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What To Know About the Plagiarism Allegations Against Former MIT Professor Neri Oxman

Oxman's husband, investor Bill Ackman, was actively calling for former Harvard President Claudine Gay to resign over unrelated plagiarism accusations.

Published Jan 8, 2024

 (Steven Ferdman / Getty Images)
Image Via Steven Ferdman / Getty Images

In early January, an exposé published in Business Insider alleged that Neri Oxman, a designer and former MIT professor, had plagiarized parts of her doctoral dissertation, after her husband, Bill Ackman, led a campaign to oust former Harvard President Claudine Gay amid similar claims of repeating other peoples' work without attribution. A follow-up story published in the same outlet the next day reported to have found 28 more instances of plagiarism of various forms in other papers Oxman published.

Social media posts compared the two cases.

The accusations against Oxman are notable for two reasons:

First, she is an influential figure in the worlds of science and design. Her unique, scientific creations have connected her with celebrities like Brad Pitt and Björk, led to profiles in outlets like The New York Times and exhibitions in museums such as New York City's Museum of Modern Art.

Second, her husband, Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alum (and prominent donor), was a leading force in a campaign to remove Gay from her leadership position amid claims that she had plagiarized paragraphs in her academic writings.

Plagiarism is a word that means different things to different people. To a layperson, it might just be used as a synonym for copying someone's work without giving credit. While that is indeed an example of plagiarism, a deeper debate exists in academia about what actually counts as plagiarism. Universities rely on committees that review plagiarism allegations on a case-by-case basis before deciding on punishments. However, when a plagiarism accusation becomes newsworthy, a public shaming campaign can overshadow the academic allegations.

To understand the plagiarism claims against Oxman, we took a look at the similar claims against Gay, which followed controversy over Gay's remarks during a congressional hearing about antisemitism at American universities.

Claudine Gay

The plagiarism allegations against Gay surfaced in December 2023 when Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who helped popularize a right-wing campaign against "critical race theory" in education, published findings of supposed plagiarism in Gay's doctoral thesis. This claim of plagiarism is a more subtle form than the "copying" that many people think of — Gay did cite the sources she took the material from. However, because she used the text verbatim from those articles, she should have included quotation marks around those passages in addition to listing her original source.

In the days before Rufo's article posted, some people had already been calling for Gay's resignation due to some of her testimony at a congressional hearing about campus activism and speech. We explain her comments in detail below.

First, some context about what was happening on campus in light of the Israel-Hamas war: On Oct. 8, 2023, one day after the surprise attacks launched by Hamas militants against Israel, a group of student organizations at Harvard signed a letter that blamed Israel for the attacks.

According to a post on Bill Ackman's X account, this letter prompted his concern over antisemitism on Harvard's campus. A prominent supporter of Israel, Ackman and other CEOs called for the names of Harvard students who signed the Oct. 8 letter to be released publicly so that they could be "blacklisted" from employment opportunities at those companies, according to CNN.

Flash forward a few weeks. On Dec. 5, Gay, alongside then-University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth, testified in a congressional hearing about antisemitism in higher education.

At the hearing, a line of questioning from Republican U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York landed Gay in what The New York Times called "somewhat of a prosecutorial trap."

"And Dr. Gay, at Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard's rules of bullying and harassment, yes or no?" Stefanik asked.

"It can be, depending on the context," Gay replied.

Stefanik called for Gay to resign later in the hearing.

The three presidents were criticized by figures like Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-profit whose goal is to target antisemitism, for their remarks. Magill announced her resignation on Dec. 9, just four days later.

It took a bit longer for Gay, the first female Black president of Harvard, to make the same decision. After Rufo's plagiarism allegations became public, the university launched an inquiry into them. According to an article in the Harvard Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, the inquiry was requested by Gay herself, and while there were a "few instances of inadequate citation," the mishaps did not meet "Harvard’s standards for research misconduct." The article also mentions that many of the academics Gay supposedly plagiarized did not think she had done anything wrong.

The public backlash continued regardless, and Gay resigned on Jan. 2. That made her the university's shortest-tenured president, although she still kept her professorship at the university.

According to an article by Politico published after Gay's resignation, Rufo explained that the campaign to force Gay to resign was highly coordinated and organized, and that he planned to smuggle [the plagiarism story] into the media apparatus from the left, which legitimizes the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple [Gay].”

Both Ackman and Stefanik celebrated Gay's resignation on X. Ackman tweeted she should lose not just the presidency, but her teaching job.

In an editorial1 published in The New York Times after her resignation, Gay wrote the following: "When I learned of these errors, I promptly requested corrections from the journals in which the flagged articles were published, consistent with how I have seen similar faculty cases handled at Harvard."

Articles in the Harvard Crimson confirmed that statement.

