Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol of the Labour Party is already caught in a major battle over hospital restructuring and funding. Now she’s also on the equivalent of a political life support system, as she struggles to fend off charges that she’s also guilty of plagiarism. Her boss, Labour Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, is standing by her, for now.
Just a day after Kjerkol’s government colleague Sandra Borch of the Center Party resigned her ministerial post over plagiarism came reports that Kjerkol may need to do the same. Newspaper VG revealed on Saturday that Kjerkol’s master’s thesis contains some of the same text as in an earlier academic thesis.
Kjerkol, unlike Borch, has firmly denied she’s guilty of plagiarism. She attributes questionable text in the joint thesis she delivered, along with a fellow student to Nord University in Levanger in 2021, to the “methods” they used. Even though the text is suspiciously identical to that in another student’s thesis from 2015, Kjerkol claimed live on NRK’s nightly newscast Dagsrevyen on Saturday evening that “we haven’t copied (text), we have used the same methods, and use the same source credits” as those in the earlier thesis that also involved public health care issues.
As details continued to emerge through the weekend, professors, editors and health care professionals started demanding Kjerkol’s immediate resignation. They claim it’s highly improbable that sources interviewed in Kjerkol’s thesis and those in the thesis from 2015 would formulate their answers in exactly the same manner six years later.
“If she gets away with this it will be a scandal,” Hans Fredrik Marthiniussen, a law professor at the University of Bergen, told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday. “This isn’t just plagiarism, it’s cheating on research.” He was highly indignant regarding Kjerkol’s alleged “methods,” claiming Kjerkol has portrayed others’ research interviews as her own.
Dr Charlotte Haug, former editor of the Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association (Den norske legeforening), agrees. Haug, a doctor and 10-year veteran of the board of the international Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that “there’s no doubt” Kjerkol’s master’s thesis amounts to “theft of others’ work.” Asked what consequences that should have, Haug said that’s “up to the prime minister to decide.”
Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre had told reporters on Saturday that the plagiarism “mistakes” in Borch’s case were “not compatible with her role as minister in charge of research and higher education.” He immediately accepted Borch’s resignation on the grounds that it’s essential his government ministers have public confidence.
Støre hasn’t been as firm in the case involving his Labour Party colleague Kjerkol. Already on Sunday, he told newspaper VG that it was “important to gain a full overview” of it, and on Monday he said he wants to wait for a review of Kjerkol’s alleged offenses by Nord University. He thus refrained from firing Kjerkol, despite all the academic criticism flying around her, and she didn’t offer her resignation.
“This case raises questions about the integrity of theses delivered at institutions of higher education, which is something the government is working on,” Støre stated in prepared remarks at a press briefing Monday evening. “This is therefore a case I take seriously and want to be evaluated thoroughly, in line with regulations and how responsibility is allocated.”
Støre acknowledged all the criticism of Kjerkol among academic professionals, but claimed it should be “up to the university or college, and not me as prime minister, to evaluate what’s a violation of the rules along with how serious it is and eventual consequences. Each student has a right to be evaluated based on procedures that apply at the unversity, and that’s a right that must also apply to Kjerkol.”
She has admitted that parts of her thesis’ text come from earlier theses, but maintains she and her fellow master’s degree student collected the same information through their own interviews. Just as DN was reporting on Monday that it had detected three more examples of questionable text in Kjerkol’s master’s thesis, she also gained some support from an assistant professor at the University of Stavanger, Thomas Laudal. He has evaluated other masters’ candidates’ theses over the past 12 years, read Kjerkol’s thesis during the weekend and told NRK that he found “very little copying in general.”
Laudal doesn’t think “copying” is problematic when it’s “clear they (Kjerkol and her fellow student) built their case on their own data and have studied their literature very well.” NRK noted that Laudal has had ties to the Labour Party himself, but stood for last year’s local elections as a member of the Greens Party.
Others were firm in their criticism of Kjerkol, including Janne Haaland Matlary, a professor of political science at the University of Oslo. She told DN on Monday that the only “logical consequence” is for Kjerkol to resign like Borch did on Friday. “Borch at least admitted to plagiarism, while Kjerkol is making excuses, fogging up the picture and dragging this out in time,” Matlary told DN. “There is no doubt this is plagiarism.”
Kjerkol, who had spent the weekend at home in Størdal in Trøndelag, returned to Oslo on Monday and dropped an international meeting of health ministers she was supposed to attend at the OECD in Paris this week. “It’s natural for the minister to be in Oslo now,” one of her political advisers, Per Anders Torvik Langerød, wrote in an email to NRK on Monday. She did not, however, appear with Støre at his press briefing, nor did she have any further comment of her own.
Norway’s already embattled prime minister has had to replace nearly half his ministers in connection with various offenses during the first two years of his coalition government with the Center Party. It remains unclear how long the review of Kjerkol’s master’s thesis will take, while details of the academic examination will not be made public apart, presumably, from its results.
“We will handle this like all other cases,” the rector at Nord University, Levi Gårseth-Nesbakk told NRK, “and its contents will be withheld from the public domain.”