One of the strangest outcomes of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre and the recent congressional hearings dedicated to antisemitism in the United States has been a growing fixation on plagiarism in U.S. universities. Former Harvard president Claudine Gay was forced to resign earlier this month, not only because of her disastrous congressional testimony on what constituted unacceptable, antisemitic conduct on campus, but also because she was revealed by conservative activists, such as Christopher Rufo, to be a serial plagiarist.
That incident has precipitated what will likely to be a protracted online campaign dedicated to destroying the reputations of university administrators, researchers, and the activists who oppose them. In the wake of Gay’s resignation, the news website Business Insider published two exposes identifying Neri Oxman, a former MIT professor, as a plagiarist.
Oxman also happens to be the wife of billionaire financier and Harvard donor Bill Ackman, a strident critic of Gay who pressed for her resignation. Ackman, indignant that his wife was targeted because of his actions, has sued Business Insider and announced his intention to use AI to search for plagiarism in the work of administrators at MIT, whom he accuses of prompting the Businesses Insider stories, as well as other elite institutions. Welcome to the “Plagiarism Wars.”
In the wake of Gay’s resignation and Ackman’s announcement, many U.S. academics have expressed indignation that their activities are being subjected to scrutiny at all. As they frame it, this is not about academic integrity, but a political agenda being pushed by the “wrong” people — right-wing opportunists seeking to discredit universities for generating insights about race and gender that conservatives don’t like.
In a recent interview with Salon, Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Presidents, charged that the new plagiarism critics are creating “a false narrative for the public that higher education is broken.” Harvard law professor Charles Fried was even more dismissive, telling the New York Times that if current concerns regarding plagiarism had come “from some other quarter, I might be granting it some credence … but not from these people.”
In the world Mulvey and Fried inhabit, a person’s standing depends on the political commitment that he or she brings to the table. They will not concede a truth that most of us, however grudgingly, know: our worst critics sometimes have the facts on their side.
Those inclined to extend the presumption of innocence to university researchers might also want to consider the “replication crisis,” a scandal involving the manipulation of data and experiments that shook the academic world over a decade ago, and continues to have an impact, particularly in the social sciences. Most narratives of the crisis start with a 2005 paper published by Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis, who predicted that the majority of scientific findings based on statistical research methods would ultimately be proven false.
His prediction, unfortunately, received initial confirmation in 2011, when a series of researchers, including social psychologist Diederik Stapel, were revealed to be data fabricators, while a concurrent paper by Joseph Simmons, Leif Nelson and Uri Simonsohn showed that faulty methods in the laboratory could generate false results as much as 60 per cent of the time. In 2015, a team led by Brian Nosek assessed 100 leading papers in the field of social psychology and was only able to replicate the findings of 39 per cent of them in the laboratory.
To be fair, much of the poor performance in Nosek’s 2015 study was due to researcher ignorance. Few knew prior to 2011 that the “undisclosed flexibility” demonstrated in the laboratory would so severely distort their research findings. Other researchers, however, were less innocent. In 2005, Ioannidis warned that, “The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”
Self-interested and ideological motivations would ultimately lead to failed scholarship, a prediction that has been more than validated by Retraction Watch, a website that has documented more than 45,000 cases of research retractions since 2010. As Peter Shawn Taylor notes in C2C Journal, some “two-thirds of retractions” documented by the site “are the result of deliberate misconduct: data fraud, variable manipulation, plagiarism or some other form of academic bad behaviour.”
The key takeaway of the retraction crisis is that the working cultures of universities require repair, despite defenders’ protests. If researchers are willing to engage in data falsification, it is no stretch to believe that they may also plagiarize. All of us have a fundamental question to answer: do we really want dishonest people driving research that has real-world consequences for the rest of us? If not, then we should thank activists like Rufo and Ackman for initiating a search to determine the nature and extent of corrupt conduct in North America’s universities.
John Bonnett is an associate professor of history and former Tier II Canada research chair with the department of history at Brock University. He is also a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. First published here.