Kevin Kruse Cleared of Plagiarism Though Questions Remain

Back in June, we looked at the case of Kevin Kruse, a Princeton professor known as “history’s attack dog” for his criticisms of right-wing talking points, in particular on Twitter.

At that time, Kruse was facing allegations that he had committed plagiarism, first in his 2000 dissertation at Cornell University and later in his 2015 book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.

The allegations came from Philip Magness, a conservative academic and a long-time critic of Kruse and his work. This led to allegations that he was a “bad actor”. This was especially since the allegations themselves were relatively minor, dealing with only a few lines from the two respective works.

However, in the months that have passed, Kruse has been quiet. He stepped away from Twitter and allowed both Princeton and Cornell to complete their investigations. Last week, Kruse reappeared on Twitter to announce the outcomes of those investigations

According to Kruse, both Cornell and Princeton have cleared him of any wrongdoing. In Cornell’s case, he shared a letter that said the school found no “intent” of plagiarism and that the errors were corrected when he published the dissertation. As such, the school opted to take no further action in this matter.

In Princeton’s case, he shared a passage that from the Dean of Faculty that acknowledged that citations could have been better, but that the errors were “honest” and “the result of careless cutting and pasting” with “no attempt to conceal an intellectual debt.”

As such, they too closed the matter without any further action.

Predictably, this did not sit well with Magness, who quickly posted additional allegations of plagiarism in Kruse’s book on Twitter.

Aigail Anthony, another conservative journalist, also pointed out that Cornell’s policy against plagiarism includes unintentional plagiarism as a violation of the school’s code.

In the end, the investigations seem to have settled nothing other than eliminating the threats to Kruse’s book and employment. While that was always going to be the case given the political nature of the dispute, an opportunity was clearly missed to at least provide some more definitive answers.

Incomplete and Lacking Transparency

Looking at the documents Kruse provided, one thing is clear: We do not have a full account of how the investigations were conducted, who conducted the investigations, what was found and how the decisions were reached.

Though the letter and the statement make the findings of both investigations clear, there is little information about the process.

To be clear, this is fairly common when it comes to investigations by schools. They have obligations to both student and employee privacy that has to be maintained.

But, in this case, the person whose privacy is at risk seems to be willing to share all that they can. It seems unlikely that Kruse would want these details hidden given the outcome, and Kruse said in his tweets that he is sharing all that he is allowed to.

Keeping this information private, especially when Kruse seems willing to open it up, does Kruse a major disservice. Even if the investigations were thorough, fair and otherwise perfect, obfuscating the process just leaves open questions that can’t be answered. This is an excellent example of why transparency is so important when dealing with research integrity.

However, it’s also clear that both investigations looked only at the specific allegations that were made, not at the works in total. The Cornell letter makes it clear that they only looked at the two passages that were raised, totaling about 110 words, and the Princeton text said, “those allegations did not constitute a violation of the research misconduct policy,” meaning that the work was not fully examined. 

This, to put it mildly, leaves the findings incomplete. Plagiarism findings such as this are often warning signs of additional copying in the work. By limiting the investigation to the specific allegations and not investigating the works involved completely, they left the door open for what Magness did, namely post new allegations of plagiarism in the work.

Those allegations may require a new investigation, which takes more time and drags the story out even longer.

There is a possibility that these new allegations were actually discovered and dismissed. However, once again, we have no way of knowing that due to the lack of transparency.

In short, the approach virtually guarantees that the cloud will hang over Kruse, whether he deserves it or not. The lack of transparency, combined with the apparent lack of a full investigation, simply gives those accusing Kruse more ammunition.

Bottom Line

To be clear, I don’t think that the findings of the investigations were necessarily incorrect. I noted in my original article that such plagiarism allegations are routinely handled with delicate, if any, correction.

Though it may seem hypocritical for Cornell to discuss intent when their policy says that unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism, it’s important to remember that plagiarism is not a bright line issue and that intent is always weighed when determining what the response should be. This is true for students and faculty alike.

After all, accidental plagiarism may still be plagiarism, but it makes no sense to punish a student who forgot a citation the same as one that bought an essay online. 

Still, both Cornell and Princeton did Kruse no service. The investigations were not transparent and appear to be incomplete. The allegations against Kruse did not warrant punishment by themselves, but they did warrant a thorough investigation. It’s unclear if that investigation happened.

In the end, nothing was ever going to satisfy Magness and Kruse’s other detractors. They would not have been happy until he was jobless and completely disgraced. However, that was never likely to happen with these particular allegations.

As we said in the first article, the well is poisoned here. However, it’s a well that Kruse himself helped poison, using his position as a professor to make snap judgments on plagiarism cases involving political opponents.

As such, we’ll likely never have a full recounting of what happened, and that does both Kruse and the public a disservice. 

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