The plagiarism circus

« previous post | next post »

The plagiarism circus has added second and third rings, and a sideshow.

Ring #1: This all started on 12/10/2023, with politically-motivated accusations of plagiarism against the former Harvard president, Claudine Gay. For details and a timeline, see "The plagiarism allegations against ex-Harvard president Claudine Gay, explained", WaPo 1/4/2024.

Bill Ackman and others used those charges to campaign successfully for Gay's ouster. See"Who is Bill Ackman, the hedge-fund billionaire who used corporate-raider tactics to push out Harvard’s president?", MarketWatch 1/5/2024.

Ring #2: It turns out that Ackman's wife, a former MIT faculty member, is vulnerable to similar (or worse) charges:

"Bill Ackman's celebrity academic wife Neri Oxman's dissertation is marred by plagiarism", Business Insider 1/4/2024;
"Academic celebrity Neri Oxman plagiarized from Wikipedia, scholars, a textbook, and other sources without any attribution", Business Insider 1/5/2024;
"Wife of Investor Who Pushed for Harvard President’s Exit Is Accused of Plagiarism", NYT 1/4/5/2024;
"Bill Ackman’s Wife, Neri Oxman, Apologizes for Plagiarism in Her 2010 Dissertation", WSJ 1/5/2024.

Ring #3: "Ackman Plans to Check MIT’s Kornbluth, Staff for Plagiarism", Bloomberg 1/5/2024:

Bill Ackman ramped up his campaign against Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth, saying he will begin checks on the work of all of the school’s current faculty members for plagiarism.

The move, announced Friday in a post on X, comes after Business Insider expanded its allegations of plagiarism against Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, a former MIT professor. The billionaire investor said that faculty members, including Kornbluth and MIT board members, will be subject to checks using MIT’s own plagiarism standards.

“We will share our findings in the public domain as they are completed in the spirit of transparency,” Ackman said, adding that “it is unfortunate that my actions to address problems in higher education have led to these attacks on my family.”

These checks will be very hard to do honestly, and are likely to result in false or misleading claims. Why? Read Ian Bogost: "The Plagiarism War Has Begun: Claudine Gay was taken down by a politically motivated investigation. Would the same approach work for any academic?", The Atlantic 1/4/2024. You should read the whole thing, but here's the skeleton of his investigation:

For the past couple of decades, I’ve been a professor at elite research universities; I’ve published 150 or so scholarly articles and conference papers, and 10 books. Might any of these contain the sort of improprieties that led to a university president’s downfall? I felt sure the answer was no, but the question lingered in my mind and was echoed in the claims of the other academics who have lately rushed to Gay’s defense. […]

So, as a simple experiment, I decided to launch a targeted plagiarism investigation of myself to see if similar scrutiny of my dissertation, performed for no good reason, could deliver similar results. […]

Jonathan Bailey, a copyright and plagiarism consultant who also runs the plagiarism-news website Plagiarism Today, told me that the analysis of Gay’s dissertation is likely to have been carried out with iThenticate, an online service run by the same company that operates the popular student-oriented plagiarism detector Turnitin. […]

On December 29, I downloaded my thesis from the institutional repository at UCLA, where I had earned my doctorate, signed up for an iThenticate account, and arranged for The Atlantic to pay the standard rate of $300 to analyze my dissertation’s 68,038 words.

His dissertation's score was 74.

Was I a plagiarist? This, apparently, was my answer. Plagiarism isn’t normally summed up as a number, so I didn’t know quite how to respond. It seemed plausible that 74 might be a good score. Turns out it wasn’t: The number describes what percentage of a document’s material is similar to text from its database of reference works. My result—my 74—suggested that three-quarters of my dissertation had been copied from other sources. “What the heck?” I said aloud, except I didn’t say “heck.

But (hours of) detailed investigation lowered that score to 0. To start with, he published the dissertation as a book — massive copying there — and others had quoted him in later works.

I wrote the dissertation from 2002 to 2004, and the plagiarism software checks a work against whatever it finds—even if the compared text was published later. As Bailey told me, “iThenticate doesn’t detect plagiarism. It detects copied or similar text.” From there, Bailey said, “You have to do a lot of manual work.” […]

Once I’d excluded the literal copies of (and commentaries upon) my own work from the analysis, my similarity index dropped to 26 percent. Phew! But iThenticate still listed 288 possible sources of copying. Exonerating myself was going to take a while.

I noticed that a lot of the matches were citations of other books, articles, or materials. iThenticate has a checkbox to “Exclude bibliography,” so I ticked it. Now my score was down to 23. Other matches were literal quotes, which I had quoted with footnotes to their sources. Ticking another checkbox, “Exclude quotes,” brought my similarity index to 9. […]

The institutional-archive copy of my dissertation had added a line to the footer of each page, “Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.” iThenticate had matched a dozen or more other dissertations with the same notice, including “Pathogenesis of Bartonella Henselae in the Domestic Cat” and “Hyperdeprivation and Race-Specific Homicide, 1980–1990.” Laboriously excluding those and similar materials left me with 87 potential instances of plagiarism, and a similarity index of 3. […]

I carefully reviewed the matches that remained. Some were just citations of my work. Others were appropriately footnoted quotations that I’d used, but that iThenticate hadn’t construed as such because they were indented in the text. I also had to click through titles or other proper names that were showing up as copied phrases. Bibliographic citations that the filter hadn’t caught came up too. So did a lot of textual noise—phrases such as to preserve the, which appeared in similar patterns across unrelated materials.

