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A Benjamin Franklin statue on Penn's campus on Oct. 31, 2021.

Credit: Olivia West

A recent petition accusing two Penn students of numerous instances of plagiarism has stirred widespread online controversy, leading to continued calls on the University to investigate the allegations.

Three professors whose work has been allegedly plagiarized expressed surprise and disappointment at the high degree of similarity between the papers that list the two students as authors and their own previously published research. The professors also called on Penn to respond to the allegations and investigate whether the papers were attached to the students' college applications. 

Two of the professors said they had not been notified about the alleged plagiarism until contacted by The Daily Pennsylvanian, even though at least four of the papers under scrutiny have been retracted or removed by their respective journals. 

In response to requests for comments, Penn Admissions Director of Communications Megan Gallagher and University spokesperson Ron Ozio each wrote in an email to the DP that they do not comment on student matters.

The plagiarism accusations, which surfaced through a petition launched on May 16, alleged that two siblings admitted to Penn’s highly selective seven-year bio-dental program — rising College sophomore Annabelle Choi and incoming College first year Madeline Choi — plagiarized at least five research papers while in high school. Each of the papers that list the two students as authors appear to have pulled language directly from previously published research by academics, who condemned the apparent plagiarism. 

The petition, which has now garnered over 5,000 signatures, was created by a group that self-identifies as a collection of parents, students, teachers, and researchers focused on addressing injustice in academic research and admissions to highly selective American universities. 

After initially accusing five research papers of plagiarism, the group shared a second document on May 19 containing four articles by Annabelle Choi, which the DP confirmed shares significant similarities with previous publications by professors and journalists. The four articles were published in the Pandemic Times, an online newspaper that published news on science and technology before it was apparently removed from the internet. According to an online archive of The Pandemic Times website, the two Penn students were the editors-in-chief of the newspaper. 

The students did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the DP. Last week, Annabelle Choi had written to the DP in an email: “Innocent until proven guilty. The cyberbullying is overboard and inhumane given the full political context."

One of the papers facing plagiarism accusations was authored by Madeline Choi about oral health in California, and shares 78.2% similarity with a previously published paper on the same topic in Brazil, according to CopyLeaks, an online plagiarism detection software. Besides the change of location of the study, the two papers share multiple instances of nearly verbatim similarity.

The California paper was available online but is no longer listed in Dentistry, the Walsh Medical Media journal in which it was originally published.

Flavia Andrade, author of the Brazil paper and tenured associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told the DP that the authors of the California paper used "exactly the same quotes" as her paper in some sections. She said the high degree of similarity raises questions about the conduct of the two students, their applications to Penn, and the policies of the journal that the students' paper was published in. 

"I wonder about the process," Andrade said, raising concern about how the college applications are authenticated by Penn. "It questions how the selection process has been conducted.”

Like most universities, Penn does not have a standard system for fact-checking applications and has rarely rescinded students' acceptances for false application materials.

Director of Penn’s Office of Student Conduct Julie Nettleton wrote to the DP on May 24 that the OSC does not have “initial jurisdiction” over concerns about academic misconduct in a student’s application to Penn. The concerns would fall under the purview of Penn Admissions for students who are yet to enroll and the dean of the respective school for enrolled students, Nettleton wrote.

Nettleton said that OSC frequently handles the investigation of allegations against enrolled students. Once the OSC completes an investigation of a student, it sends its findings to the dean of the school that the student is enrolled in for follow-up action, which may include a hearing under OSC policy. 

The deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Dental Medicine, in which the two students are enrolled, have not responded to requests for comment from the DP.

Another paper co-authored by Madeline Choi in 2021 about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals with autism has been accused of both plagiarism and data fabrication by the petition, sharing 75% similarity with a 2020 paper on the same topic, according to CopyLeaks. It is unclear how the authors obtained approval from an Institutional Review Board to conduct research on subjects with autism. 

A co-author of the 2020 paper, associate professor at Yıldız Technical University Ceymi Doenyas, condemned the alleged academic misconduct by the students.  

“Having served as an interviewer for Princeton University Admissions Office for 4 years, I truly hope that UPenn will take an exemplary action to deter all possible future considerations of such ethical misconduct in college applications and beyond,” Doenyas wrote in an email to the DP. 

Doenyas emailed Penn Admissions on May 10 about the apparent plagiarism. She told the DP she received an "unsatisfactory" reply to her complaint in a May 25 email from Penn Admissions Dean Whitney Soule.

"Thank you for emailing us with your concern. We are unable to comment on student matters but appreciate having the material you shared with us," Soule wrote in an email to Doenyas. 

The journal which published the article co-authored by Madeline Choi listed the paper as retracted, noting that it “constitutes documented fraud and copyright infringement.”

Similarly, another paper co-authored by Madeline Choi about hate crimes against Asian Americans is no longer accessible online. Yan Zhang, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, wrote in an email to the DP that it was “irrefutable” that a paper she co-authored on the same subject was plagiarized by Madeline Choi and other students. 

“I am looking forward to seeing the University’s response to this type of behavior,” Zhang wrote. 

Andrade and Doenyas both raised questions about how the students could have realistically produced the research that their names are listed on. Doenyas noted that one of the papers would have required a sample of research subjects that is very hard to reach.

“Because [Madeline] was not even in college, I wondered how she would be able to produce that type of work,” Andrade said in regard to the paper on oral health in California. 

Doenyas wrote that, as a researcher who has worked with patients with autism for 14 years, it seems unrealistic that the students could have obtained IRB approval to recruit and study patients with an autism diagnosis without a supervising faculty member. She expressed disappointment that Penn students not only considered but went ahead with plagiarizing existing research.

"It is obvious that such students are a complete mismatch to the values of Ivy League institutions," Doenyas wrote. 

Andrade said that, as a professor, she has observed more instances of plagiarism in recent semesters compared to the past. She added that one of the petition’s demands to have the students apologize “is definitely a first step” and said that an acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the students, if warranted, helps professors understand the circumstances of academic misconduct. 

“As someone who was the person who was involved [in the research that may have been plagiarized], I was upset,” Andrade said. “I was struck by how that happened.”

Editor’s note: Shortly after this article was published, individuals mentioned in a website linked in this article contacted the DP requesting the link be removed from the article, alleging they had received significant online harassment. The request was granted by members of DP leadership and the link has since been removed, following our company-wide policy on retractions outlined here.