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Speaking truth to power: The biggest scandal in Korean studies should be talked about

Fyodor Tertitskiy, PhD candidate, Seoul National University  |  2016-12-13 11:19
The Korean Studies community now faces perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of the discipline and one of the biggest in the history of the academic community. Charles Armstrong, a professor at Columbia University, has been accused of plagiarism and falsification of sources in his recent book Tyranny of the Weak (2013). In other words, he is accused of stealing from the work of other researchers and deliberately deceiving his readers on many counts. These are the most serious transgressions a scholar can commit in a publication. In 2014 Armstrong was awarded the John K. Fairbank Prize for his book. If the accusations are correct, it means that the prize committee was deceived as well.

A related table composed by Balazs Szalontai, also available at the end of B.R. Myers blog post on the same issue, shows that in the book there are over dozens of references to apparently non-existent and irrelevant sources -- and the list is not yet complete.

Basically, the accusations can be divided in three categories. First, there is an issue of what is sometimes called unacknowledged citations and less euphemistically, plagiarism. It seems that Armstrongs book largely borrows from Balazs Szalontais book Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era (2005) without proper acknowledgement, and several other prominent scholars work was plagiarized as well. One can download the table mentioned above and see dozens of such cases.

Second, most of the acts of plagiarism itemized in Szalontais table are accompanied in Tyranny of the Weak by spurious citations of Russian or German sources. Upon checking, one finds that the source is either completely unrelated to the subject or simply non-existent. 

Third, there are numerous factual errors that reflect unawareness of relevant sources. For example, Soviet counselor Petrov is twice called ambassador (pages 84,86) in the book. A rank of a diplomat is usually mentioned in every document he/she signed, so one would suspect that such a mistake would have probably not been made, should Armstrong actually have read the Soviet documents. Moreover, a Russian Wikipedia page has a complete list of USSR Ambassadors to North Korea, so a person who knows how to read Cyrillic script could have checked this or, absent such skills, sought out someone who could.

Even one of these three things would have been enough to question the books integrity. One can see how extreme the situation is, since they are brought all together. It seems that other scholars work was copied from and a series of fake sources were invented to cover the plagiarism, while the author made mistakes suggesting he had not actually read documents on the topic about which he wrote.

With the exception of Oxbridge, Ivy League universities are considered to be the worlds best. People think very highly of professors being employed there. They would expect a Korean specialist working there to speak perfect Korean and to write brilliant research – and at the very least, not to commit acts that would put even a high school student in trouble.

Lets think about this for a moment. How would an innocent person react to an accusation of this type and scale? He/she would probably be furious, and would rebut the accusations one by one, presenting strong arguments against each of them. He/she would make sure that after his response no sane person would question his/her good name and reputation.

And how would a guilty person respond? Well, a guilty individual would probably do his/her best to avoid talking about particular accusations since he/she cannot refute them. He/she would probably try to present his/her transgressions as small and insignificant errors, and would try to switch the topic of discussion to something else – like his/her work being strong overall, or imply that his/her main critic holds against him/her an inexplicable grudge.  

The most regrettable part of all is that Armstrongs reaction until now has fully corresponded with the latter pattern. I managed to locate two publications in which he answers to his accusers. The first appeared on NK News, a media site specializing in North Korea, with Armstrong stating the following: 

"Armstrong, when contacted by NK News, did not comment on any of the specific issues critics have raised with the book, but insisted he was working with his editor and the Cornell University Press to rectify the problem.

'Rather than respond individually to each specific point, I would like to take all of the criticisms into account and make necessary corrections and proper attribution where appropriate, and I have discussed this with my editor,' he said in an email." 

"'I dont believe any of the alleged errors undermine the basic arguments of the book, but certainly where problems are found they need to be corrected.' 

The second one appeared here on a collective blog named Retraction Watch. Amongst other things, Armstrong said this about Szalontais accusations:

"I have, as far as I know, never offended him. Ive known him for years, and appreciate the work hes done. His book appears in my bibliography. I dont understand why he would come after me this way."

Thus, not a single accusation is rebutted. Instead, claims that the book is still somehow valid are accompanied by an effort to present Szalontais table of factual evidence as a personal attack.  

I dont believe an innocent person would react like this. However, I may be wrong. The only way to make members of the academic community trust Armstrong again is for him to come out and respond to every single accusation in Szalontais table, but as we have seen, he is either unwilling or unable to do this. 

Finally, although this is an unprecedented scandal, it seems to me that many of those who have heard about it are too afraid to come out and even discuss it in public. An Ivy League universitys professor is a powerful figure, especially in a small field. Even mentioning that he has been accused of plagiarism and falsification may bring about personal repercussions, they think--safer to stay quiet.

I disagree. Basic standards of research cannot be maintained if we do not discuss and condemn plagiarism and deception when we believe them to have been committed. We in Korean studies cannot afford to have lower standards of academic ethics than other scholars do. Let us not be silent.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.
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