After a couple of hours of work, I still had 60 individual entries to review, each requiring precision mousing to assess and exclude. Determined to see if I’d copied any original work according to the software, I persisted—after all, some of the instances of plagiarism that had sunk Claudine Gay were measured in the tens of words. But not one single match that iThenticate had found amounted to illegitimate copying. In the end, my dissertation’s fraud factor had dropped from 74 percent to zero.

Maybe Ackman's investigations will be similarly scrupulous — but it will not be a surprise if they aren't.

See also "Daily Briefing: Your old research is kompromat waiting to be discovered", Chronicle of Higher Education 1/5/2024.

The Sideshow: "AI plagiarism",  1/4/2024.

For my opinions about the issues involved, see "Plagiarism: Double (and triple and quadruple) standards", 12/27/2023.

Update — "Bill Ackman says it is a 'near certainty' that academics will improperly cite others' work after his wife admitted to plagiarism", Business Insider 1/7/2024.

In that context, it would be interesting to take a look at (for example) the publications of Christopher Rufo.

See also "Plagiarism Detection Tools Offer a False Sense of Accuracy", The Markup 1/10/2024.


  1. AntC said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 8:28 am

    the plagiarism software checks a work against whatever it finds—even if the compared text was published later.

    That seems … errm … spectacularly stupid.

    Does this software understand nothing about how scholarship builds on scholarship?

    I'm now wondering how much of Gay's alleged plagiarism was such stupidity? (But she did stand down.)

    [(myl) Specific plagiarism claims need to be cited and checked, and obvious things like copies from later dates are then excluded. The copied passages in Gay's work (and in Oxman's work) were cited and checked in that way. But it's easy to see how large-scale checks might result in false or misleading (alleged) plagiarism percentages that are not checked.]

  2. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 9:34 am

    Define “politically motivated”. Is it politically motivated to say that someone who thinks that calls for genocide are OK shouldn’t be president of Harvard? But that is not the real issue. The first amendment doesn’t apply to Harvard, but if it did, then those calls would indeed be context dependent. The real issue is giving such calls for genocide a pass, but ousting people because of imagined microaggressions. In other words, woke=good, anything else (including right wing, but mostly sensible non-right-wing people like Steven Pinker) bad, People who are in the public eye, for whatever reason, including stuff like this obvious hypocrisy, are scrutinized. Plagiarism was found. Real plagiarism. Plagiarism which would cause a student to fail.

    Even without the plagiarism, even without the wokeness, she has something like 11 publications. Even in her field that is pretty close to the bottom of the barrel.

    Completely clear that she was a DEI hire. Note that her resignation letter didn’t mention plaigiarism but claimed that she was ousted by racists. And she struck her deal to a) remain on the faculty and b) continue to collect a salary of $900,000 per year.

  3. Scott P. said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 9:39 am

    "Define “politically motivated”.

    Your post I think stands as a perfect benchmark. Thank you for supplying us with such a useful example.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 10:08 am

    @Phillip Helbig:

    There can be no question that the campaign against Gay was "politically motivated" — the first public accusations were made by Christopher Rufo, whose main focus for several years has been fighting "critical race theory". As far as I can tell, he has no prior interest in plagiarism, and his anti-Gay campaign was clearly motivated by his anti-C.R.T. agenda.

    The fact that the campaign was politically motivated doesn't decide its validity one way or another. And similarly, the accusations against Oxman were clearly motivated by a desire to strike back at Ackman, but that doesn't mean that they're false.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 10:29 am

    « Ring #1: This all started on 12/10/2023, with politically-motivated accusations of plagiarism against the former Harvard president, Claudine Gay. »

    May I suggest a less contentious re-wording ? "Ring #1: This all started on 12/10/2023, with accusations (which some believe to be politically motivated ) of plagiarism against the former Harvard president, Claudine Gay".

    I make this suggestion because, in the U.K. at least, informed comment in respectable publications (e.g., The Guardian, The Spectator, The Economist, …) is pretty evenly split between those who believe that the allegations of plagiarism were/are politically motivated, and those who believe that Gay's appointment in the first place was a put-up job, her academic track record being so weak that it is impossible to believe that she was appointed for any reason than her colour (i.e., what Philip Heilbig terms "a DEI hire" — I had to look the latter up before making this comment). There would appear to be little, if any, common ground.

  6. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 10:43 am

    The fact that the campaign was politically motivated doesn't decide its validity one way or another.

