On 10 September 2019, Columbia University announced that it had concluded an investigation of Charles Armstrong for academic misconduct concerning his book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992. Coming some nine months after initial indications that the university might be taking action, the announcement stated explicitly that Dr. Armstrong had been judged guilty of plagiarism and would be on leave until his (early) retirement in 2020. This, in the sense that it ended Armstrong’s career in academia, brought to a close a drama which had been unleashed three years prior.
Writing now, in September 2019, we can see that in the six years since the publication of the Tyranny of the Weak in 2013, the book has lived two very different lives. The first was from its publication through to 2016. During this period, the book was an award-winning text, worthy of discussion, citation, and even emulation, a touchstone and a calling card for its author, an entry point to global lectures and all the rest. But since the posting of an ever-expanding Brian R. Myers blog post “Revoking a Recommendation” in September 2016, the book took on a second life in which it rightly became an object of scrutiny and, finally, the anvil that smashed Armstrong’s reputation completely.
During the first life of the book, Sino-NK put together a roundtable review, and solicited a response to it from Armstrong himself. For the authors of these reviews and the short essay that precedes them, it does not make for comfortable reading today. Indeed, after Columbia’s announcement we briefly debated whether or not to simply remove our roundtable altogether. However, we rapidly concluded that there has been more than enough disappearing evidence already — Armstrong’s blog, for example, to say nothing of his phantom citations. We do not wish to evade our own role, either, and besides, Armstrong’s response to our roundtable reviews may prove of interest to those seeking to contextualise not only the text but also the case against its author, as well as the period 2013-2016, when Tyranny of the Weak was still being acclaimed, and to assess why the text was able to rack up a series of plaudits without more rigorous questions being asked about its source base.
The saga of how and when each of us subsequently read and researched the academic deception that runs through the core of the text, particularly Chapters 2 and 3, and how we each chose to respond to it (or not) is largely a collection of individual stories. In a more perfect world, we might have had a dedicated meeting about the book and our review, written up responses to the detailed allegations put forward by Balázs Szalontai, and thus waded more centrally into the dispute. We perhaps could have taken a line more akin to former Sino-NK managing editor Charles Kraus in his thoughtful discussion about transparency and cooperation in historical studies, and promoted that essay or expanded upon it. There may have been merit in pushing for a meeting of the Council of the British Association for Korean Studies to discuss if it really wanted to print a copy of Armstrong’s September 2016 keynote speech in London in its association journal, which is edited by Adam Cathcart. But we did none of these things. And we left our roundtable review alone.
There were a few things that we did do. Armstrong’s North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 book was on the reading list for Adam Cathcart’s “Korean War” course at the University of Leeds, so he set aside a full week each year to discuss the Armstrong plagiarism case, including setting an exam question about it for the past two consecutive years. Having reviewed the Szalontai table of citation problems and the available evidence, the University of Leeds Library independently came to the decision to include a cautionary note in its copy of the Tyranny of the Weak and to include the table of plagiarized or fabricated sources as an insert into the text. (Ironically, that text has now been stolen from the library, leaving only the second edition of the book.)
And now, Tyranny of the Weak is living its third life, a time in which its legacy is clarified, and greater detail about the book’s gestation comes into view. For those few readers who may still be in doubt about the academic indefensibility of Tyranny of the Weak, nothing could be more explicit than the draft Columbia University report published by Retraction Watch, a document which explains precisely why Armstrong has been stripped of his rank and seen his text now fully repudiated. The investigation document indicates how transparent Armstrong’s excuses were, and how hollow his attempts to push back against the allegations. There is a certain irony in a scholar whose published research was so successful in arguing the premise of small-state autonomy in the Cold War essentially telling the Columbia investigation panel that his reverse-engineering of Szalontai’s citations was justified because whatever the Hungarians had noticed, the Soviets surely must have noticed more extensively, and on the same day.
None of our work within the limits of our capabilities at the edges of the case was helped by Cornell University Press, which cast a fog of ambiguity over the second edition of the book, insisting on calling it a first edition “with corrections,” and not issuing a press release of any kind. But the press, under new leadership, has now done approximately the right thing, saying that the book will go out of print (although at time of writing the revised edition was still for sale). Meanwhile, readers of the Columbia draft report are digesting a new type of bombshell, having discovered that the academic dishonesty around the book did not follow from 2006, when Szalontai published Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era, but has its root way back in 2003 with an initial plundering of Szalontai’s Central European University dissertation.
For its part, the academic community is left with a negative example of precisely how not to do research. It is not just a matter of the theft of the work of Balázs Szalontai, though it is certainly that. It is also about a mixture of sloppy research methods, a certain arrogance that one would not be caught, a large measure of self-deception, and what must have been profound anxiety or “imposter syndrome” about professional success and meeting tenure and promotion standards (standards and pressures which, it goes without saying, are confronted by most academics without resorting to plagiarism).
It is hard to know if this has all been a huge waste of time and effort, or if in fact not enough time and effort has yet gone into dredging the episode for lessons for the future. At any rate, one further tangible outcome is that insofar as the English-language historiography is concerned, the North Korean past is now somewhat less defined than it used to be. And maybe that, at least, is not entirely a bad thing. It is our intent at Sino-NK to contribute further to the debates to come in this area.
We at Sino-NK we remain committed to rigorous editing, mentoring of new voices and scholarship, multilingual research both archival and otherwise, collaboration and co-authoring, transparency and ethics, and mutual criticism and mutual encouragement. We would like to apologize to Balázs Szalontai for not having done more to work through the Armstrong text to expose its flaws in our 2013 reviews, and in 2017 in particular. We will not withdraw our roundtable, however, or indeed Armstrong’s response to it, as we believe both should remain part of the historical record around this regrettable and entirely preventable case.
Sino-NK is a scholarly collective of Sinologists and Koreanists dedicated to documenting and analyzing the borderland dynamics, transnational ties, and history of Northeast Asia. Work published on Sino-NK is regularly cited in journalistic outlets and our analysts have been featured in a range of academic publications. Sino-NK endeavors to better understand North Korea’s relations with the world and to chart a path forward for digital (and) academic analysis. Read more