Claudine Gay testifies in Washington (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

January 12, 2024   6 mins

It’s said that these days universities are echo chambers, but perhaps nobody expected it to be demonstrated quite so literally. At the beginning of the month, Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned following weeks of plagiarism allegations. Some of these were unambiguous: whole paragraphs replicated with minimal alteration in a way that couldn’t easily be explained away as accidental. Other proposed cases were less manifestly intentional but nonetheless suggestive, including the fantastically bizarre claim that Gay plagiarised some lines of her dissertation’s acknowledgement section — the bit where, traditionally, authors fulsomely thank those people instrumental in their personal intellectual journey. Apparently this manager-in-waiting wasn’t even able to find the words to thank her own parents without borrowing a few lines from somebody else.

Whether this information causes you to call for the defunding of the academy or to shudder empathically probably depends on whether you think there’s any chance that, during some coffee-fuelled, sleep-deprived, deadline-driven moment in your own dim past, you might have done something similar — and whether anyone could now use it against you, if you had. As far as I remember, I never did this in my own university career, though of course I’d occasionally wake in the night, clammy with fear that my subconscious might have inadvertently hoovered up someone else’s vivid phrasing and spewed it out again on the page.  But wherever you stand on this issue, it invites us to consider why we should care about plagiarism in modern universities — if, indeed, we still should at all.

One immediate thing revealed by the row is the extent to which some on both Left and Right only care about academic principles when it suits them. The plagiarism accusations emerged just after Gay’s much-publicised appearance in a congressional hearing on antisemitism on campus in the wake of October 7, sitting alongside the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. In a viral excerpt from the hearing, Gay and her fellow Presidents stated that “calling for the genocide of the Jews” would have to “cross into conduct” before becoming technically illicit according to their respective university policies. Many onlookers were scandalised by what looked like obvious antisemitism. Longstanding critics of DEI in universities scented blood: no doubt genuinely supportive of Israel, but also amplifying the outrage for opportunistic reasons. The Penn president was forced to resign four days later, and the combing of Gay’s back catalogue seems to have begun.

Yet not so well-publicised at the time were other parts of the hearing, in which “calling for the genocide of the Jews” was presented by representatives to their three squirming witnesses as the inevitable implication of pro-Palestinian chants like “from the river to the sea” or demands for “intifada”. You can argue about this semantic equivalence — but that’s precisely the point, it’s arguable. And in fact, the thrust of Gay’s answer here was correct. Given their emphasis on academic freedom, universities should not, as a rule, be in the business of policing offensive speech; and especially not when the speech in question is presumed by opponents to acquire its harm via a sinister hidden meaning at several removes of interpretation. (This point is not negated by the fact that some expressions of support for Hamas are unambiguously hateful towards Jews.) If the topic at hand was speech perceived by others to be covertly racist or transphobic, this is a point Gay’s critics on the Right would immediately endorse — except that, once they were trying to cause as much embarrassment as possible for a high-profile champion of DEI policies, it conveniently slipped from their minds.

From the Left, meanwhile, responses to claims about plagiarism by Gay have been depressingly predictable, as attempts are made to blot out the blatant problem of a university leader, paid in six figures, committing an infraction for which students on her own campus would be sanctioned. Defensively, many have scrambled to paint a touching picture of a poor, vulnerable, black female President of Harvard unfairly set upon by racist Right-wingers. Here it seems the capacity to detect nuance, temporarily acquired with respect to pro-Palestinian speech, has vanished once again, with all outward expressions of concern about the standard of Gay’s academic writing automatically becoming something more sinister. Other commentators have claimed that the strict standards outlawing plagiarism don’t apply in the same way to academics as they do to students, or else suggested that, since other high-profile cases of plagiarism have been overlooked, this one should be too.