    But you did choose to mention that it was…

    Anyway, prosecuting people for offences unrelated to their main "thing" has a long history, and Al Capone seems to be the standard reference. Since Gay enjoyed (politically motivated?) protection from above, and did not decide to do the "honourable" thing the way Magill did, her opponents decided to use that approach to, well, hunt her down. Politics. She absolutely could have avoided this.

    Was there anything of linguistic interest in the hearing? This is Language Log after all ;)

  7. Levantine said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 11:19 am

    The campaign against her was certainly politically motivated. Nevertheless, the instances of plagiarism that were uncovered in the process are, in my view, clear and frequent breaches of academic integrity. As an academic myself, I’m very surprised and disheartened by the downplaying of her misconduct by so many in the scholarly community.

  8. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 11:46 am

    > May I suggest a less contentious re-wording ? "Ring #1: This all started on 12/10/2023, with accusations (which some believe to be politically motivated ) of plagiarism against the former Harvard president, Claudine Gay".

    I don't see why this should be re-worded. Obviously, Mark believes it's politically motivated, so with integrity he used the wording. Why should he hide his opinion behind the weaselly "some"?

  9. GH said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 11:52 am

    The New Yorker has an interview with one of the authors she plagiarized, D. Stephen Voss, who has what I found a measured and intelligent take on the whole thing.

    To paraphrase, he argues that yes, she borrowed phrases from other authors, and this is technically plagiarism and definitely bad practice, but that in scholarship, mere wording is less crucial than the ideas, and that she did not (as far as he can tell) steal ideas from other researchers: her publications constitute important original work. He does not consider himself particularly injured by her repeating some fairly boilerplate parts of what he had previously written.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 12:25 pm

    Ambarish — " Why should he hide his opinion behind the weaselly "some" ?" Because he does not say "with accusations of plagiarism which I believe to be politically motivated". He says instead "with politically-motivated accusations of plagiarism", thus presenting this as a fact. It is not a fact, it is a hypothesis, which I for one do not share.

  11. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 12:47 pm

    @GH: I'm pretty sure even the people who brought the accusation up do not genuinely think it's an egregious case. They just needed something, anything, that could be used to oust her once she decided she wouldn't do what Magill did. And since the charges are technically correct, the result is what it is. I would say this kind of thing is not at all untypical in current American politics?

    (BTW my personal opinion is that her not realizing that that would be the next step, and that by dragging out the agony she was ruining not only her own reputation but also that of her employer, should have been enough to sack her as evidently unqualified for such a high-stakes job. But of course this is off-topic on a linguistics blog ;)

    On the other hand, I would be interested in whether Mr Voss is willing to apply this kind of laissez-faire attitude to his own students and recruitees ;)

    On a para-linguistic note, one of the recent posts on here was about AI plagiarism where the methodology of checking whether something was plagarised was essentially the same, i.e. looking for verbatim parallelism. (And the consenus was that the cases will be seen as infringements, costing the tech giants a pretty penny.) But what happens in those increasingly numerous cases where (semi-automatic) synonym replacement is done? Do those fly under the radar? Should they? Are there policies in the current plagiarism regulations at top universities that address this?

  12. Levantine said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 1:04 pm

    GH, the problem with that framing of plagiarism is that isn’t the one that any of us has hitherto subscribed to. Sure, we all know that stealing ideas is worse than stealing words, but both are forms of plagiarism nonetheless, and, as any online academic-integrity guide for students will tell you, both are unacceptable. It’s been almost surreal to watch fellow academics pretend that “reduplicative language” isn’t a big deal when pretty much every university’s plagiarism policy says otherwise.

  13. Levantine said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 1:07 pm

    Philip Taylor, the accusations are politically motivated: the accusers themselves have told us so. That doesn’t mean they’re unfounded, however.

  14. Levantine said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 1:12 pm

    I should have added these excerpts from Harvard’s own plagiarism policy to my post above:

    In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn't matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a website without clear authorship, a website that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else's work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.

    Mosaic Plagiarism

    If you copy bits and pieces from a source (or several sources), changing a few words here and there without either adequately paraphrasing or quoting directly, the result is mosaic plagiarism. Even if you don't intend to copy the source, you may end up with this type of plagiarism as a result of careless note-taking and confusion over where your source's ideas end and your own ideas begin. You may think that you've paraphrased sufficiently or quoted relevant passages, but if you haven't taken careful notes along the way, or if you've cut and pasted from your sources, you can lose track of the boundaries between your own ideas and those of your sources. It's not enough to have good intentions and to cite some of the material you use. You are responsible for making clear distinctions between your ideas and the ideas of the scholars who have informed your work. If you keep track of the ideas that come from your sources and have a clear understanding of how your own ideas differ from those ideas, and you follow the correct citation style, you will avoid mosaic plagiarism.

  15. Rodger C said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 1:16 pm

    But what happens in those increasingly numerous cases where (semi-automatic) synonym replacement is done?

