veritas — even under revised rules. Serial citation misdemeanors may be enough to make someone unable to fulfill that special role. But Gay would avoid the severe and lasting social sanction with which we have previously indiscriminately tarred “plagiarists.”

Like Gay, none of Oxman’s or Abramson’s citation misconduct involved the core ideas of their work, and they likewise should be in the misdemeanor category. And with both of these examples, forthright apology and correction should be enough to reset the moral balance and restore both writers to good standing in the community. Misdemeanor citation misconduct is not nothing. But it is not the moral blot that we should reserve to the felony-plagiarism offense. And removing a measure of the moral sanction for all but the most egregious cases will limit the opportunity for bad-faith political actors to wield plagiarism as a cudgel against their ideological foes.

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