Kevin Kruse and Plagiarism

Slowking4. Kevin M. Kruse, “reading at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.“ (13 January 2019). CC BY-NC 3.0.

Over the last few days, Twitter has blown up with allegations that the Princeton-based historian, Kevin M. Kruse is a serial plagiarist. This follows some sleuthing by the economic historian, Phillip W. Magness, who has uncovered several damaging passages in Kruse’s PhD thesis and his book One Nation Under God. To make matters worse for Kruse, he has a history of suggesting that “text-book” plagiarism would result in expulsion from Princeton.

From my UK perspective, the Royal Society defines plagiarism as a form of “academic misconduct”:

Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion

As I will explain in this article, I do not think that what Kruse has done can reasonably be shown to be dishonest. Therefore, according to the Royal Society, it would not amount to Research Misconduct and therefore not plagiarism. Plagiarism must be deliberate.

If, however, we take the American Historical Association’s definition of plagiarism, then Kruse undoubtedly plagiarised. As Kruse is an American historian working in the US, I will work with this definition. The AHA website states that: “Writers plagiarize, for example, when they fail to use quotation marks around borrowed material and to cite the source, use an inadequate paraphrase that makes only superficial changes to a text, or neglect to cite the source of a paraphrase.” Further, “The AHA considers plagiarism to be the failure to properly acknowledge the work of another, regardless of intent. … Claiming otherwise provides easy absolution for sloppy work and convenient cover for plagiarists, since intent to deceive is often impossible to prove.” So plagiarism is itself the act of reproducing material and ideas without full and proper acknowledgement, whether the plagiarist intended to do so is irrelevant in determining whether plagiarism has occurred. Intent matters only in determining the gravity of the offence: “An instructor does not need to consider intent until after he or she establishes that plagiarism has occurred, when it becomes important in assessing sanctions.”

To me, this makes complete sense. If a student or academic has deliberately cheated or stolen intellectual content, then it is right to apply sanctions which reflect the gravity of that offence. If they have unwittingly made a mistake, perhaps a product of poor note-taking, “sloppy” proofreading or a failure to understand proper academic practice, then that is a different matter. With this distinction in mind, academic institutions often divide academic misconduct into two categories: poor practice or negligence; and unfair practice or malpractice. The former is a mistake by students. The latter is the calculated effort to cheat. So the question, then, is did Kruse intend to deceive his readers by knowingly passing off other people’s work as his own?

As noted, Magness provides evidence from two sources: Kruse’s PhD thesis and the monograph One Nation Under God. In each case Magness has uncovered, Kruse has liberally reproduced the same language of the original author with little effort expended in paraphrasing. For instance, Kruse wrote on page 215 of One Nation Under God:

From the first day, the large committee room was packed to capacity, with a long line of would-be spectators waiting outside. Reporters crowded the press tables, while television crews clogged the hallways with lights and equipment for spot interviews.

These 39 words bear a striking similarity to a 1964 US House Judiciary Committee hearing report:

The first day of the hearings, the large committee room was packed to capacity. A long line of spectators waited outside for admittance. The press tables were crowded with reporters. Television lights glared outside the room for interviews with Congressmen and for other bits of news.

Kruse has made some superficial changes to the phrasing and word order, but essentially the text is the same. In his defence, Kruse has cited the passage in his endnotes (chap. 7, note 22, p. 330 — “Report on Hearing on Becker Amendment,” Report from the Capitol, April-May 1964, 4). This, based on the AHA definition, would amount to plagiarism. Kruse should have reproduced the text as a direct quotation, complete with quotation marks. However, there is no clear intent to steal here, what we have is shoddy paraphrasing which reproduced far too much of the language of the original text. The other objection Magness has drawn from One Nation Under God, is that Kruse incorporated a piece by Elizabeth M. Fowler which appeared in the New York Times in 1956. Magness again quotes both:

Fowler: “But it is reported that President Lincoln, mindful of the dwindling gold supply, said that a more appropriate motto for the greenbacks might be the remark of the Apostle Peter: ‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, I give Thee.’”

Kruse: “Lincoln, aware that the gold supply supporting ‘greenbacks’ was dwindling, joked that a more appropriate motto might be found in the words of the apostle Peter: ‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee.’”

Magness notes that “Other elements of Kruse’s 2015 book showed similarities to Fowler’s prose, with only minor changes; in total, the textual commonalities continue for more than a page.” Having examined the two, I would suggest that Magness is stretching the definition of “only minor changes”. As the gobbet he provided shows, Kruse did a rather more thorough job of paraphrasing. So, to my mind at least, the case against Kruse here is much less solid. I suspect that Magness may agree, as he concedes that “Kruse’s 2015 book does include a footnote with a partial citation to the location of Fowler’s article (although he omits any credit of her by name).” Highlighting that the citation is incomplete is rather thin gruel. Many historians, like Kruse in this instance, only include the name of the paper and date of publication (myself included on occasion, it’s bad for sure).

So, in terms of One Nation Under God, I am unconvinced there is much of a case to answer. Of Magness’ two examples, only one short passage would, in my opinion, amount to plagiarism, and it would be very difficult to sustain a charge that Kruse deliberately intended to steal the short passage, it is far more likely that he was simply, to use Magness’ word, “sloppy”.