    My students sometimes used synonym-replacement software, presumably available for free. Well, you get what you pay for. The result was obvious, of the kind "the Nobleman is my sheepherder; I won't desire." Either they didn't read what they'd submitted, or their acquaintance with professional-register English was so slight they couldn't tell the difference. Maybe the art has advanced since then.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 2:41 pm

    her academic track record being so weak that it is impossible to believe that she was appointed for any reason than her colour

    Her academic track record is indeed shockingly weak. But the question here is how she became – and remains – a tenured professor at Harvard, not how she became the president of Harvard. The main task of an American university president is fundraising; people's skill at that don't correlate very well with the length of their publication lists.

    Taking credit for anyone else's work is stealing

    Only if they haven't published yet.

    In every case, however, plagiarism is fraud – it makes the plagiator seem smarter than they are. That's why self-plagiarism isn't harmless: it makes it look like the self-plagiator had all their good ideas at once, again making them look smarter than they are.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 2:55 pm

    Rodger C. — I thought that your paraphrase was concocted, until I tried Its version: "The Ruler is my shepherd, I should not need". Sigh.

  18. Haamu said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 3:48 pm

    Anyone who doubts that there's political motivation here need only scan Ackman's X/twitter feed (I won't link to him, but he's easy to find via search or the links already provided) and note not only what he's saying, but what he's retweeting and what his commenters are saying that he's leaving unchallenged.

    Most notable for me, and perhaps most relevant for this blog, is Ackman's enthusiastic use of text-processing technology without, apparently, really understanding what it does. What matters to him is that he's discovered a retribution engine, and it's scalable:

    Ackman: [announces his plans to check the entire MIT faculty]

    Commenter: While you're at it, maybe you could look at instances of plagiarism at business insider.

    Ackman: Done.

    With new technology, plagiarism charges are not merely being weaponized; they are, for the first time, being considered as weapons of mass destruction.

    I'm not saying that intellectual honesty isn't a fit topic for public scrutiny; it certainly is. But it seems as though we're about to embark on an era where that scrutiny becomes more and more lopsided as it is driven more by our tools than our values. Plagiarism is only one aspect of intellectual dishonesty, but it's going to get outsized attention because its detection has been, supposedly, automated. There are many concerns, including both differential access to the detection tools (to deploy them at scale, costs can apparently be substantial) and differential vulnerability, because only certain communities sign on to the relevant moral obligations. (If a hedge fund manager's career could be ruined by a plagiarism charge, this might seem a little more fair.)

    Linguists can help by trying to pin down what constitutes plagiarism (at least from a textual perspective) and how likely it is to occur inadvertently. Building on Bogost's work, someone needs to lay down some rules of the road for what constitutes competent detection. And we need a clarifying values conversation.

  19. Joe said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 3:49 pm

    Coming back on topic a bit after the above "it's not politically motivated if I agree with the explicit political motivation" discourse… I think this is basically a story about linguistic technology. Political activists with no prior interest or expertise in academic dishonesty are now aggressively scanning for plagiarism because it's easy to do so. If everyone's tax returns were public and you could simply drop a Form 1040 into an online interface to somehow get a list of red flags that might be fraud, anti-tax activists would be aggressively scanning the records of Internal Revenue Service tax agents and there would be high-profile resignations over borderline cases because Caesar's wife (if not Ackman's) must be beyond reproach. Of course academics' record of possible sins is uniquely accessible to the public (except behind a paywall) while tax returns are private, but I'm old enough to remember a time when papers were on paper and it would have taken a lot of expert effort to track down possible plagiarism in one single article, by knowing what sources it was likely to draw from even if not cited; scanning the entire MIT faculty's entire output against the entire corpus of academic writing was inconceivable. I'm trying to think of other fields whose writing is public enough to be vulnerable to hostile mass-scanning made easy by this technology, aside from the special case of lawyers as discussed previously: judges? journalists? novelists? government bureaucrats who deliver reports into the public domain? open-source computer programmers?

    On a particular technical note, a few commenters have been surprised about one program's missing option to exclude sources written after the query text. That's probably because the programmers imagined it being used only on freshly written text like newly submitted homework assignments or manuscripts for review, and might not have even indexed their corpus by date in the first place so adding that feature would require them to redo the biggest part of their work. I wonder what other features you'd expect such software to lack given the designers' narrow expectation of what it's used for?

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 4:01 pm

    Am I right that the software that Bogost claims yielded a false positive when applied to his work or some similar product is widely used by university faculty trying to detect plagiarism in student-submitted work? If so, how much follow-up do we think those faculty typically do to assess whether an initial result is a false positive before lowering the student's grade and/or throwing the student into the maw of a formal disciplinary process?

