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College Hall on Sept. 22, 2021. Credit: Savanna Cohen

Over 4,000 people have signed a petition calling on Penn Admissions to investigate allegations of plagiarism against two Penn students enrolled in the University’s highly selective seven-year bio-dental program.

The petition was started on May 16 by “For Justice in College Admissions,” a group that describes itself as a collection of parents, students, teachers, and researchers focused on addressing injustice in academic research and admissions to highly selective U.S. universities. A 30-page document that is linked in the petition appears to present numerous instances of plagiarism and fabricated data in six research papers and preprints authored by the two students during high school. Some of the publications include additional co-authors.

The petition calls on the two siblings at the center of the allegations – rising College sophomore Annabelle Choi and incoming College first year Madeline Choi – to “admit their wrongdoings and apologize to the researchers whose work they have plagiarized and published as their own.” 

“Innocent until proven guilty. The cyberbullying is overboard and inhumane given the full political context,” Annabelle Choi wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

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 Daily Pennsylvanian that they do not comment on student matters.

The five research papers facing allegations of plagiarism were published between Jan. 7, 2021, and Oct. 18, 2021. Three of the papers were retracted between March 8, 2022, and May 17, 2022, although there do not appear to be formal retraction notices for any of those papers. One of the papers, “Analysis of Technology for Autistic Children: Technologies Created with Therapeutic Objectives may Need to Attain a High Level of Design & Function,” is listed as being retracted and removed "due to legal concerns.” 

Throughout each of the papers, the authors appear to have pulled language directly from previously published research by university professors, Ph.D. students, and academics. By analyzing the papers and using CopyLeaks, an online plagiarism detection software, the DP confirmed that the papers share similarities with previously published research, and the percent similarity matches with the numbers that are reported in the petition.

For instance, one of the papers authored by Madeline, Annabelle, and two other high school students follows a case study in South Korea on the impact of social networking sites on protests. The study shares nearly verbatim similarities with a 2018 paper published by Sangwon Lee, who is currently an assistant professor at New Mexico State University. The main difference between the papers is the numerical findings, which appear to have been altered in the paper co-authored by the Penn students. 

"I would say it is very serious plagiarism, and shouldn't be taken as a simple mistake," Lee wrote in an emailed comment to the DP, noting the verbatim similarities and copied statistics to his paper. 

In the now-retracted article about technology for children with autism, authored by Madeline Choi and three other students, there is nearly 60% similarity to research published in 2018 using European survey data, according to CopyLeaks. In addition to similarities between the language of the two papers, Choi and the co-authors appear to have changed the survey numbers but neglected to update the corresponding percentages from the European paper.

In South Korea, the plagiarism accusations have helped fuel criticism of the country’s recently appointed minister of justice, Han Dong-Hoon. Han, who is the uncle of Annabelle and Madeline, has faced allegations since early May that his daughter, Alex Han, paid a college admissions consulting firm to write multiple research papers and online books. Aides to Han have disputed the allegations.

Three of the papers authored by the two Penn students were published under a website called i-Proclaim, a self-described research hub based in Malaysia that serves as an umbrella platform for five different journals. The i-Proclaim journals that the two Penn students published under charge publication fees ranging from $135 to $180 and have listed policies for article retraction. For instance, the Asian Journal of Art, Humanity, and Literature states on its website that articles may be retracted due to "ethical blunders" including plagiarism. All authors listed must approve the final paper before it is published. 

A recent Penn graduate, who was a leader of Koreans at Penn, told the DP that the allegations against Annabelle and Madeline appear to be part of an organized attempt by certain Korean American communities to hurt Han’s political standing. The graduate requested anonymity in fear of retaliation. 

“Their first target is Annabelle. Their second target is her sister. And the third is their cousin, who is the daughter of the newly appointed justice minister, which is an attorney general equivalent in South Korea,” the Penn graduate said.

The Penn graduate also noted South Korea’s recent history of political controversy surrounding higher education and the falsification of academic achievements by the children of cabinet members.

“There are some online posts in Korean American communities saying that ripping Annabelle Choi apart is an attempt to take Han down,” the graduate said.

A May 5 post on eToLAND, a Korean social media platform, demonstrates an effort to have Annabelle and Madeline’s admission to Penn revoked in order to hurt Han's political standing. The post received over 700 views as of May 18 and appears to state that a letter should be written to Dean of Admissions Whitney Soule and Penn Dental Medicine Dean Mark S. Wolff.

In its Code of Academic Integrity, Penn defines plagiarism as “​​​​using the ideas, data, or language of another without specific or proper acknowledgment.” The examples it provides of plagiarism are “copying another person’s paper, article, or computer work and submitting it for an assignment; cloning someone else’s ideas without attribution; failing to use quotation marks where appropriate.” 

The punishment for plagiarism offenses can be wide-ranging if cases are referred to the Office of Student Conduct for investigation. If a student is found responsible, possible sanctions range from a warning letter to expulsion from the University.

Reported incidents of plagiarism at Penn have decreased in recent years, according to the OSC’s Annual Disciplinary Report for fiscal year 2021. During the 2020-2021 academic year, there were 39 reported instances of plagiarism, down from 51 the previous year and a significant decrease from 104 offenses during the 2017-2018 academic year. The OSC noted in the report that during the 2020-2021 academic year, the majority of classes were offered remotely.

While reported plagiarism cases have decreased, three categories doubled in the number of offenses reported from the 2019-2020 to 2020-2021 academic years. Investigations of cheating increased from 89 to 222 cases, “facilitating academic dishonesty” increased from 13 to 25 cases, and “unauthorized collaboration/use of another person's work” increased to 117 cases.

It is not clear whether copies of the research papers were attached to either student's application to Penn. Like most universities, Penn does not have a standard system for fact-checking applications and has rarely rescinded students' acceptances for false application materials.

"If Penn doesn't take an action, people will constantly question whether Penn's admission process is fair — or more broadly, that of the United States," Lee wrote in regards to the student allegations.

The Penn graduate said that there are growing calls among Koreans for the plagiarism accusations against Han’s nieces to be investigated by Penn or the Korean judicial system rather than circulated through online communities.

“Some Koreans are saying, ‘Hey, this is not for an online group of people to determine whether Annabelle and her sister and her cousin have submitted fraudulent research papers or not, but it is an order for the school and maybe even the Korean court to decide, not the mass group of people,’” the Penn graduate said. 

Editor’s note: Shortly after this article was published, a source mentioned in this article contacted the DP requesting their name be retracted from the article after receiving significant online retaliation. The request was granted after receiving approval from members of the DP’s Executive Board, following our company-wide policy on retractions outlined here.