How bad is Harvard President Claudine Gay’s alleged plagiarism?

Harvard’s president Claudine Gay has now changed some passages in work she wrote to address charges of plagiarism. Harvard’s investigation concluded, “the Fellows reviewed the results, which revealed a few instances of inadequate citation. While the analysis found no violation of Harvard’s standards for research misconduct, President Gay is proactively requesting four corrections in two articles to insert citations and quotation marks that were omitted from the original publications.”

These examples are a fascinating study in the dimensions of plagiarism. Plagiarism can include stealing ideas, failing to cite original sources, copying words, or copying phrases with minor changes. Morally, plagiarism is wrong because it takes credit for the work of another without citing the original work — it’s intellectual theft.

The New York Times has helpfully posted five actual examples of text where Dr. Gay’s work was uncomfortably close to the work of an original source, with no direct citation. In all cases, the original papers were published first, and Gay’s papers later, so there is no question of who copied whom. Let’s take a closer look. Would you call these examples plagiarism, and how severely would you rate them? (Just to be clear on the source of the text shown here: I have taken these examples directly from the New York Times article, and the quoted material and research originated with them.)

Jennnifer L. Hochschild acknowledgments

Original text from acknowledgments in Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation by Jennifer L. Hochschild:

Sandy Jencks showed me the importance of getting the data right and of following where they lead without fear or favor . . . [Jencks] drove me much harder than I sometimes wanted to be driven.

Dr. Gay’s acknowledgments from her Harvard dissertation:

[My thesis advisor, Gary King] reminded me of the importance of getting the data right and following where they lead without fear or favor [and my family] drove me harder than I sometimes wanted to be driven.

Analysis: This is a clear and lazy example of plagiarism of words. On the other hand, I don’t think people give a damn about words used in an acknowledgment. There is no significant theft of ideas here. So it’s a clear technical violation, but academically harmless. If you are a writer reading this, write your acknowledgments in your own words, no matter how clumsy, and the people who helped you will appreciate it.

David Covin paper

Paper by David Covin “Afrocentricity in O Movimento Negro Unificado”:

. . . .the dismissal of four Black male children from the volleyball team of the Tiete Yacht Club in May, 1978, because of their color.

Gay’s paper: “Between Black and White: The Complexity of Brazilian Race Relations,” regarding the same incident:

expulsion of four young black athletes from the volleyball team of the Tiete Yacht Club because of their color.

Analysis: It’s clear that in the research for this paper Gay found, not just words, but facts from Covin’s paper. Because the facts came from Covin, Gay should have cited Covin. This would have allowed her to use the same passage, in quotes, rather than attempting to paraphrase. According to the Times, quoting the Harvard investigator, articles in the journal where Gay published the paper “generally do not include citations or quotations.” If this is true, it is very unusual. But the limitations of the journal are no excuse for plagiarism of words, facts, or ideas. This is sloppy work, although neither the text copied nor the ideas are particularly notable. Not great, but not that big of a deal.

George Reid Andrews paper

George Reid Andrews in the Journal of Latin American Studies “Black Political Protest in São Paulo, 1888-1988”:

[R]hetoric and aspirations [of a younger generation of Afro-Brazilians with] one or more years of university study [seemed removed from those of poor slum dwellers.]

Gay’s paper on same topic “Between Black and White”:

[A]spirations and rhetoric . . . [one or more years of] university education . . .

Analysis: Just a few words, clearly a paraphrase. Should have cited the original paper.

Stephen Ansolabehere and James M. Snyder Jr. paper

Stephen Ansolabehere and James M. Snyder Jr.’s paper, “Party Control of State Government and the Distribution of Public Expenditures”:

Theoretical arguments predict an interaction between partisanship of voters and party control of state government. Democratic counties are expected to receive more transfers when the state is under Democratic control …

Gay’s paper “A Room for One’s Own? The Partisan Allocation of Affordable Housing”:

Theory predicts an interaction between county partisanship and party control, such that the more Democratic a county, the more LIHTC allocations it should receive when the state is under Democratic control …

Analysis: Gay should have included a citation to the original paper (and she did, but not for this particular passage). As a paraphrase, this is technically not plagiarism of words, but the paraphrase is too close. It would have been far better to quote the original passage and footnote it, or to restructure the writing to better express Gay’s original ideas.

Thomas E. Skidmore paper

Thomas E. Skidmore paper “Toward a Comparative Analysis of Race Relations Since Abolition in Brazil and the United States”:

The Brazilian adage that ‘we are becoming one people’ rests on an implicit assumption that this final amalgam will be, at worst, a light mulatto phenotype and at best a moorish Mediterranean physical type. The ideal of whitening differs so categorically from white European and North American phobias about race mixture …

Gay’s paper “Between Black and White”:

The Brazilian concept of ‘whitening,’ symbolized in the popular saying ‘we are becoming one people,’ represents an ideology entirely different from white European and North American phobias about race mixture prevalent at the turn of this century.

Analysis: This is the clearest example of plagiarism. She clearly copied the idea .If the phrase “we are becoming one people,” is actually a popular saying in Brazil, then the fact that it is quoted verbatim in both passages isn’t plagiarism per se. But she also plagiarized the phrase, “white European and North American phobias about race mixture.”

Note: since this post was originally published, new and more troubling examples have come to light, and Dr. Gay has resigned. See details here.

Sloppiness is no excuse

As I described in my piece of about Jill Abramson’s book Merchants of Truth, keeping careful track of words and sources is an essential part of every nonfiction writer’s responsibility. Most plagiarism is sloppiness, not intentional theft, but that’s no excuse. If you use something from somebody else — words, or ideas — you have to cite them and quote them. And if you fail to do so, you certainly deserve to be criticized.

Of these five examples, the first is excusable and irrelevant, the next three are borderline, and the last is clearly wrong.

I don’t know much about Dr. Gay and her scholarly reputation, but no matter who you are, you need to be more careful than this. I can see why Harvard is reluctant to do much more than issue minor complaints, if these are the only examples it can find. (And no, I don’t think a white, male university president would receive any different treatment for these particular violations, but of course, I can’t prove that.)

That said, this is a very high profile individual in an academic institution who has set a poor example. All academics should live up to a higher standard than this. And so should you. If you are a nonfiction writer, this is a cautionary tool. If you’re sloppy, you’ll get caught, and it will damage your reputation.

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  1. When organization leaders are authors, I’m also inclined to wonder what portion was written by the named author and what portion by unnamed assistants. In which case, the responsibility still falls on the author to make sure they have well-trained and careful researchers supporting their publication process.

    1. In this case, all the passages with problems were written long before Dr. Gay become Harvard’s president. So I don’t think the organizational confusion (or excuse) applies.

  2. I found this site because I was curious as to details behind the charges of plagerism by Ms Gay. All these examples seem incredibly minor. I read somewhere (I think the WSJ), that Ms Gay was also accused of data falsification — which to me is a very serious matter. I have not fact checked anything as I am just some random person without any dog in this fight. I was simply curious as to how much media and political amplification Ms Gay has been subjected to.

  3. Gay’s worst offense is her flimsy statement about anti-semitism. Such comments merit that she step down.

    But her supposed plagiarism is over standard ideas. Stating two and two is four shouldn’t be plagiarism. Gay should have tried harder to express standard ideas more uniquely, but I doubt if she should be so viciously attacked by the Right (I mostly identify with the Right.).