Harvard’s Plagiarism Review Process is a Joke

Harvard recently submitted an obfuscated and unsigned summary of its plagiarism “review process” to Representative Virginia Foxx’s congressional committee, Committee for Education and the Workforce. The document is a mishmash of the terms: “investigation,” “inquiry,” and “assessment.”

Harvard had previously circulated a draft of an interim policy on research misconduct. There is no indication of when the draft might be adopted, or via what procedure. The draft interim policy appears to limit itself to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) rather than apply to the entire institution.

At other universities, such a policy would require endorsement by the full faculty—through a faculty senate—as a demonstration of “shared governance.” But not at Harvard, which has no faculty senate. Former Harvard president Drew G. Faust, in 2015, defended the absence of a faculty senate saying, “I don’t personally think that it’s particularly well-suited for Harvard.” However, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published in its “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities:”

An agency should exist for the presentation of the views of the whole faculty … Faculty representatives should be selected by the faculty according to procedures determined by the faculty.

Harvard does not even appear on the list of AAUP chapters in Massachusetts. Without a faculty senate ratifying the policies regarding faculty misconduct, the status of the draft interim policy appears to be in limbo, in which case Harvard is free to pursue whatever course it wants regarding faculty plagiarism.

Under Harvard’s draft interim policy—emphasis added:

These policies and procedures do not apply to authorship or collaboration disputes and apply only to allegations of research misconduct that occurred within six years of the date FAS … received the allegation.

Harvard president Claudine Gay was accused of plagiarism, namely, that she was not the original author of sentences and phrases she published under her own name. But that is fundamentally an “authorship” issue, which Harvard’s draft interim policy specifically excludes from investigation. Accusation dismissed.

The six-year window for examining misconduct is nuanced—the plagiarized paper may have been published yesterday, but for all we know, the plagiarized bits were written seven years ago in an early draft, outside the window. Accusation dismissed.

Moreover, the accusation might not be received by FAS itself. If you submitted a complaint to Harvard’s “research integrity officer” (RIO) rather than the “Faculty of Arts and Sciences” (FAS), the assessment process need not even commence. Alternatively, the RIO can simply sit on it until the six-year window closes before forwarding it to FAS. At that point, an assessment would be moot. Process aborted.

Harvard’s draft interim policy defines “complainant” as “a person who in good faith makes an allegation of research misconduct.” During an initial “assessment,” the administration may simply decide that a complainant has not proved himself or herself to be a person making a good-faith disclosure. The draft interim policy does not explain how an anonymous reporter can affirmatively demonstrate the necessary qualifications required to be a “person” reporting “in good faith.”

How would you, as an anonymous complainant, prove to Harvard that you are a person acting in good faith? Would you appear in person before a tribunal, present a birth certificate, argue that your motives are pure, that you are not racist or sexist or conservative or anti-elite-academia, and that you are not AI software? If the complainant happens to be white, the doctrine of structural and systemic racism obviates the complaint— a white complainant is, per force, racist. Complaint dismissed.

Under the draft interim policy, “plagiarism” is not “misconduct” unless it is—emphasis added:

a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; the respondent committed the research misconduct intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly; and the allegation be proven by preponderance of the evidence.

But Claudine Gay’s community manifestly accepts her practices because her community reviewed and published her papers. Harvard’s inquiry committee will certainly note that the complaint did not even attempt to prove Gay’s plagiarism was intentional, knowing, or reckless. Assessment ended; no inquiry needed.

Harvard’s honor code does not carve out such exemptions for students whereby plagiarism is not misconduct. Instead, its honor code states that:

plagiarizing or misrepresenting the ideas or language of someone else as one’s own, falsifying data, or any other instance of academic dishonesty violates the standards of our community, as well as the standards of the wider world of learning and affairs.

Even if the author plagiarized recently, and did so intentionally, knowingly, and recklessly, and even if the complainant was a non-conservative person of color acting in good faith—perhaps the complainant failed to furnish proof all the required elements of “misconduct.”—complaint dismissed.

Harvard’s draft interim document contains sections VI. PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT OF ALLEGATIONS and VIII. THE INQUIRY, which explain that “an investigation is warranted if … there is a reasonable basis for concluding that the allegation falls within the definition of research misconduct.” But the “inquiry” itself does not even begin unless an initial “assessment” recommends an “inquiry.”