On the whole, then, it seems that the Right doesn’t care about academic freedom when the contested words are those of enemies; and the Left doesn’t care about academic violations when committed by their friends. But then again, it seems that some on the Right don’t care about the latter either. After a billionaire hedge fund manager called Bill Ackman was particularly scathing of Gay, a bright spark at Business Insider magazine did a search on his wife Neri Oxman’s PhD thesis and discovered apparent plagiarism there too. Ackman has since listed a raft of reasons why Oxman’s case is different from that of Gay, including that she merely committed “clerical errors of missed punctuation” not “fraud”, and that she was not granted “due process” in the reporting of it. Suddenly vague about what constitutes misdemeanour now that a loved-one is in the frame, and apparently willing to allow repetition of another’s phrasing due to “laziness” or “unintentional errors”, Ackman proposes not to define plagiarism strictly but only to say that “we will know it, when we see it” —thereby invoking a well-known definition of obscenity by a Sixties Supreme Court Judge (“I know it when I see it”).

What Ackman doesn’t say, of course, is that this is also near-identical to the rubric witchfinders use to identify witches — which historically hasn’t worked out so well. In actual fact, though, with the help of computers it is still possible to identify many instances of plagiarism without doing a searching moral inventory of the author. Some standard definitions — including the one given to Harvard students — don’t even rely on the repetition being deliberate or intentional. Are there striking similarities of wording or structure? Are there quotation marks and a citation, or not? Are there more than a few similarities, so that the chances of accident reduce with each new instance? In detecting plagiarism, arguably you are not trying to look into someone’s soul but rather just picking out a particular writing behaviour.

Undeterred by his newfound qualms, with the help of AI and deep pockets, Ackman has now promised to launch a “plagiarism review” of all MIT faculty and administrators before moving on to Harvard and other Ivy League institutions next. And frankly, a lot of people must be sweating. Modern academic culture insists on the regular production of articles and books alongside sometimes heavy teaching and administrative duties. Disciplinary norms usually limit you in advance to using dull, colourless prose. The more technical your point, the more it can appear that all of the limited number of ways available to make it are already taken by others. You also know that, unless very famous or very lucky, hardly anyone is going to read what you produce anyway. It’s only words, perhaps you reason. Words are public property anyway. It’s not like you are stealing possessions from people.

I actually think there’s something right about this. Despite the surrounding hyperbole, plagiarism of the kind Gay and Oxman apparently committed really isn’t that grave a moral sin, as sins go. It’s easily done and on an individual level can be detached from any deeper character flaws. The person whose phrasing is plagiarised doesn’t lose anything of value, if the imitation isn’t discovered; and if it is discovered, they gain the kudos of having written something worth imitating.

But that doesn’t mean plagiarism shouldn’t be exposed and punished severely — because it should. The infringement is intellectual not moral. The loser from even minor acts of imitation, were they permitted at scale, would be the university as a whole. If you can’t easily explain a complicated idea in your own words, the chances are you don’t fully understand it; and you certainly can’t safely be given the credit for it. Plagiarised passages offer simulacra of understanding but they are counterfeit goods. Like a luxury market, the university system cannot afford to become flooded with counterfeit goods. It would remove its main reason for existing.

Viewed like this, the punishment for plagiarism should be unfashionably medieval — aimed towards deterrent, rather than proportionality or rehabilitation. As philosopher Fabio Paglieri puts it: “The penalty must always be as harsh as possible … Sanctioning plagiarism is not about getting even on moral grounds, it’s about building a better academia to live in. Thus the punished plagiarist has to serve as a cautionary tale for anyone else who may be tempted to follow the same path.” Again, we don’t need to do a deep dive into a perpetrator’s intentions, personality trait, and background circumstances. We are not trying to work out what she or he deserves for missing out some quotation marks and a reference. We just need to put the fear of God into others, to make sure they don’t do it too.

This is all fairly theoretical, though. I don’t know what things are like at Harvard, but my own experience of the British university system tells me that, in practice, it’s almost impossible to insist that serious punishment be meted out to a student for plagiarism anymore: say, removing them from a module, or giving a mark of zero for an essay automatically. Since everyone involved is terrified about deteriorating student mental health, enormous efforts are made to find exculpatory reasons. A laborious process of investigation is undertaken each time, with the eventual upshot being the loss of a few marks at most. So it seems that, in order to preserve the function of universities, deterrence within the system is going to have to rest on meting out highly public punishments to plagiarising academics. In this respect, what has happened to Claudine Gay is a good start.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.