Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford’s president, resigned in August after an investigation found serious flaws in the studies he had overseen for decades.
Claudine Gay, Harvard’s president, resigned as the new year dawned amid mounting accusations of plagiarism dating back to her graduate student days.
Then Neri Oxman, a former star professor at MIT, was accused of plagiarizing from Wikipedia, among other sources, in her thesis. Her husband, hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, was one of Dr. Ackman’s fiercest critics. And he has vowed to search the archives of the MIT faculty and its president, Sally Kornbluth, for plagiarism.
Attacks on the integrity of higher education have come fast and furious in recent years. The federal Varsity Blues investigation, in which wealthy parents were accused of using bribery and fraud to secure spots for their children at résumé-building colleges, has sparked a debate about merit and the admissions game. The affirmative action against Harvard revealed how Asian American students must be held to higher standards to gain admission. And protests over the Israel-Hamas war have opened administrators up to accusations of tolerating anti-Semitism on their campuses.
Now the focus has shifted to what may be the very soul of higher education: scholarship.
There are differences between the cases — Dr. Tessier-Lavigne and Dr. Gay were the faces of their institutions, while Dr. Oxman is a former faculty member who was well-known in the field of computational design. The defenders of Dr. And unlike Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, they didn’t have to retract any papers.
But recent controversies have helped fuel skepticism that some scholarship isn’t as rigorous as it’s supposed to be.
“It strikes me that this is a problem of the universities themselves,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which maintains a database of retracted papers that now numbers more than 46,000.
“They’ve gone to great lengths to avoid acknowledging how common bad behavior is in academia, and what it does is give ammunition to sometimes – let’s face it – nefarious actors who want to undermine trust or undermine the reputation of a institution”. said Dr. Oransky.
More will probably follow. A congressional committee has announced it will investigate a “hostile takeover” of higher education by “political activists, woke professors and party administrators.”
A cottage industry of research paper review had already emerged over the past two decades, including Retraction Watch, the Center for Open Science, and Data Colada, a blog dedicated to exposing research based on bad data.
The number of retracted research papers has increased dramatically over time, to more than 10,000 retractions internationally in 2023, an annual record, according to the journal Nature, from about 400 papers in 2010, when Retraction Watch began its work. said Dr. Oransky. .
That may be partly because scrutiny has intensified, he said. Nature also blamed the rise of paper mills.
“What’s different this time is the levels at which this seems to be striking – Harvard and Stanford,” Dr Oransky said. “These are stormy events.”
Dr. Gay, a professor of government and African and African-American studies, requested a handful of corrections to citations and citations in her dissertation and research papers. But she stuck to her job and an outside committee cleared her of investigative misconduct.
A review panel found that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist, was not personally involved in or aware of data manipulation, but that “there may have been opportunities to improve laboratory oversight and management.” He agreed to retract three papers and correct two others.
Dr Oxman, a renowned architect and designer, apologized on social media for some attribution errors in her thesis.
Not everyone believes that academia is full of fraud.
Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said he was disappointed that in their efforts to defend Dr. Gay, some academics had suggested that plagiarism was common in their classrooms.
“I saw some of Claudine’s defenses as false confessions of misconduct that did not actually occur at the level her defenders wanted to suggest,” said Dr. Bos. “The argument ‘goes on all the time.’
Dr. Gay is accused of copying, with slight paraphrasing, two passages from the work of Dr. Voss in her dissertation.
Dr. Voss said it didn’t bother him, as he was her professor at Harvard, helping teach her quantitative analysis, and later her colleague in the same lab. “It would be very natural for her to borrow ideas from me,” he said. “Claudine Gay’s story will force everyone to be a little more careful about reporting.”
The Internet and software such as Turnitin, which targets academic publishing and research, can make it easier to spot plagiarism. And plagiarism watchers are waiting to see what the future of AI will bring — more plagiarism or better detection?
But so far, this software has been used more against students than against faculty and administrators.
Many scholars worry that attacks on the research will be used by politicians, donors, and even other scholars as a pretext to go after their ideological enemies.
“Widespread suspicion of intellectuals and academics is a rich vein in American culture, and recent events have supported it,” said Dr. Bos.
Mr. Ackman, head of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, has been an outspoken critic of Dr. Gay at Harvard, from her handling of anti-Semitism on campus to her advocacy for diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Accusations of plagiarism against her became part of his attack.
After Dr. Gay announced that she would step down as chair but remain on the faculty, Mr. Ackman posted on X: “It wouldn’t be a bad thing for her to stay on the faculty if she didn’t have serious plagiarism issues. Students are forced to withdraw for much less.”
Mr. Ackman declined to comment for this article.
It’s this kind of attack that concerns Jonathan Bailey, a copyright and plagiarism consultant who also runs the website Plagiarism Today. “There’s a lot of concern that the heat has been turned up and the people doing the ratings don’t necessarily have academic research or journalistic integrity in mind,” he said.
Just as the new charges dribbled against Dr. Gay until the day before her resignation, they continued against Dr. Oxman. On Thursday, Retraction Watch published a blog article saying its thesis had about 100 words without a quote or citation from an article published in Physics World in 2000. The blog said it learned about the overlap from Steve Haake, a sports engineer who wrote the original article.
“I have never intentionally presented someone else’s words or ideas as my own,” Dr. Oxman said in a statement emailed through a representative for her husband on Friday, the day after the Retraction Watch item appeared. “In the process of writing a 330-page thesis, I lost a few footnotes and a few quotation marks. If AI software had been available in 2009, I could have avoided these errors. Mistakes are just a function of my humanity.”
Even so, attacks on academic integrity are bound to continue. “While President Gay’s resignation is welcome news, the problems at Harvard are much bigger than one leader, and the committee’s oversight will continue,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, who chairs the Education and Workforce Committee. Parliament, after Dr. Gay resigns on January 2.
There was a similar crisis of confidence in universities in the 1980s, as questions were raised about plagiarism and fabricated data in scientific research, including at Harvard. Al Gore, D-Tennessee at the time, and Representative John Dingell Jr., D-Michigan, among others, held oversight hearings.
Academics argued that investigative misconduct was rare and politicians argued that it was underreported, according to a history released by federal agencies. Many of those who testified minimized the problem or said that criminalizing scientific fraud would create a climate of fear that would hinder research.
In the current controversy, Harvard responded through a defamation lawyer when the New York Post first brought allegations of plagiarism against Dr. Gay. Mr. Ackman, writing in X, called in lawyers and asked Business Insider — which first reported the plagiarism allegations against Dr. Oxman – to “suspend” his stories.
“I don’t want to say that history is repeating itself, but there are shades of that,” Dr. Oransky said. Neither side, he predicted, is likely to back down. “These are really high stakes.”
Kirsten Noyes and Alain Delaquerière contributed to the research.