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  • The Harvard Crimson

    Fourth Black Female Harvard Scholar Accused of Plagiarism Amid Assault on DEI Initiatives

    William James Hall houses Harvard University's Sociology Department.Photo byRyan N. Gajarawala

    By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

    March 22, 2024

    Harvard Sociology assistant professor Christina J. Cross was accused of plagiarism in an anonymous complaint to Harvard’s Office of Research Integrity, conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo reported in the City Journal — the fourth Black woman at Harvard who studies race or social justice to be accused of plagiarism.

    The allegations against Cross mark the fourth in a rapid series of anonymous plagiarism complaints of varying severity lodged against Black women at Harvard amid a growing right-wing attack against diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

    Cross follows former Harvard president Claudine Gay; Sherri A. Charleston, Harvard’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer; and Shirley R. Greene, a Title IX coordinator at the Harvard Extension School, who have all faced plagiarism allegations since December.

    Though the allegations against Cross are the weakest of the four, plagiarism expert Jonathan Bailey said, Rufo’s posts on X received more than a million views and were amplified by X owner Elon Musk.

    In a series of posts on X Wednesday and Thursday, Rufo tied the pattern of allegations — which he has been pivotal in amplifying — to his broader crusade against diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at Harvard and across higher education. He also suggested that Black scholars who study race and diversity may have a higher proclivity toward plagiarizing.

    The allegations against Cross include 11 instances in her dissertation and five instances in a 2018 paper in the journal Population Studies in which she is accused of lifting language from other scholars. These instances include descriptions of datasets and methodology, as well as cases in which Cross uses identical language to scholars whom she cites but does not quote.

    Bailey disputed Rufo’s evaluation of the severity of the allegations against Cross, writing in an email to The Crimson that he felt these “were the weakest of the allegations so far.”

    “Where, previously, I said that there were issues but they were being overblown, here, I don’t see evidence of an issue,” wrote Bailey, who runs the blog Plagiarism Today and who previously reviewed the allegations against Greene at The Crimson’s request.

    Rufo, in his City Journal piece, wrote that Cross violated Harvard’s online “Guide to Using Sources,” which states that material taken from a different source should either be paraphrased and cited or directly quoted with citation. The complaint contained five excerpts where Cross used identical language with citation, but did not use quotation marks.

    Bailey wrote that four instances where Cross’s description of data and methods overlapped with other scholars without citation could be potentially problematic, but he added that “there’s a good chance the overlaps can be explained another way.”

    “This doesn’t even warrant a correction, let alone a retraction or firing,” Bailey added.

    The other instances, Bailey wrote, were “relatively meaningless overlaps that wouldn't likely catch anyone's eye doing a neutral plagiarism analysis.”

    Both Cross and the editorial office of Population Studies did not respond to comment requests.

    On X, Rufo — the first to accuse Gay of plagiarism in December — slammed scholars who came to Cross’s defense and called for greater scrutiny on the scholarship of Black academics who study race or diversity.

    “Let’s not ignore the pattern: This is the fourth black female CRT/DEI scholar to be accused of plagiarism at Harvard,” Rufo wrote in a post, referring to a school of legal thought known as critical race theory. “We need further research, including a control group of more rigorous fields, but initial reports suggest that the grievance disciplines are rife with fraud.”

    “One of my sources investigated white social-justice scholars at Harvard, but did not find plagiarism in their work,” he added in a separate post. “This is not dispositive, nor a large-scale survey, but the initial result suggests the strong possibility of a disparity in behavior, i.e., copy-pasting.”

    Rufo has presented no evidence to support these claims.

    Three scholars from whom Cross was accused of plagiarizing rejected the allegations in emails to The Crimson.

    Three of the allegations against Cross involved excerpts from a paper written by Stacey J. Bosick, who currently serves as the associate vice president of academic affairs at Sonoma State University, and University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Paula W. Fomby.

    Bosick wrote to The Crimson that she wasn’t “concerned that any path-breaking ideas have been stolen here” but that she was “more concerned about the disproportionate surveillance of black scholarship.”

    Fomby, who served on Cross’s doctoral committee at the University of Michigan, similarly wrote that she was “not troubled by the overlap.”

    “Indeed, it would be unusual for one researcher to cite another researcher’s description of a public dataset,” Fomby wrote in an email.

    The complaint also suggested Cross had copied a description of survey questions from a study led by Ann W. Nguyen, a professor at Case Western Reserve University.

    “After careful review of the claims suggesting that Dr. Cross’s work plagiarized from my research, I am confident in affirming that these claims do not hold merit,” Nguyen wrote, adding that “in describing a particular dataset, it is not uncommon that some type of boilerplate description of the data and variables within the data set is used.”

    The survey questions were drawn from a “publicly accessible, national survey” — the National Survey of American Life, conducted by the University of Michigan — not research by Nguyen’s team, she pointed out.

    In an emailed statement, Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Holly J. Jensen wrote that Harvard “has procedures in place” to respond to research misconduct allegations, but suggested that Cross’s dissertation — completed at the University of Michigan — would not fall under Harvard’s purview.

    University of Michigan spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email that “it is university policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.” She referred The Crimson to a public statement posted Feb. 20 reaffirming the school’s commitment to ethical research conduct.

    In an interview, Bailey said he was concerned that the recent spate of allegations represent the “weaponization of plagiarism” to score political points — not to deal with serious concerns of research misconduct.

    “It’s using plagiarism allegations, not to address issues of academic or research integrity, but rather to address political or social grievances that a person may have,” Bailey said.

    “It’s putting the focus not on the cases that actually impact science and impact academia” but on those that “are cases of political expediency,” he added.

    —Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

    —Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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