It is noteworthy that Harvard’s draft policy on research misconduct is copied from the U.S. Public Health Services policy, which is perhaps the most lenient standard among federal agencies. This standard could arguably be applied to Harvard’s medical school, which receives substantial funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but the standard is much lower than what Harvard imposes on its very own students:

If you copy language word for word from another source and use that language in your paper, you are plagiarizing verbatim. Even if you write down your own ideas in your own words and place them around text that you’ve drawn directly from a source, you must give credit to the author of the source material, either by placing the source material in quotation marks and providing a clear citation, or by paraphrasing the source material and providing a clear citation.

Harvard’s student handbook—page 36—further elaborates:

Quotations must be placed properly within quotation marks and must be cited fully. In addition, all paraphrased material must be acknowledged completely. Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated (see also “Submission of the Same Work to More Than One Course”).

This standard is considerably higher than the one promulgated by NIH—and copied by Harvard’s draft interim policy. NIH permits authors to recycle their work without citation—also called “duplicate publication” or “self-plagiarism.” Although Harvard’s students shouldn’t submit a single work in multiple courses, its faculty can publish a single work in multiple journals, thereby collecting multiple publication credits for a single result. Outside of Harvard—and even within Harvard’s student body—it is considered fraud to receive credit for a contribution and then later to receive credit again as though it were still novel.

Harvard’s students must “affirm” their awareness of the honor code. This affirmation provides prima facie evidence, whenever needed by Harvard prosecutors, that a student’s later violations are knowing and/or reckless. Faculty and administrators, however, do not sign this affirmation.

Harvard’s draft interim policy does not even contemplate that a complainant would wish to appeal an “assessment” or “inquiry” that fails to initiate an “investigation.” At no point does the draft interim policy require Harvard to notify the complainant of the results of the “assessment” or “inquiry” or “investigation,” nor does it provide for the complainant to receive a copy of written reports at these phases. The complainant is out of the loop.

Such lack of transparency at odds with the guidelines and flowcharts published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE’s flowchart not only requires notifying a complainant of an outcome, it emphasizes this final step in all caps. Moreover, COPE does not even disparage “the person who originally raised the concern” with the word “complainant.” After all, if you see a burning building and dial 911, you are not “complaining” or “alleging,” you are simply making a report concerning what you observed.

If there is an outcome to your investigation, such as a correction or retraction, inform the person who originally raised the concern.

As a point of comparison, the blare of a fire alarm will summon emergency responders, even though it is not not a person or a “complainant.” More than 14,000 publishers, journals, and universities have joined as COPE members. But not Harvard.

It is important, of course, for Harvard to avoid any “investigation” whatsoever of research misconduct. According to the draft interim policy, section IX. THE INVESTIGATION, Harvard’s RIO will “transmit to the applicable funding agency a copy of the final investigation report with all attachments.” By aborting an investigation altogether, Harvard avoids notifying federal funding agencies and making records of misconduct.

Concealment of misconduct is good for everyone involved—the author, the university, the publisher, and the funding agency. Concealment is also good for the wider community of stakeholders, including alumni. Dismissing reports of research misconduct is a win-win-win-win strategy for Harvard and for every university with a policy like Harvard’s.

It is noteworthy that Harvard did not submit statistics to Rep. Foxx’s committee, such as how many reports of plagiarism it received in each of the past ten years; how many assessments it performed; how many inquiries it then performed; how many investigations it then performed; and how many findings of misconduct resulted. Such statistics would demonstrate where most of the leaks can be found in the misconduct-examination pipeline.

Obviously, if you are the RIO and you receive 1000 reports of plagiarism per year, you would be wise to assess that none of them deserve an assessment. But even if you did decide to assess 100 of the 1000 reports, you would be wise to conclude that none deserves an inquiry. But even if you did decide to inquire into 10 of them, you would be wise to conclude that none of them deserve investigation. After all, there is no oversight and no appeal process in the event of arbitrary and capricious dismissals of complaints. This ensures research integrity at your elite institution, even if Rep. Foxx’s committee is not convinced.

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  • Ozlam Fisek

    Ozlam Fisek is an independent analyst in Florida, with an interest in documenting trends in academic publishing and an avid fan of PubPeer.

One thought on “Harvard’s Plagiarism Review Process is a Joke”

  1. “Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a
    student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated (see also “Submission of the Same Work to More Than One Course”).

    I have always had problems with this for three reasons:

    First, plagiarism is theft — you are stealing the work of another and claiming it as your own. I look at it along the lines of copyright law where one has ownership rights to one’s work and can use it for whatever one damn well pleases. One may hand out as many non-exclusive licenses as one wishes. And as to submitting to multiple publications, how is that different from holding a press conference to announce your findings, with various media outlets aware of the possibility of being “scooped” by competitors?

    Or both Walmart and Target both being able to sell Taylor Swift CDs?

