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The next battle in higher education could strike at its soul: scholarship

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford’s president, resigned in August after an investigation found serious flaws in studies he oversaw decades ago.

Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned as the new year dawned amid mounting accusations of plagiarism dating back to her years as a graduate student.

Then, Neri Oxman, a former star professor at MIT, was accused of having plagiarized, among other things, Wikipedia in her thesis. Her husband, hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, was one of Dr. Gay’s fiercest critics. And he vowed to scour the archives of MIT faculty and its president, Sally Kornbluth, for plagiarism.

Attacks on the integrity of higher education have increased in recent years. The federal Varsity Blues investigation, in which wealthy parents were accused of using bribery and fraud to secure their children spots at colleges with resumes, has launched a debate about merit and admission rules. The affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard revealed how Asian American students must meet higher standards to gain admission. And protests against the war between Israel and Hamas have exposed administrators to accusations that they tolerated anti-Semitism on their campuses.

Attention has now shifted to what may be the very soul of higher education: scholarship.

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Marc Tessier-Lavigne, former president of Stanford University.Credit…Carolyn Fong for the New York Times

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, well known in her field of computer design. Defenders of Dr. Gay and Dr. Oxman claim that their lifting of words is minor and that they have not been accused of idea theft. And unlike Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, they did not have to remove any paper.

But recent controversies have helped fuel skepticism that some studies are not as rigorous as they claim to be.

“It seems to me that this is a problem attributable to the universities themselves,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, which maintains a database of retracted articles that now totals more than 46,000.

“They have tried hard to avoid acknowledging how common misconduct is in academia, which sometimes gives ammunition – let’s be real – to bad faith actors who want to undermine trust or reputation of an institution,” said Dr. Oransky.

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There’s probably more to come. A Congress Committee announced that it would investigate a “hostile takeover” of higher education by “political activists, woke professors, and partisan administrators.”

A cottage industry of research paper verification had already sprung up over the past two decades, including Retraction Watch, the Center for Open Science, and Data Colada, a blog dedicated to unmasking research based on bad data.

The number of retracted research articles has increased significantly over time, reaching more than 10,000 withdrawals internationally in 2023, an annual record, according to the journal Nature, up from about 400 papers in 2010, when Retraction Watch began its work, Dr. Oransky said.

This may be partly because controls have intensified, he said. Nature also blamed the rise of paper writing factories.

“What’s different this time is the levels at which it seems to hit: Harvard and Stanford,” Dr. Oransky said. “These are cataclysmic events.”

Dr. Gay, professor of government and African and African-American studies, requested some corrections in quotes and quotations from his dissertation and scholarly articles. But she maintained her work and an outside committee cleared her of any research misconduct.

A review panel concluded that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist, did not personally engage in or know about data manipulation, but failed to adequately control the practice with other members of his laboratory. He agreed to withdraw three articles and correct two others.

Dr. Oxman, a famous architect and designer, apologized on social media for some attribution errors in her thesis.

Not everyone thinks that academia is full of deception.

Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said he was dismayed that, in their attempts to defend Dr. Gay, some academics suggested that plagiarism was common among their ranks.

“I viewed some of these defenses of Claudine as false admissions of misconduct that, in reality, are not occurring at the level that her defenders wanted to suggest,” Dr. Voss said. “The ‘it goes on all the time’ argument.”

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Dr. Gay is accused of copying, with only slight paraphrase, two passages from Dr. Voss’s work into his dissertation.

Dr. Voss said this did not bother him, since he had been her professor at Harvard, helping to teach her quantitative analysis, and then her colleague in the same laboratory. “It would have been completely natural for her to borrow ideas from me,” he said. “The Claudine Gay story is just going to force everyone to be a little more careful about quoting.”

The Internet and software like Turnitin, which targets academic publishing and research, can make plagiarism detection easier. And plagiarism observers are waiting to see what the future of artificial intelligence will bring: more plagiarism or better detection?

But so far, this software has been used more against students than against professors and administrators.

Many researchers fear that attacks on research will be used by politicians, donors and even other researchers as a pretext to attack their ideological enemies.

“Broad suspicion of intellectuals and academics is a rich vein of American culture, and recent events have reinforced it,” Dr. Voss said.

Mr. Ackman, director of the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, has sharply criticized Dr. Gay’s leadership at Harvard, from his handling of anti-Semitism on campus to his support of diversity, equity and inclusion policies. The plagiarism accusations against her are part of her attack.

After Dr. Gay announced that she would resign as chair but remain on the faculty, Mr. Ackman posted on had no serious plagiarism problems. Students are forced to withdraw for much less money.

Mr. Ackman declined to comment for this article.

This is the type of attack that concerns Jonathan Bailey, a copyright and plagiarism consultant who also runs the Plagiarism Today site. “There’s a lot of concern that the pressure has increased and that the people doing the assessments don’t necessarily have academic research or journalistic integrity in mind,” he said.

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Just as new accusations spread against Dr. Gay up until the eve of his resignation, they continued against Dr. Oxman. On Thursday, Retraction Watch published a blog post saying that his thesis took about 100 words without citation or citation from an article published in Physics World in 2000. The blog said it learned of the overlap from Steve Haake, a sports engineer who wrote the original article.

“I have never intentionally presented anyone else’s words or ideas as my own,” Dr. Oxman said in an emailed statement through a spokesperson for his husband on Friday, the day after the Retraction Watch article appeared. “While writing a 330-page thesis, I missed a few footnotes and a few quotation marks. If AI software had been available in 2009, I could have avoided these mistakes. Mistakes are simply a function of my humanity.

Despite this, attacks on academic integrity are certain to continue. “While Chairman Gay’s resignation is good news, the problems at Harvard are much bigger than a single leader, and the committee’s oversight will continue,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, who leads the House Education and Personnel Committee, after Dr. Gay resigned on January 2.

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Rep. Virginia Foxx vows to continue her investigation into higher education. Credit…Elizabeth D. Herman for the New York Times

There was a similar crisis of confidence in universities in the 1980s, when questions were raised about plagiarism and fabricated data in scientific research, notably at Harvard. Al Gore, then a Democratic Representative from Tennessee, and Representative John Dingell Jr., a Democrat from Michigan, among others, held oversight hearings.

Academics argued that research misconduct was rare and politicians argued they were underestimated, according to a report. history published by federal agencies. Many of those who testified downplayed the problem or said criminalizing scientific fraud would create a climate of fear that would hinder research.

In the current dispute, Harvard responded through a defamation lawyer when the New York Post first made accusations of plagiarism against Dr. Gay. Mr. Ackman, writing at

“I don’t want to say that history repeats itself, but there are nuances to it,” Dr. Oransky said. Neither side, he predicts, is likely to back down. “These are really high stakes. »

Kirsten Noyes And Alain Delaquérière contributed to the research.