    One plausible (if not well-supported by on-the-record sources) account I saw of former Pres. Gay's demise said that the key turning point was plummeting support among Harvard faculty over the Christmas break as more and more of them could not avoid the conclusion that the various rationales and excuses being offered for the "borrowed language" in Gay's work, however reasonable they sounded in isolation, would not in fact be accepted as defenses if offered by a student in disciplinary trouble, and that holding the president to a more lenient standard than students was not an overt double standard they were willing to be publicly associated with. Now, maybe the truth of the matter is that the standard students have been held to is in certain respects sort of petty and silly and ought to be sensibly revised. Perhaps Harvard or other universities ought to treat this as an opportunity to reconsider such matters in an open-ended way without knowing the political leanings of who will be helped or hurt in the future by any potential revision.

    That process would be helped if a significant number of prominent academics came forward and disclosed instances of their own prior peer-reviewed journal articles that are vulnerable to the same specific criticisms as Dr. Gay's work and say they don't care who knows what they did and didn't cite or block-quote without quotation marks because they don't think they did anything wrong. That's not what Bogost did. Let's see if anyone does it.

  21. RfP said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 4:51 pm

    Coming in late, I feel compelled to interject that it stuns me to see how blind some can be to the genocide happening now—not to mention the ones in preparation as we speak.

    Whatever one’s views on “woke” ideology, please be more wary of reinforcing the “totenkopf” ideology which is growing around us—and which is what’s truly behind the fierce attacks on academia.

    With a “vermin” here
    And an “exterminate” there,
    Here a doxx,
    There a box,
    Everywhere the bombs drop…

  22. Contingent Cassandra said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 6:43 pm

    "Am I right that the software that Bogost claims yielded a false positive when applied to his work or some similar product is widely used by university faculty trying to detect plagiarism in student-submitted work? If so, how much follow-up do we think those faculty typically do to assess whether an initial result is a false positive before lowering the student's grade and/or throwing the student into the maw of a formal disciplinary process?"

    In answer to J.W. Brewer's question above (and coming from the perspective of someone who both teaches primarily undergraduate composition and serves on my large state university's honor board), most university faculty, at least in my experience, do a good deal of hand-checking of the results of mechanical plagiarism checkers before beginning a formal disciplinary process. Most of us are very aware of the kinds of false matches that Bogost experienced, and know to double-check for them (and take the time to double-check, even though we don't really have that time available). The checking software also varies in what it is capable of excluding (for instance, the one my university uses doesn't exclude either quotations or bibliography entries, which means that all results need to be hand-checked, and also that a 0% score on a paper that's supposed to have a substantial bibliography is actually be a sign of potential trouble).

    Some faculty are probably not as careful in checking results as they should be, but I've yet to see such a case at the honor council level. The honor council and the staff who support the honor investigation process are well-informed about what the software can and can't do, so the few students who might be falsely accused on the basis of a faculty member's hasty interpretation of results will not end up being disciplined for nonexistent issues.

    I believe the same is true for software that checks for unauthorized copying in computer code submitted by students, but I admit that I rely more on the expertise of my colleagues in interpreting those results when they come before the honor council, since I have no training in writing code.

    AI detection software is another question. The official position at my university is that there is no AI detection software that is reliable enough to serve as the basis for an honor accusation (or a lowered grade), so I don't even use it. We're clearly getting text from students that sounds very different from what we were getting 13-14 months ago, but proving why that's happening is difficult. Sometimes there are clear instances of false citation where students have plugged in author names from real sources in place of the ones an AI text generator "hallucinated." Those false citation cases (which take quite a while to document; it's hard to be sure that particular information isn't somewhere in a source) are the only ones I've been confident enough send to the honor council so far.

  23. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 6:57 pm

    Like Steven Pinker, Jerry Coyne is someone who is not right-wing by any sensible definition. Those lumping all critics of Gay together are completely off-base.

    Was criticism of Gay politically motivated? Partially. Was her appointment as a tenured professor politically motivated? If she accepted the latter, she can’t complain about the former without being a hypocrite.

    If her main job a president was to make money, and billionaires are no longer donating, for whatever reason, as long as that reason is related to her then it would seem that firing her is the logical consequence.

    Plagiarism is a real problem, made easier by the internet. Plagiarism detection is catching up, also made easier by the internet. Of course it’s stupid if A is accused of plagiarizing B and A’s work is older than B’s. But that is not the case with Gay, and not the case with the many professional academic plagiarism detectors. It might be found in boulevard papers.

    While plagiarism might have brought her down, it couldn’t have had she not committed it. The real problem is the double standard: the woke are allowed to call for genocide, but if the woke complain about imagined micro-aggressions then their enemies get fired. THAT is what got sensible people upset with her in the first place.

    While I’m at it, it is NOT plagiarism in any sensible sense if there is overlap between a thesis and published papers, whichever came first, and whether or not one cited oneself. There is such a thing as throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Had Ackman himself committed plagiarism, then it would be fair to call him a hypocrite. But his WIFE? OK, maybe fair game if she is in his spotlight, but look at the way she is handling it and compare that to Gay.