That brings us to Kruse’s PhD thesis. Here I think the case against Kruse is more clear-cut. Magness presents at least six passages from Roland H. Baylor’s Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta (1996), which appear near-verbatim in Kruse’s PhD thesis. While each passage is short, they add up to nearly a page of Kruse’s dissertation. Similarly, Kruse also incorporated a passage in his introduction which is near identical to the text of Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996). Worse still, Kruse does not include a direct citation to either passage.

There is no doubt, in my mind at least, based on the AHA definition, that these passages are plagiarised. The question we then have to ask goes to intent. As noted above, the AHA view is that when it comes to determining if plagiarism has occurred intent does not matter, but intent does matter when it comes to the application of sanctions. This position is consistent with that of other learned societies. As noted above, the UK’s Royal Society takes the view that while plagiarism as a form of “Research misconduct” it adds that “Research misconduct does not include honest error”. In my reading of the offence, it strikes me that Kruse very likely committed an “honest error”. He cites Baylor and Sugrue in other parts of the thesis and includes them in his bibliography. If you intend to steal from other authors, why cite them elsewhere and draw readers’ attention to them? The truth all told, these passages also present some utterly banal, common-knowledge facts. One of the examples, highlighted by Magness, read as follows:

Bayor: “At one time or another such notables as W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan, Ralph Abernathy, and Julian Bond lived within its borders.”

Kruse: “Central figures in civil rights history — such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Martin Luther King, Sr. and Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan, Ralph Abernathy, and Julian Bond — have lived inside its limits at one time or another."

If you’re going to deliberately steal, is this really the bag of intellectual swag you misappropriate? A list of luminaries who have lived in Atlanta? I think not.

So, we are dealing with poor academic practice as opposed to unfair practice. This distinction matters here because Kruse’s critics have speculated that he could (perhaps should) be fired by Princeton and that his PhD award be revoked by Cornell. However, if this had come to light while Kruse was a research student, I do not believe that a disciplinary panel would have recommended such a sanction. First, as we have established, to reach the benchmark of unfair practice, intent matters. Second, the passages themselves are short and combined represent only a fraction of a percent of the dissertation. Third, the plagiarised passages in my estimation do not really add to the thesis. As noted above, is the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta a significant contribution to the argument? No. The materials Kruse reproduced and failed to properly acknowledge are largely filler fluff which pad the introduction.

Revoking a Doctorate based on this infraction — “sloppy” work — would be a punishment which simply does not match the crime. Mistakes happen all the time. Imagine that, over the course of years, you have read thousands of primary and secondary sources. You’ve taken notes from these sources, including direct quotations and paraphrased passages, but you haven’t always adequately made it clear in your notes which are which. It is easy to see how these mistakes creep in. I’ve taught many students who have made this kind of mistake and when it is pointed out to them they are mortified. Of course, it’s still poor practice and may result in a reduction in marks, but an allegation of cheating? Surely not.

Some have accused Magness of doing a political hatchet job on Kruse, this I think is unfair. Magness wrote to Kruse and offered him the right to reply. Magness then included that reply in his article:

I asked Kruse for an explanation of the aforementioned examples from his dissertation. Responding by email, he indicated his “intellectual debts to Prof. Bayor and Prof. Sugrue in the text, endnotes and bibliography” but acknowledged that I had “found instances here in which I inartfully or incompletely paraphrased them. Again, thank you for bringing this to my attention and for giving me the opportunity to respond.”

Magness also directly suggests to the reader that “sloppiness”, as opposed to dishonesty, might well be the issue: “Do passages such as these qualify as ‘textbook plagiarism,’ as Kruse charged Clarke in 2017, or a simpler form of sloppiness?” As I hope I have made clear, my own conclusion is the latter and this, as Kruse’s reply makes clear, he admits.

The real case against Kruse, again in my opinion, and others very well may disagree, is that he has been hypocritical. In 2017, the Milwaukee Sheriff, David Clarke, joined the Trump administration. It was revealed by CNN that Clarke had “failed to properly attribute his sources at least 47 times” in his Master’s thesis. Clarke had at least cited them all, even if he had borrowed much of the same text — as Kruse has apparently done — and Kruse wrote that “We’d expel a student who pulled this.”

Yet the case against Sheriff Clarke and Kruse are essentially the same. In Kruse’s case, the volume of problematic material was significantly less (at least based on the evidence Magness has provided), but Clarke at least always cited his sources. if pushed to make a judgment, I’d personally view Clarke as having made a more egregious error — size matters in this context — but would I “expel” him or revoke his Master’s? Absolutely not.

Some outlets on the conservative end of the spectrum have suggested that Kruse’s case is comparable to that of former Princeton Professor Joshua Katz. Well, they are not. Katz was fired because he formed a sexual relationship with a student under his supervision. This was reported, it was investigated, Katz lied to the investigation committee, when that came to light he was eventually fired. There is no comparison. Academic standards are important, but the duty of care we have to students is essential. Existing regulations, across every institution I have looked into limit sexual relationships between students and teaching staff — in the UK the usual rule is any such relationship must be reported to the institution and adequate measure put in place to avert control or favouritism, in the US it us usually a blanket ban — and sensible, these rules exist for obvious reasons. The idea that Katz was fired because he is conservative is rubbish. He was fired because he slept with a student and then mislead the investigation.

All in all, I think Kruse has a *lot* of egg on his face — don’t we all? — but is he a cheat, a thief and a charlatan who should be banished from academia? Not at all.

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