The Plagiarism Witch Hunt Is On! And It’s Your Fault.

Claudine Gay’s recent spectacular flameout has sparked a smoldering brushfire over academic plagiarism.

Suddenly, we are seeing plagiarism everywhere. Shortly after the exposure of Gay’s sins, Neri Oxman, who is a Harvard professor herself, and the wife of Bill Ackman—the hedge fund manager that led a donor’s backlash against Harvard’s tolerance of anti-Semitism—was accused of it. The fact that Oxman is white has not deterred accusations that uncovering plagiarism is the right’s new weapon to purge black women from academia. In an ironic twist, Francesca Gino, a Harvard “honesty researcher,” stands accused of plagiarism herself. Naturally, all this is part of the right’s racist attack on science, intellectuals, and academics led by the bête noir Chris Rufo, who is being accused of leading a white supremacist “scalping” party against professors he doesn’t like. No worries, this professor provides a helpful guide to thwart the stupid right-wing demons.

In summary, it’s your classic cluster-you-know-what.

Such things usually end when everybody walks away from the debris, shrugs their shoulders, and waits for the next one. But there is some edification lurking in this one because plagiarism, not to be excused in any way, is actually a symptom of a deeper problem. The plagiarism problem will only be solved when that deeper problem is addressed.

C. Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) is best known for Parkinson’s Law—”work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”[1] Parkinson’s legacy extends far beyond his eponymous law, however: he was a witty and wide-ranging critic of the administrative and corporate state.[2] One “law,” which Parkinson never named but which I will call Parkinson’s Corollary of the Perfect Corporation, is at the heart of the academy’s present malaise.

According to Parkinson, organizations follow a predictable arc, each stage set by its predecessor. Initially, the organization is driven by creative vitality, which plays out in a milieu of “chaotic squalor.” Transitory workspaces pop up in unusual places—under stairwells, in shabby buildings—and disappear as new needs arise. People come and go on missions that, to the outside observer, look to be inscrutable but are crystal clear to the people involved.

Out of that can come success and, often, wealth. This sets the organization’s next stage: the need to manage it. People with organizational talent are brought in, organization charts are drafted, mission statements are set down, and ancillary personnel are brought in to handle the inevitable drudge work of accounting, hiring, firing, and many other onerous functions. After a time, new administrative quarters are built, often with glittering accoutrements. The creatives depart or are superannuated to be replaced by others more suitable to the growing managerial regime. This stage, Parkinson notes, marks an organization that is “on the point of collapse.” To quote Parkinson:

During a period of exciting discovery or progress, there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death. [emphasis added]

This pretty much describes the state of the modern academy. Out of exciting beginnings, the administrative university Benjamin Ginsberg warned us about more than a decade ago has now matured—if I may use that word—into Parkinsonian perfection: a glittering, perfectly organized, hollow, and brain-dead shell. [3]

Looked at this way, it should not surprise anyone that plagiarism should be rampant in our modern universities. As the administrative university has grown, so too have demands for accountability and for evidence of sound management. This is quite natural: people footing the bill—increasingly federal funding of research and education, and therefore taxpayers—have every right to know how their money is being spent.

The administrative university’s response has been to establish and count metrics of academic productivity, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Number of publications per year is one easy metric, and there are a lot of these to count. More than five million academic articles were published worldwide in 2022, building on a five-year growth rate of about 23 percent. Outlets to accommodate this flood of knowledge are equally prolific: there are nearly 47,000 academic journals presently in print, and their numbers have grown by roughly 90 percent since 2000.

These are impressive numbers for administrations to tout. “See? Look at all the new knowledge your money is paying for! Where else will you see 5-year growths of 23 percent?” Like everything else about the administrative university, the numbers are as hollow as the administrations that deploy them. To be sure, intellectual breakthroughs do happen, but at a rate that seems unrelated to the amount of money spent.[4] The overall effect is a proliferation of weeds in the academic publishing ecosystem, overwhelmingly populated by publications that are never read, never advance the frontiers of knowledge, and are marked by a disturbingly high incidence of incompetence and downright fraud.

This is not to say that academic publications do not have value. On the contrary, they are very valuable: their value is just not what publications are supposed to be, that is, media of communication between scholars. In the new academic ecosystem, their value lies in being tokens for promotion, prestige, and tenure. It does not matter what the publications say. As such, they are susceptible to the many abuses of academic publishing we see today: misrepresentation, fraud, the proliferation of “predatory journals,” the “retraction epidemic,” and, yes, plagiarism. With the advent of online tools for sniffing out plagiarism, we are likely to be seeing a lot more come to light. But nobody will care because nobody reads academic publications anymore. What matters is the count, not the content.

How to respond to this?