    It is about language: what she mentioned in the resignation letter and what she didn’t, what do “safe” and “offend” and “free speech” actually mean, how “right wing” used to something like a Nazi and now applies to anyone who thinks that it’s a bad idea for a transvestite to have a wank in a preschool.

  24. Flotsam said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 8:12 pm

    @Phillip Helbig

    I'm pretty sure that anyone who uses the word "wokeness" can be described as politically motivated.

  25. martin schwartz said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 12:18 am

    I just googled "Biden plagiarism". Interesting….

  26. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 6:19 am

    @Philip Helbig: That ending was completely uncalled for, really unnecessary. It detracts hugely from a generally reasonable post.

    @Flotsam: It's true that woke is quite often used as a slur. But quite often it isn't, and it does capture a constellation of beliefs, some of which PH summarized above, for example. Is its use politically motivated? Yes, most of the time. Are the terms "white priviledge" or "oppression" politically motivated?

    The original post was also politically motivated, and that's perfectly OK (albeit, I think, somewhat unfortunate) because this is a private blog, and in addition to being free to say whatever the H he likes, Prof. Liberman was being sufficiently objective.

    Gay got caught in a political storm. My point is that the job of a leader at this level, and in particular that of the president of the world's best university, is hugely political. She should have known it. She evidently made several errors of judgement. Her adversaries think her original error of mishandling the protests was politically motivated (and thus not a bona fide error). Importantly, she misjudged her opponents, and her own combat value. And she got sunk. Nothing to write home about, really. You can make an argument along these lines without using the term woke, that's true. But if you do, I don't think it invalidates it.

    I think it's good that there is a discussion of plagiarism as a by-product of all this. But the use of plagiarism was a technicality, as is the use of some other technicalities in some other politically motivated "hunts". But this is Language Log, not Witch Hunt Log ;) so don't let's go there.

    (There were some interesting linguistic points in the congressional hearing, that's for sure. And in the surrounding/preceding row. But the OP here was not about that.)

  27. A Foote said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 9:39 am

    Mark, thank you for you opinion. I am open to hearing all thoughts on the subject so I can generate my own more educated position in the topic.

    I very much enjoyed reading about your personal explorations into your own writings. It was most insightful to me into the the process of determining whether there were valid instances that needed further review by you.

    I am now of the opinion Dr Gay was not afforded such courtesy before potentially career-ending accusations were publicly leveled against her.

    My disappointed falls on MIT and a concerned that there is now a 'tool' that can be used to do the same to other academics without the benefit of support from their own community.

    As an aside: I encourage at least one commenter in this thread to become educated in the proper definition and historical use of the phrase 'stay woke.'
    It is a phrase used in the black community as a reminder to keep oneself vigilant to potential attacks by racists. The irony of how and by whom the word is used today to attack others is not lost on me.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 10:27 am

    I appreciate Contingent Cassandra's thoughtful and informative response to my question and hope that, in this specific regard, her university is average rather than above-average.

  29. Chester Draws said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 3:35 pm


    Plagiarism is only one aspect of intellectual dishonesty, but it's going to get outsized attention because its detection has been, supposedly, automated.

    Only because now the copying is also automated.

    In the past you had to deliberately plagiarise. If you just took notes, then the text would not reappear.

    Now lazy researchers can copy and paste, and then that text appears in their research paper almost verbatim. I imagine this is what happened to Gay, given how amazingly close it was to the original.

    But do you want an intellectually lazy person leading your university?

  30. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 4:32 pm

    @ A Foote: I'm not quite sure it's a particularly good idea to tell people on here, in patronizing ways, to become more educated wrt issues within linguistics. Most have more than enough education. Are you yourself familiar with the concept of sematic change? Etymological fallacy? I was referring to PH's use of the term, which is well attested. The term's history, while fascinating, is not directly relevant. I would recommend trying John McWhorter in this connection.

  31. David Marjanović said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 4:48 pm

    “right wing” used to something like a Nazi and now applies to anyone

    Whuuuut? In my experience of a few decades, everybody is left-wing or right-wing (or more likely some eclectic mixture of the two), except the few possibly mythical people who are exactly in the center (wherever that really is). Nazis are "extreme right".

  32. Pamela said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 8:00 pm

    Seems like an intersection of several technological pathologies. One is, as the entry notes, people who have written a lot of stuff that goes into the relational database are likely to get flagged for plagiarism themselves–probably on a combination of writing style and a certain carry-over of content, since one rarely wipes the memory clean after finishing a piece. I have even seen commentary from people claiming there is such a thing as "self-plagiarism," a wholly invented violation, possibly by people who don't publish a lot. Second, the sense of plagiarism as a genuine trespass against intellectual honesty has been blunted by institutions like Wikipedia, which is a Niagara Falls of blissful plagiarism, and now a whole generation has been raised on it. Undergraduates are genuinely confused what plagiarism is, or why it is bad; all they really understand is that you get suspended for it. So the definition of plagiarism is reduced to these mindless technicalities, making it look fussy and trivial. A glimmer of hope is coming from the lawsuits against ChatGPT (which is itself a product of this culture of total blindess to plagiarism and why it is wrong). Perhaps the same way students understand plagiarism is bad because you get suspended or expelled, tech entrepreneurs and programmers can understand that copyright violation (a fancy form of plagiarism) is bad because it costs you many many millions of dollars. Perhaps, slowly, the culture can re-learn why intellectual honest and respect for the work of others is essential to progress.

