On the 2nd of January 2024, Claudine Gay, who was the first black president of Harvard University, resigned in response to being accused of plagiarism. On 25th of January 2024, Sandra Borch, Norway’s higher education minister, resigned due to convicted plagiarism. Earlier cases include the resignments of Germany’s minister for family, Franziska Giffey (2021), minister of higher education, Annette Schavan (2013), and minister of defense, Karl-Theodor zu Gutenberg (2011). But plagiarism is not confined to academic writing. Other popular accusations include Barac Obama’s “yes we can” campaign, Melina Trump’s campaign speech, and even the Ghostbusters theme song.
Most plagiarism accusations supposedly die in the process of their investigation, have little response, and are considered not worth reporting. The topic commonly counts as a boring and tiring activity for righteous bureaucrats or nerds with a soft spot for linguistic and legal details or tax declarations. But with the increasing popularity of iThenticate and other text duplication detection technology, research integrity did not only become big business but also a weapon for the masses to blackmail, undermine, or get rid of political opponents and unpopular supervisors. Automized text duplication checks and accusation letters only take seconds. But the extensive labor and time to conduct the investigations have the potential to occupy and shut down entire institutions. Pandora’s box is opened, and “the plagiarism war has begun.” (Bogost 2024)
A serious plagiarism investigation requires institutionalized processes and independent expertise to distinguish intentional theft of ideas, patchwriting, statistical coincidence, and a sloppy writing style with unmarked verbatim citations (Bailey 2024). Casual cases are sentenced to correct the flaws in the record or to participate in research integrity classes. Only few cases require job resignations, but the stigma is great and the public often without mercy. As a result of more and more reporting just polarizing between victim sympathy and getting more dirt on targeted people, however, the expertise, debates, and efforts for research integrity are devalued and disguised.
The weaponization of plagiarism is likely to change our publication system, education, and academic life and this is the time new rules and processes are negotiated. However, only few people engage in this debate, and it would be a pity for academic democracy if valuable arguments of students and other campus members remain unheard.
For further information, I recommend:
Jonathan Bailey (2024): Claudine Gay, Neri Oxman and the Weaponization of Plagiarism. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk1X1Bj7spc
Bogost, Ian (2024): The Plagiarism War Has Begun. The Atlantic. Available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2024/01/plagiarism-war-claudine-gay/677020/