We could descend into a plagiarism witch hunt, but we already have lots of experience with that, and it has had no good effect. Nor has the outcome of plagiarism witch hunts ever been uplifting. The problem has not yielded to better management and oversight, either: Robert K Merton raised concerns over this five decades ago.[5] There have been several attempts over the years to police academic misconduct, including plagiarism. The federal Office of Research Integrity was established in 1985, with the NSF and NIH following suit. Forty years on, the problem is still with us, a clear mark of custodial failure. The uncomfortable fact is this: where a rewards system exists, and there are benefits to be gleaned, “gaming” the rewards system inevitably follows.[6] As one safeguard is erected, new ingenious workarounds will be devised to keep the grift going.

What, then, to do?

No one should be surprised that academic publishing is rife with plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. Nor should anyone be surprised that the scientific literature is rampant with mediocrity, as exemplified in Claudine Gay’s tedious curriculum vitae. How could such a person be elevated to a high academic office, many have asked? Here is the uncomfortable truth: the modern academic ecosystem is structured to incentivize and reward plagiarism and mediocrity.[7]

We have been brought to this point by the inexorable logic of Parkinson’s Corollary of the Perfect Corporation. Building the Perfect Corporation is an expensive undertaking. In the modern university, this has been made evident by the extraordinary bloat of administrators that has occurred over the past few decades. This is not some force of nature: it is being paid for by the exponential growth of revenue streams—mostly federal monies—flowing into the academies. The solution should be obvious: cut off the oxygen and remove the government funding that is fueling the cultural rot. Only in this way will the network of perverse incentives that have driven the modern academy to Parkinson’s “point of collapse” be disentangled.

Pulling our universities back from the brink of collapse will mean restoring the “chaotic squalor” Parkinson identified as the mark of a vital and creative enterprise. As obvious as the solution might be, implementing it will be painful and nigh impossible because a great deal of money and power depends upon keeping the hollow and brain-dead academy shuffling forward in its zombie walk. And nobody voluntarily gives up money and power. It has to be taken from them.

[1] Parkinson, C. N. (1955). Parkinson’s Law. The Economist. London, The Economist Group. November 19th, 1955: 9pp.

[2] Parkinson, C. N. (1957). Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration. New York, Houghton Mifflin.

[3] Ginsberg, B. (2011). The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Oxford University Press, USA.

[4] Park, M., E. Leahey and R. J. Funk (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature 613(7942): 138-144.

[5] Merton, R. K. (1973). The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations, University of Chicago Press.

[6] Biagioli, M., M. Kenney, et al. (2019). Academic misconduct, misrepresentation and gaming: A reassessment. Research Policy 48(2): 401-413.
Oravec, J. A. (2019). The “Dark Side” of academics? Emerging issues in the gaming and manipulation of metrics in higher education. The Review of Higher Education 42(3): 859-877.
Strielkowski, W. and O. Chigisheva (2018). Research functionality and academic publishing: gaming with altmetrics in the digital age. Economics & Sociology 11(4): 306.

[7] Turner, S. P. and D. E. Chubin (2020). The Changing Temptations of Science. Issues in Science and Technology 36(3): 40-46.

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  • J. Scott Turner

    J Scott Turner is Emeritus Professor of Biology at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of The Extended Organism: the Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000, Harvard University Press), and Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (2017, HarperOne). He is presently Director of Science Programs at the National Association of Scholars.

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One thought on “The Plagiarism Witch Hunt Is On! And It’s Your Fault.”

  1. The problem is that the research university was a product of the 50 years war (1941-1991) when we relied on our universities to provide for the national defense through research — and that the war ended a generation ago…

    During WWII there were a variety of classified programs such as the Manhattan Project ($27 Billion in today’s money), and that involved the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of California — although the initial research in the 1930s had not been Federally funded. Much other war-related research could not be publicly documented, and the OSS (who even employed Julia Child) was notorious for not documenting anything — there was an influx of Federal money that hadn’t existed before.

    Then the 1957 launch of Sputnik (which only remained in orbit for 3 months) ignited American education the way that nothing else ever had. It led to the 1958 National Defense Education Act and then the 1965 Higher Education Act and the massive amount of Federal money that Higher Ed didn’t used to have.

    That Higher Ed didn’t use to have…

    Remember that most state colleges started as normal schools (teacher’s colleges) in the first half of the 19th Century, and that most state universities started as Morrill Land Grant Colleges in the second half of the 19th Century. (There were three Morrill Acts, the first of which was in 1863.) And the private institutions were all pretty much established by the end of the 19th Century — all existed for at least a half century without the Federal largess.

    Teaching was the primary objective and primary business of Higher Education.

    Prior to the 1960s, female K-12 teachers were not allowed to be married, with most of them only teaching for a few years until they got married and started their own families. Hence even though it was largely just Grades 1-8 with most normal schools offering two year degrees, there was a great need for new teachers to replace those who were leaving each year.

