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Our Plagiarism Policy Must Be Improved. Harvard, Here’s How.

By Calvin D. Alexander, Jr., Crimson Opinion Writer
Calvin D. Alexander, Jr. ’27, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

This past semester, Harvard has looked foolish.

After the University’s inadequate response to antisemitism on campus, our institution’s former president faced nitpicky plagiarism accusations used strategically to further a right-wing agenda and defame Harvard and higher education as a whole.

We were reminded that our academically free institution is still constrained by the interests of powerful alumni, donors, and even Congress.

Still, it was plagiarism that ended Gay’s tenure, and it could not have done so if our policy was specific, extensive, and unambiguous.

These bad-faith attacks on our institution have exposed the vagueness of our plagiarism policies. While vague language allows plagiarism to be treated with nuance on a case-by-case basis, it evidently also increases Harvard’s vulnerability to these attacks.

In order to bolster our commitment to academic integrity and fortify our academic freedom, Harvard must make serious changes to our plagiarism policies now.

While Harvard has a number of resources describing the institution’s stance on plagiarism, like the Harvard University Plagiarism Policy, it does not have a definition of plagiarism applicable to every Harvard school.

In lieu of such a standard, individual schools and resources — including the Medical School Student Handbook, the School of Public Health Student Handbook, and the Interim Policy and Procedures for Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — have relied on the same definition: “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.”

Even though the uniformity of this definition is reassuring, it is very short and leaves room for varying interpretations.

In comparison, the University of Oxford provides an extensive, clear, and precise definition of plagiarism, which it understands as “[p]resenting work or ideas from another source as your own, with or without consent of the original author, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement.”

The definition leaves little room for ambiguity, specifically addressing authorial permission, intent, artificial intelligence, and other forms of media like computer code, illustrations, and graphs. The page also answers frequently asked questions and provides examples of plagiarized and non-plagiarized text.

The second issue with Harvard’s approach to plagiarism is that it lacks a clear policy for faculty plagiarism outside the bare-bones FAS research misconduct policy.

The long history of allegations that faculty enjoy the more permissive half of a plagiarism double standard demonstrates the insufficiency of this policy.

In 2004, it was discovered that professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 had copied a nineteen-word sentence from another source without attribution. He did not face formal consequences.

The year before, Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. lifted six paragraphs from another professor’s work in his book “All Deliberate Speed,” which then-Law School Dean Elena Kagan deemed a “serious scholarly transgression.” While Ogletree told The Crimson that he would be disciplined, it was never disclosed whether that happened or how.

By elaborating the faculty policy, Harvard can combat this seeming-double standard. To further ensure consistency — and recommit to academic integrity — the University should also adopt a strict zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism.

All instances of plagiarism by students and professors — even those that lack malicious intent — should receive meaningful retribution.

This policy should not, however, be applied retroactively. While plagiarism has always been intensely discouraged, it is unfair to uphold past work to a newly precise and rigid standard that did not previously exist.

The flexibility afforded by unclear policies is not worth leaving Harvard vulnerable to attacks of the kind that brought down Gay. While I wish grace could always be given to individuals who did not commit plagiarism with malicious intent, this past winter has shown that this is a dangerous game.

So, Harvard, take initiative. Learn from our disastrous fall semester. Reaffirm academic integrity and protect academic freedom now.

Calvin D. Alexander, Jr. ’27, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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