  33. Levantine said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 8:53 pm

    Pamela, could you clarify what you mean by “mindless technicalities” in relation to established definitions of plagiarism?

  34. Seth said,

    January 7, 2024 @ 11:15 pm

    @Pamela – The entrepreneurs and programmers behind ChatGPT are NOT STUPID. They have heard of copyright, _ad nauseum_. The "Google Books" case was an issue for years and years. But Google won. That victory for "fair use" is a very strong basis to believe that ChatGPT is "fair use".

  35. Jon said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 2:58 am

    Definitions of plagiarism, and discussions of it, lump together different behaviours under the same name. I suggest that it would be better to explicitly separate them:

    First degree plagiarism – Use of a significant passage from another's work without attribution.

    Second degree plagiarism – Use of a significant passage from another's work with attribution, but without quotation marks.

    In my opinion, first degree plagiarism is a sacking offence, but second degree plagiarism requires only public acknowledgement and apology as a minor infringement.

  36. Ira Straus said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 12:45 pm

    A dishonest post. The investigation of Gay for her plagiarism began long ago, long before the present campaign to fire her.
    The campaign to fire her was for the express reason that she's OK with anti-semitism as long as it's from the left, and beyond that, she has been a leftist ideological tyrant who has worked actively to suppress free speech and quash research harmful to the left. When people discovered that she was a repeat plagiarist as well, it was realized that Harvard could use this as a pretext to fire her without acknowledging any fault in the real matter: the leftist ideological tyranny at the college.
    Your post is plainly there for the purpose of supporting the mystification and protecting the tyrannical power structure.

  37. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 5:59 pm

    "In every case, however, plagiarism is fraud"
    No, it's not, and people who say so have no idea what fraud is, or what academia thinks plagiarism is, and should stop accusing other people of committing either one.
    We discussed this and other relevant issues on this site fifteen years ago, and anyone who thinks that plagiarism is equivalent to fraud would learn something by reviewing that thread.

  38. Bloix said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 6:09 pm

    PS- the same "plagiarism is always fraud" contention showed up at
    and I showed why it's nonsense in more detail in my comments there.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    January 8, 2024 @ 6:10 pm

    Well, in 2008 you (Bloix) challenged Amherst's statement that "plagiarism is fraud". Yet in 2023 they are still making exactly the same claim :

    What is plagiarism?

    Simply put, plagiarism is fraud: a plagiarist passes off another’s work as his or her own, whether that work takes the form of another’s words, ideas, evidence, proof, or structure of argument.


    Perhaps you should remind them of your position and ask why, 15 years after it was first challenged, the statement is still allowed to stand.

  40. Bloix said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 12:12 am

    Philip Taylor –

    I did not merely "challenge" the Amherst statement. I quoted two sentences, one in which Amherst called plagiarism "fraud" and the other in which Amherst stated that plagiarism can be unintentional and is nonetheless subject to serious punishment. But fraud by definition requires intent; it cannot be unintentional. If all plagiarism is fraud then all plagiarism must be intentional, and, necessarily, something that is not intentional is not plagiarism.

    I said back then that Amherst must not know what fraud is; that was tongue in cheek. Of course it know; it just doesn't care. Why not? Because the definitional inconsistency is helpful to the institution.

    A person who commits fraud is likely a criminal and at least has committed a serious intentional wrong with significant financial consequences. A person who has unintentionally copied boilerplate text has frequently made a trivial mistake which may at most be non-compensable copyright infringement and often is not even that. Once you admit that plagiarism can be unintentional you should logically be forced to concede that at least some plagiarism isn't serious. But, because serious plagiarism is a plague at every university, schools don't want to do that.

    On the other hand, schools don't want to be held to fraud's intent standard when prosecuting a student for plagiarism, because proving intent is frequently very hard. Much easier to put passages side-by-side and say, Look!! Plagiarism!!

    So Amherst – and most schools – waffle. They shout "Fraud!" for the in terrorem effect and then they cut out the intent requirement out of "fraud" to make plagiarism easy to prove. The intellectual corruption needed to close one's eyes to the inconsistency in definition is a small price to pay for the increased prosecutorial power it provides.

    But suddenly a flock of chickens is coming home to roost with a vengeance. After pushing the fraud-without-intent line on students for decades, administrators and faculty members are trying to raise the "I didn't do it on purpose" defense. But they can't, because their institution'sstandards – drafted to make it easy to terrorize 19-year olds – won't let them! Under the rules, there's no such thing as forgivable plagiarism – it's all fraud!!!