    Justin Morrill’s stated purpose of the Land Grant College was to teach young men “scientific agriculture and mechanical arts” (i.e. engineering). Again a concentration on undergraduate education with a vocational focus. These colleges also taught “military tactics” which, prior to the creation of the academies, served as the training for police officers and firefighters.

    And the private colleges were largely started by religious denominations to either train clergy (that’s why Harvard was founded) and/or to educate the children of the particular denomination — and this was in a time when there was a great deal more religious prejudice than there is today, the antics of Team Hamas notwithstanding. Again the primary purpose being undergraduate education with a vocational focus.

    I do need to be clear on one thing though — they knew that they were also educating future voters, future jurors, and future selectmen. The normal schools knew that they were not only educating future teachers but future mothers who would usually be the best educated person in not just the household but the neighborhood. (My grandmother graduated from a normal school having learned Latin, Greek, and how to play the piano — once married, she was elected selectman “because she’d been to college.”)

    One also needs to remember that prior to WWII, much of the country existed on subsistence agriculture, even those with jobs in town. One ate with the seasons, and one “put food by” (preserved) food for the winter — one canned, dried, and salted food because it wouldn’t be available, at any price, in January. Suburban homes had fruit trees, grape arbors and raspberry bushes, it was not uncommon to have a cow and chickens as well.

    So while there was a clear focus on vocational education of undergraduates, it isn’t like we consider vocational education today. They intent was also to create good citizens who could also contribute to their household — the male student studying engineering would likely also learn a bit about animal husbandry, and the female student studying education would also take a few courses in home economics.

    The primary focus was on teaching — that’s what professors were paid to do and why institutions of higher education existed.

    And then came the fifty years of war, which changed everything…

    It’s not that we are publishing five million academic articles a year in some 47,000 academic journals but that we are producing functionally illiterate college graduates. They can’t read well, they can’t write well, and they definitely can’t think — they’ve memorized the politically correct mantra of what they are supposed to think, but they don’t have a clue as to why they do.

    Trying to discuss something like an electric car mandate with them is exasperating. A “Level 2” charger (single phase 240 volt for home overnight use) can take up to 19.2 kilowatts*, or 19,200 watts. That’s 80 amps at 240 volts so you have to hire an electrician to upgrade your service (breaker box) to a 200 amp one. It will work fine….

    ….as long as no one else in your neighborhood has an electric car….

    The problem is that the average house is using, on average, about 1,200 watts because not everyone has everything on at the same time, and the electric company has built the grid on the presumption that providing an average of 2000 watts (2 kilowatts) to each house they will have plenty because 1.2 is less than 2.

    But if everyone starts using 19.2 kilowatts* to charge their car, in addition to the 1.2 kilowatts they are using for everything else, i.e. 20.4 kilowatts, it’s going to fry the whole grid because 20.4 is over ten times the 2.0 that the system is built for.

    My guess is that everyone reading this can understand this — these little darlings can’t. And I’m not going to get into where they think the electricity is going to come from — “out of the wall” is not the answer….

    Hence I am going to go a lot further than Dr. Turner and suggest that we need to eliminate research and go back to concentrating on teaching. I’m not sure how we fairly evaluate teaching — and I say that as someone with a relevant doctorate in the field. But higher education needs to return to the reality of research being something professors do on their own time, while they are paid to teach. The Cold War ended 33 years ago, and it’s time that Higher Education adjusted to that reality.

    After all, even if Claudine Gay hadn’t plagiarized her CV, could it really be compared to the CVs Harvard Presidents prior to 1941?

    And one other thing:
    “Where else will you see 5-year growths of 23 percent?”

    Inflation, if things keep going the way they are — I’d be happy if it was ONLY 23 percent over five years as that would be 4.6 percent a year and I believe it is higher than that.

    Middle America is not impressed with Team Hamas and people are already saying that it’s going to swing some elections. And these little darlings aren’t going to go home when the semester ends — we’re going to be dealing with this all summer.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some dramatic cuts in Higher Ed funding….

    * In fairness, that number is peak (highest) consumption, but peak is what you have to worry about. Even if one uses a figure of 7 kilowatts, which they appear to consume once they’ve been charging for a while, that (and the 1.2 that the house is also using) is over four times what the grid is built for. We aren’t talking about a little bit over here…

    I probably should add that kilowatt is current load (think amount of water coming out of a hose) while kilowattHOUR is the amount of water that came out of that hose over the past hour. That’s what you are billed for. Sort of.

    The problem is that it matters what you are using right now because as you approach the capacity of the system, the voltage drops. That’s what a “brownout” is — and then the utility has to “shed load” which means turning off neighborhoods….

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