Francesca Gino Faces Allegations of Plagiarism

Embattled Harvard professor Francesca Gino is facing a new round of allegations involving research integrity violations. This time, she is accused of plagiarizing in two of her books and a chapter she co-authored in another book.

According to an article by Science Magazine, the allegations were originally shared by University of Montreal psychologist Erinn Acland. However, Acland’s allegations were about a book chapter Gino helped write. The magazine conducted its own investigation and discovered an additional 15 excerpts from Gino’s two books.

According to the article and the examples provided, the copied passages came from a variety of sources, including both student work and online articles.

Gino, for her part, has staunchly denied wrongdoing. In a statement through her lawyer, she said that she is “steadfast in her commitment to uncovering the truth in each instance.” The statement added, “It is wildly unfair and prejudicial to litigate these accusations in the volatile domain of public opinion. History has shown the peril of premature judgment, particularly within the scientific community, where reputations can be irreparably tarnished.”

However, Gino’s reputation has already been significantly tarnished. Once one of the most famous and popular behavioral scientists in the world, she has found herself on unpaid administrative leave and the subject of multiple retractions due to allegations of data fraud.

Gino has staunchly denied wrongdoing there and has filed a $25 million defamation lawsuit against both HBS and the researchers who initially reported the alleged issues.

This raises the question: How serious is the plagiarism? To answer that, we have to first look at the context these allegations are coming to light in.

The Story So Far

Gino joined Harvard University in 2010 and quickly became one of the most famous behavioral scientists in the world. This included a pair of books and a series of high profile lectures, including a Ted Talk and a talk at Google.

Gino’s focus was on researching honesty and unethical behavior. Her best known work involved the use of honesty pledges on math quizzes. She found that placing the pledge at the top rather than the bottom could drastically reduce cheating by students.

However, more recently, her work has become mired in controversy. In 2021, researchers from the blog DataColada contacted Harvard Business School (HBS) about concerns they had with four of Gino’s papers, including the one on honor codes.

HBS conducted an 18-month investigation into Gino’s work and published a 1,300-page report. That report, which has since been made public, found that Gino had “committed research misconduct intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.” The report recommended that she be placed on unpaid administrative leave with the intent of terminating her employment, which would involve revoking tenure.

All the papers at issue have been retracted. Three were retracted after the findings became public, and the fourth had previously been retracted in 2021 as part of a separate investigation.

Gino has strongly denied the allegations. In August 2023, she filed a $25 million lawsuit against HBS and the three DataColada researchers who initially raised the concerns. The lawsuit accuses the school of defamation, breaching confidentiality and discrimination in their handling of the case.

Harvard has asked for the lawsuit to be partially dismissed.

According to Acland, it was the lawsuit that inspired her to “poke around” in Gino’s work. She submitted her findings to Science, who then used iThenticate to take a deeper dive into Gino’s books.

There, the magazine claims to have found many passages that were either taken verbatim or with rewriting from other sources. Those sources included online articles, work submitted by other students and other academic papers.

But in a time when allegations of academic plagiarism seem to be everywhere, how serious are these? The answer is complicated.

Analysis of the Allegations

Based on the Science article, it’s difficult to say just how much of the books are actually at issue. While any plagiarism is concerning, the focus of the allegations seems to be on only a few dozen passages, with the longest ones being a few paragraphs.

The amount and type of plagiarism are similar to the Claudine Gay scandal in December 2023. We’re dealing with (mostly) poorly rewritten content that makes up a relatively small percentage of a much larger body of work.

I agree with Debora Weber-Wulff, who commented on the Science article: This is quite serious. However, as she noted, the next steps are for a full investigation by the publishers and universities. If this is all the plagiarism in the books, it’s probably due to bad writing habits and not deliberate plagiarism. This can be fixed with corrections and new editions.

Although it is a significant embarrassment for a respected researcher, this incident alone is unlikely to ruin her career or get the books retracted. However, that analysis assumes two things: First is that this is all the plagiarism that there is, and the second is that it is happening in a vacuum.

The first we won’t know the answer to until a full investigation takes place. None of the publishers involved commented on the Scienice article and we don’t know if an investigation has begun. The second, however, we know is untrue.

These allegations are being made amidst a major data fraud scandal. The evidence for those allegations has been described as “damning” and indicates the possibility of even more data manipulation.

This makes these allegations even more urgent. Further, it makes it even more likely that what we know now is not the full story.

The publishers involved need to take this seriously and launch an independent, transparent and thorough investigation into these books. It will be a time-consuming process. But these new issues compound with the existing concerns to make this a problem they can not ignore.

Whether they will actually conduct that investigation remains to be seen. But if there ever was a time that called for it, this is it.

Bottom Line

In the end, regardless of the outcome, this is likely to remain a footnote in the Fancesca Gino story. The allegations of data fraud and the lawsuit she filed are the much more important stories. Even if the books do have more widespread plagiarism than is indicated, it’s not going to be her biggest issue.

However, this story does highlight how academic and research integrity violations rarely happen in a vacuum. Plagiarism, authorship issues, data manipulation and unethical research practices often come in pairs or trios. Where there is one, you can often find another.

In that light, all Acland did was the next logical step and look for plagiarism instead of data fraud. It was a patently obvious decision that I’m surprised HBS hasn’t done itself.

Still, it’s the allegations of data fraud that will ultimately decide Gino’s fate, both at Harvard and elsewhere. But it will be worth watching the publishers involved to see how they follow up on these allegations.

The allegations are deeply concerning enough by themselves. But in the light of the other allegations against her, they demand a strong response.

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