Neri Oxman

With that context, we can now turn back to Oxman. According to an exposé published in Business Insider on Jan 4, work by Oxman exhibited a pattern of plagiarism similar to that of which Gay was accused. The article claimed that, in Oxman's doctoral dissertation at MIT, she lifted passages from various sources without adequate citation. In these accusations, much like those against Gay, Oxman did often mention the source of the material, but neglected to add quotation marks around paragraphs she used verbatim. That is a violation of MIT's academic integrity handbook, which reads:

Plagiarism occurs when you use another’s words, ideas, assertions, data, or figures and do not acknowledge that you have done so.

If you use the words, ideas, or phrasing of another person or from published material, you must

  • Use quotation marks around the words and cite the source, or
  • Paraphrase or summarize acceptably and cite the source.

If you use charts, graphs, data sets, or numerical information obtained from another person or from published material, you must also cite the source.

You must always acknowledge your sources by citing them. In this way, you have the right to use another’s creative output by giving that person credit for the work s/he has done.

After the Business Insider article was published, Oxman apologized for the errors discovered by Business Insider in a post on her X account. "I regret and apologize for these errors," she wrote.

Oxman said in her post that Business Insider emailed her the morning of Jan. 4, and gave her a deadline of 4 p.m. the same day to review the citations and sources. However, some of those sources were not readily accessible within the tight deadline. "When I obtain access to the original sources, I will check all of the above citations and request that MIT make any necessary corrections," she wrote.

Ackman tweeted after the Business Insider article was published, defending his wife. "Part of what makes her human is that she makes mistakes, owns them, and apologizes when appropriate."

Snopes reached out to Oxman and to Ackman for comment but had not heard back, as of this writing. In a CNN article, a representative said that neither had any comment beyond their posts on X. We reached out to MIT for comment, as well.

In the CNN article, the outlet said it could not independently verify the accusations of plagiarism made against Oxman. The similarities between the two cases were interesting, however, as neither of the accusations were cut-and-dried plagiarism: MIT had not announced (as of this writing) whether it would open an investigation into Oxman, and Harvard's investigation found that Gay did not violate the university's standards.

Then, a Jan. 5 follow-up article in Business Insider expanded the accusations against Oxman. In that story, the publication claimed it found 28 different instances of plagiarism in various papers published by Oxman, including "more than a dozen" instances in which she had allegedly copied paragraphs from Wikipedia without any attribution, a more cut-and-dry example of plagiarism.

At this point, Ackman, acting as Oxman's de facto spokesperson, became the main character of the story, continuing to defend his wife against plagiarism allegations while attacking MIT, Business Insider and those suggesting he was being hypocritical.

Who Is Bill Ackman?

As previously stated, Ackman is a Harvard alum and donor, and according to the same Politico article in which Rufo was interviewed, a large part of why Gay resigned from Harvard. Of the three university presidents who testified in front of Congress on Dec. 5, 2023, two have resigned as of this writing — Gay and Penn's Magill. Only one remains: Sally Kornbluth at MIT, where Oxman completed her dissertation and taught as a professor.

In a tweet posted about an hour before the Jan. 5 article was published, Ackman defended his wife, claiming that Business Insider had not given her enough time to review any of the citations from either the first or the (then-forthcoming) second article. Then he went on the offensive:

"We will begin with a review of the work of all current @MIT faculty members, President Kornbluth, other officers of the Corporation, and its board members for plagiarism," he wrote in the tweet.

More comments from Ackman followed, announcing that he would also be examining Business Insider's reporting for plagiarism as well, then tweeting, "We have new information that strongly suggests that the Business Insider source(s) is at @MIT." He did not name that source.

In another tweet, Ackman spoke of the events as if they were hypothetical, repeating the claim that the outlet had not given "Jane Doe" enough time to review the citations. Oxman's only public comment on the matter since Jan. 4 was a repost of that tweet, commenting, "I am Jane Doe. John Doe is my husband."

A third Ackman tweet called John Cook, an executive editor at Business Insider who oversees investigative stories, a "known anti-Zionist," adding that Oxman was Israeli and insinuating that Cook was willing to publish the plagiarism stories because of that.

The storm of tweets seemed to get the attention of the German media conglomerate that owns Business Insider, Axel Springer. According to a Jan. 8 article in The Washington Post, Axel Springer released a statement internally announcing it would review the "motivation and process leading up to the reporting," while acknowledging that the stories had not been challenged for their factual accuracy. The Washington Post story mentioned that Business Insider's global editor-in-chief, Nicholas Carlson, had sent an internal email standing behind the stories.

"I made the call to publish both these stories," he wrote.

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Jack Izzo is a Chicago-based journalist and two-time "Jeopardy!" alumnus.