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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