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Recently, the news has been abuzz with allegations of plagiarism against the Harvard president. At first, I assumed it involved outright cheating on original creative content. But upon further consideration, it seems the issue could be merely an oversight in citation, particularly in her literature review, something that might be rectified with a simple amendment to her thesis.

This situation raises two separate but interrelated questions in my mind. First, does the omission of a citation in academic writing constitute plagiarism? And second, should such an omission warrant severe consequences like resignation or career downfall? I'm aware that her resignation isn't entirely attributed to this plagiarism accusation, but I'd like to focus on this aspect for now.

As a researcher myself, I understand the challenge of maintaining flawless citation records across extensive publications. This news prompted me to review my own work for similar oversights. Despite my efforts, the sheer volume of my publications made this task daunting, and I eventually had to abandon it. This experience led me to realize that if someone were intent on finding faults in my work, they likely could, as no one is perfect.

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  • The question in the title asks about the nature of the alleged plagiarism, while the only question in the body is about whether she should be punished. Which question are you asking?
    – jwodder
    Commented Jan 14 at 22:11
  • Yeah, I think these are two separate but related questions: whether the omission of a citation constitutes a form of plagiarism and whether this should result in resignation or career destruction (of course, I know her resignation is not solely due to this accusation, but let's put that aside).
    – hidemyname
    Commented Jan 14 at 22:18
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    I haven't followed the case in huge detail, but AIUI what was omitted was not the citations, but quotation marks or indentation, i.e. the sources were cited correctly, but there was a failure to acknowledge that the particular way in which those sources were being used was direct quotation. Commented Jan 14 at 22:21
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    Even given a single agreed-upon definition of plagiarism, judging whether any given published or publicly available work contains plagiarism is a matter of analysis and opinion regarding the work. I correspondingly think this question is opinion-based and somewhat poorly suited for the StackExchange Q&A format.
    – user176372
    Commented Jan 14 at 23:31
  • There was a very poignant op ed by an undergraduate student on Harvard's Honor Council. If Harvard considers such inadequate citation an infraction worth suspending students over, it's not a great look to shrug it off when committed by the university president.
    – Anyon
    Commented Jan 15 at 2:02

2 Answers 2

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Plagiarism is misrepresenting other people's work as your own. Writing down an idea and not writing down where that idea came from, in many instances, makes it look like the idea came from the author, and can certainly be plagiarism. So, an omission of a citation can certainly be plagiarism, whether intentional or not.

Also, at many universities, intent has nothing to do whether or not plagiarism has occurred.

Whether or not Dr. Gay plagiarized, I don't know. I have not reviewed the case.

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    +1 for the distinction between intentional and unintentional plagiarism - I can attest that such things can be part of official university frameworks/guidelines in the UK, but I can't speak to how it works in the USA
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jan 14 at 23:07
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My understanding is that Dr. Gay did technicly plagiarize however it was not overt idea theft. It was simply sloppy attribution in a few instances. Frankly, her mistakes were ones that any researcher could make and under normal circumstances would not be grounds for any attention or uproar. The problem was that her minor errors were presented and interpreted by bad actors that had an agenda to tarnish her reputation and unseat her as Harvard's president. The accusations of plagiarism were a pretext. The real takeaway from this situation should be for researchers to better understand the threats of engaging with politics. I know that was not Dr. Gay's intention but she was definitely pulled into it as a result of her position and that was the catalyst for her resignation. We saw some of the same problems during the COVID pandemic. Science, academia and politics do not mix. We have to be better prepared to navigate the political arena if we have ambitions of attaining lofty appointments.

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  • Indeed… If someone uses this as a weapon, then many researchers can be accused of plagiarism even though they might only make minor mistakes. That is what I am worried about.
    – hidemyname
    Commented Jan 15 at 16:06
  • @hidemyname That "weapon" is only usable outside of academia. That is why researchers have to be cognizant of it when navigating in other arenas, especially politics. Politics is petty and deliberately targeted to exploit ignorance. The majority of Americans do not have a college education and have no real idea what happens on colleges campuses but they are told they are filled with ppl that are trying to destroy America and/or only in their position bcuz of DEI initiatives. None of that is fair or true but it is something researchers must contend with. Commented Jan 15 at 16:44

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