  41. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 4:15 am

    I use the term “woke” as shorthand for those beliefs which a) are shared by those who self-identify as woke and b) are usually not shared by anyone else.

    Is there a better term?

    Of course the term has undergone a change of meaning. I find it particularly ironic that the woke (in a motte-and-bailey tactic) often claim that it must still mean what it meant in the 1930s, while at the same time trying to redefine other terms to suit their taste.

  42. Seth said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 6:42 am

    On "woke":

    Any widely-used term is going to acquire a derogatory connotation, hence the endless protest that there is no acceptable term (remember "political correctness", similar dispute).

    The "plagiarism" debate seems caught up in a version of "zero-tolerance" policy. A low-status group is routinely treated harshly and with draconian penalties for any minor violation, then higher-status groups get the policy applied to them. And that gets discussed, since the high-status group has the ability to make their complaints heard.

  43. Pamela said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 11:21 am

    "Pamela, could you clarify what you mean by “mindless technicalities” in relation to established definitions of plagiarism?" I have seen judiciary committees laboring over word counts–how long a string constitutes plagiarism?–and whether a quote mark is as good as a footnote, etc. How many words in sequence are needed to find duplication? What if other words are interjected into passages that are lifted, even if fragmentary, from an unacknowledged source? To me these are mindless technicalities. If you stole the logic and content of something your read without footnoting it, that is plagiarism, regardless how many words are duplicated. If you lifted footnotes to sources you haven't read or discovered on your own, regardless what you have in the text, that is plagiarism. People saying they can explain their plagiarism because they forgot to insert quotation marks on playing those who use mindless technicalities to make their arguments. I should also reassure Seth that I don't think programmers are stupid. I think many are amoral, and morality all to the side, a society cannot continually recycle existing but improperly acknowledged work and think it is getting somewhere. So society has every reason to instill in students and tech vocationalists that whether they have imbibed their own sense of intellectual honesty or not, there will be penalties if they don't act as if they have. As Shakespeare noted (Hamlet 3:4) "Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
    That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat, habits devil, is angel yet in this." Xunzi was all over this too. People will internalize, sooner or later.

  44. David Marjanović said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 1:10 pm

    I have even seen commentary from people claiming there is such a thing as "self-plagiarism," a wholly invented violation, possibly by people who don't publish a lot.

    There is such a thing as self-plagiarism, and it's easily avoided by simply citing your own work wherever appropriate.

    Second, the sense of plagiarism as a genuine trespass against intellectual honesty has been blunted by institutions like Wikipedia, which is a Niagara Falls of blissful plagiarism

    Good Wikipedia articles cite their sources.

    The campaign to fire her was for the express reason that she's OK with anti-semitism as long as it's from the left

    US universities generally seem to have policies that you can say whatever you like unless it leads directly to violence. In other words, anti-semitism from anybody must be allowed until somebody gets physically hurt. And Gay expressed that very badly in her hearing.

    Me, I prefer Germany's idea that liberal democracy has the right to defend itself against such illiberal and tyrannic concepts as anti-semitism, but…

    No, it's not, and people who say so have no idea what fraud is, or what academia thinks plagiarism is, and should stop accusing other people of committing either one.

    Sorry. I certainly agree that plagiarism can be committed by accidental errors of omission.

    The effect is the same as that of fraud, however, regardless if the plagiarism was actually fraudulent, a matter of reckless carelessness, or a consequence of a momentary distraction.

  45. Bloix said,

    January 12, 2024 @ 11:34 pm

    "The effect is the same as that of fraud,"
    No. First, injury is an element of fraud. If the allegedly defrauded person is not injured, then there is no fraud. Plagiarism can take place even if there is no injury – indeed, even if plagiarized party benefits from the plagiarism – otherwise, how could there be self-plagiarism? So, no, the effect is not necessarily the same.
    Second, intent is also an element of fraud.
    Fraud cannot be an accident; it must be the result of a bad actor purposely causing harm to an innocent party for the actor's own benefit. Bad intent is what makes fraud so heinous, and it's what justifies the severe punishments the law provides for it. But the intent must be proven. Why does a university tell its students that plagiarism is fraud but in the next breath says that plagiarism can be unintentional? They say it because they want their students to fear the severe punishments that can be meted out for fraud without bothering with the heightened level of proof required for intentional acts. Any lawyer can see that university plagiarism codes, such as the Amherst code I cited, are designed to permit a university to impose life-altering punishments with the appearance but not the substance of due process.
    When commenters on a blog foolishly pontificate about fraud without knowing what it is, they make annoying errors, but their mistakes are unintentional so they can be forgiven. But universities have legal departments and they damn well know what fraud is. They just don't care, because they want to put the fear of God into their students. And that is contemptible.

  46. Bloix said,

    January 12, 2024 @ 11:40 pm

    PS- when you say that "US universities generally seem to have policies that you can say whatever you like unless it leads directly to violence," you demonstrate that you have no idea what you are talking about. Google "university speech codes" and try to learn something.

RSS feed for comments on this post