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Claudine Gay's resignation highlights the trouble with regulating academic writing

Claudine Gay speaks during commencement ceremonies at Harvard University in May. Gay resigned as Harvard's president Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations.
Steven Senne
Claudine Gay speaks during commencement ceremonies at Harvard University in May. Gay resigned as Harvard's president Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned her post on Tuesday following controversial congressional testimony over campus antisemitism and amid mounting allegations of plagiarism that have plagued the once-rising star of academia in recent weeks.

Gay's resignation underscores the intense scrutiny confronting university presidents who are the public faces of the institutions they lead.

Gay is not the first head of an academic institution unseated by allegations of plagiarism. Marc Tessier-Lavigne resigned last year as Stanford University's president after an investigation opened by the board of trustees found that several academic reports he authored contained manipulated data. However, a report commissioned by the board concluded that Tessier-Lavigne did not have a big role in publishing the facts in question on the reports he co-authored, or had actual knowledge of any manipulation of research data for the reports in which he was the principal author.

In 2021, Robert Caslen resigned as president of the University of South Carolina after plagiarizing part of a speech. Caslen, a retired Army lieutenant general, apologized afterward. "I was searching for words about resilience in adversity and when they were transcribed into the speech, I failed to ensure its attribution. I take full responsibility for this oversight."

Gay, who took office in July, made the leap from Harvard professor to president in about 16 years, a trajectory that The Harvard Crimson student newspaper described as "meteoric." But her downfall raises questions about how people in such high-profile positions can find themselves facing such charges in an age when advanced technology so easily enables detection of alleged cases of plagiarism.

Experts additionally say improved technology could bring forth more alleged transgressions yet to be unearthed from past works.

So how does a sought-after academic star end up here?

Dave Tomar, a self-described "professional cheat" who spent about a decade ghostwriting academic papers for undergraduates and postdoctoral students, said it's easy to understand how Gay's writing went undetected for so long.

"I think 20 years ago, the alarm bells weren't really raised as much," Tomar, author of The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating in Higher Education, told NPR. "It's a no-brainer to me that she was just sort of right ahead of the curve of detection at the time."

That was largely due to the absence of plagiarism-detection technology, he said, noting that the 1990s and even early 2000s were the nascent days of the internet. Research was still conducted in physical libraries using card catalogs. It wasn't unusual for papers to be written out by hand and then typed into a computer or word processor. And the few software tools that eventually became available back then were nowhere near as sophisticated as what exists today.

Without the plagiarism-detection software programs that are now in use, professors were encouraged to use their intuition if something felt off with an assignment. They were urged to hold one-on-one meetings to help them assess a student's grasp of the material.

Tomar began his career as a professional cheater during this pre-internet time. "It was really, really easy to get away with Googling and cutting-and-pasting before educators were really hip to it," he recalled.

Still, Sarah Elaine Eaton, author of Plagiarism in Higher Education: Tackling Tough Topics in Academic Integrity, says allegations of plagiarism are still largely handled manually.

"The software is not foolproof — it still requires human intervention," she said.

Additionally, Ph.D. dissertations go through several steps of verification, including being reviewed by a supervisor, an examination committee and peers.

"Supervisors should bear some responsibility for mentoring and shepherding the student to ensure that the quality of the work that they produce is high," Eaton said.

"And the fact that none of this was found until now, the timing is pretty curious," she added.

The irony, Tomar said, is that Gay's alleged failings are likely only now coming to light because of the endless amounts of data that gets fed into artificial intelligence programs, such as ChatGPT.

He predicts a slew of academic leaders will likely be outed in similar fashion. And while he feels little sympathy for those who are caught having violated an institution's policies, he says that's the wrong thing on which to focus.

"We may be able to retroactively discover what somebody did in the 1990s. But ought we not to be slightly more concerned about what the person who was going to graduate next year is doing?" he asked.

Harvard has not called it plagiarism in Gay's case

It has been a tumultuous episode for Harvard, whose highest governing board, known as the Harvard Corporation, has since noted that Gay has acknowledged "missteps." In a Dec. 12 statementin which officials addressed the plagiarism charges, the university said an initial review of Gay's published writings "revealed a few instances of inadequate citation."

The corporation added: "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." The articles date back to 2001 and 2017.

Gay will remain at Harvard as a professor.

In December, right-wing website The Washington Free Beacon reported that it found problems in four of Gay's published papers, including her 1997 dissertation.

Gay, who was the first person of color and the second woman to hold the post at Harvard, has had a spectacular rise throughout her career and in her field of political science. Even in the early days of her career, she was repeatedly courted by the nation's most prestigious institutions.

In her resignation letter, Gay defended her academic record.

"Amidst all of this, it has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor — two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am," she wrote, "and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus."

Gay moved to Harvard after being lured away from a tenured position at Stanford University. In her 16-year journey from Harvard professor to president, Gay, who is Black and the daughter of Haitian immigrants, has been praised by colleagues, bosses and studentsfor her originality of thought, rigor and devotion to data.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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