    The purpose of publication is to share knowledge with the world, or at least as large a portion of the world as possible. In the 21st Century there is no justification for a relatively few journal publishers to hold the monopoly powers which they do — not only charging exorbitant prices to academic libraries for access to content that they aren’t even paying their authors royalties for, and then preventing their (few) competitors from publishing it until they decide they don”t want to. They largely aren’t even incurring the cost of physically printing and distributing a paper journal anymore — and then look at what they are charging!!!

    That isn’t what the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was intended to prevent?

    And as to students, isn’t the goal being their understanding the content of a course well enough to be apply it elsewhere? Hence notwithstanding the additional issues I mention below, what is the harm of students not citing their own prior academic work? Call me a realist, but this is where the kid actually (at some point) *did* the work — we now have a pandemic of plagiarism and I’m more concerned with cases where the kid *didn’t*.

    Imagine if Taylor Swift wasn’t permitted to self-plagiarize and instead had to have a completely new roster of songs for each concert — she wouldn’t have very many concerts. They also wouldn’t be well attended — people are paying to hear her sing songs that they have largely already heard before, that she’s already sung in a dozen different cities before this performance and will sing in a dozen more before the tour ends. Beyond that is the fact that no two live concerts are identical — there will always be nuances of difference starting with the acoustics of the building. So it’s a unique product.

    I argue that self-plagiarism is similar. If I am citing the work of another, those words are fixed in concrete. But even if I quote a paragraph from a paper that I wrote five years ago, I’ve changed and very likely do not mean exactly what I meant back then. Do that to another and it’s called “quoting out of context”, do it to yourself and it’s called “editing.”

    Take Taylor Swift — if she learns that she is mispronouncing a word in one of her songs, she is going to learn how to pronounce it correctly. It’s still the same identical song — but it isn’t. A better example would be Dire Straits removing a whole verse from Money for Nothing because it contained the word “faggot.”

    This leads to my second point — Big Pharma routinely changes a drug slightly so as to extend the time before it goes generic and can be manufactured by others. They are able to “reset the clock” because they technically have a brand new drug.

    What prevents one so inclined from doing the exact same thing today?

    So you cite your prior research — big deal if someone doesn’t have it in front of them (and possibly hasn’t ever read it) — the purpose of citations is to refer the reader to the source of the information which is you. I’d much rather see self-plagiarism and previously published data republished in the current paper than to see a vague promise that I will find it in some archival document (and not always find it there).

    Remember that this is supposed to be about conveying knowledge, not getting promoted — and if someone has essentially republished the same paper five times, that is something that the search committee (or search firm) ought to catch, regardless of if the author self-cited or not.

    Personally, I have always considered self-citation to be both pompous and arrogant. OK, you got some journal to publish your prior paper — but so did Alan Sokal. And as to the CV, the real issue is how many other scholars have cited the work listed, if any.

    But my third and biggest concern involves fairness to the scholar. We’re all using word processors now, removing entire paragraphs with a keystroke, and how many of us remember exactly which sentences we left in and which ones we took out? And if you are describing something you know well, it is inevitable that you are going to use a lot of the same words and even sentences to do so — not because you are plagiarizing your past work but because you are using the same words again.

    Writing style and word usage is like a fingerprint — but your fingerprint is going to be your fingerprint. It’s going to sound like something you wrote — because you did…

    And as to ideas and facts in general, you are the original source and a requirement that one keep track of when one developed every idea or learned every fact is — quite frankly — asinine. I’ve been saying that higher education is dying for thirty years now although I have developed this over the years, it’s not the same idea that I had as a first-year graduate student — it wasn’t until 15 years ago that we learned how few babies were born in 2008 (which will be impacting higher ed in 2016). It wasn’t until Donald Trump’s Presidency that we saw the extent of the divide between academia and the middle class, etc. Conversely there are things I never anticipated, such as the use of facial identification technology to identify students after the fact.

    The only purpose of citations is to provide a reference back to the original source — me. I know what I am thinking today in 2024 and why I think it — and that I was thinking along the same general terms in 1994, but exactly what I was thinking then, exactly what I was thinking in 2004 and how it differed from what I was thinking in 2014 — how am I supposed to make a defensible determination?!?

    And when one realizes that all reports must be made “in good faith”, this will become nothing more than an extension of the double standard that already exists in higher ed. The Claudine Gays will continue to get away with the flagrant plagiarism of others, while nebulous concepts of self-plagiarism will be used to crucify conservative students and white heterosexual males in general.

    This is already happening — the facial recognization technology isn’t used to identify all the students present at a disturbance — it somehow is only able to identify the conservative ones, and they are the only ones being expelled. I think that fact alone is enough to fear self-plagiarism.

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