Amid Dispute, Award Returned

Honor for history book is given back amid criticism of its citations. Author says there are 52 errors he sees as accidental and mostly minor, but others see more fundamental problems.

July 5, 2017

The John K. Fairbank Prize of the American Historical Association each year honors the best scholarly book in East Asian history. The prize includes $1,000 and is a major honor, named for the late Harvard University professor who was for many years dean of the field.

Last week, the AHA announced that the 2014 prize had been returned, amid continuing controversy over the book that was honored, and questions about its citations. The book is Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992, published by Cornell University Press and written by Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University.

The announcement from the AHA said, "After careful review the AHA identified a set of citations that did not meet professional standards. In response to AHA queries, Dr. Armstrong reviewed his work and the underlying scholarship and identified a number of instances where the source citations were incorrect. Dr. Armstrong has corrected the citation errors and, out of respect for the AHA, has returned the Fairbank Prize."

Via email, Armstrong said, "I would rather not go into the details of the errors at this point, but I can tell you that Cornell University Press has issued a corrected edition that I believe will be available in the next week or two." His Columbia website and the Cornell press site still list the award he has now given back.

James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said the association reviewed the citation issue after being notified by a member of the concerns some have about the book. Asked if the AHA would have rescinded the award had Armstrong not returned it, Grossman said there is "no established procedure" to rescind an award and that situations such as this one are rare.

Dean J. Smith, director of the Cornell University Press, said paperback and electronic versions of the book are about to be available, with corrections made by Armstrong. He said the press was considering some sort of notification to those who bought the original version. Smith said the press reviewed the book after the corrections were made and believed that its substance was accurate and was not affected by the citation errors.

The dispute has in recent months concerned a number of Korea experts, who say that the volume and nature of errors is problematic. In past statements by Armstrong, he has characterized the mistakes as unfortunate but stressed that they were unintentional and that they do not undercut the ideas of his book.

The most vocal critic has been Balazs Szalontai, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, in South Korea. He first asserted that there were 76 citation errors, some of them related to his work not being credited and some related to translation issues. More recently he published another critique, identifying further errors, bringing his list to 90.

In his first post, Szalontai wrote that the fixes Armstrong made were insufficient, particularly with regard to Szalontai's work. Szalontai says the lack of credit amounts to plagiarism. "The so-called corrected edition will effectively repeat the acts of copyright violation," he wrote. "Worse still, readers of Tyranny will remain exposed to the risk of reproducing statements based on unreliable, uncited or nonexistent sources." (Via email, he said he had not reached out to the AHA on the issue.)

B. R. Myers, an associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University, in South Korea, published a detailed analysis of the controversy in which he said some of the errors were indeed minor, adding, "Let him who has published an error-free first edition get worked up about them." As examples, he cites some incorrect dates (incorrect by days) in some German documents cited.

But he wrote that, in other cases, the citations were for publications that did not relate to the material cited. For instance, he cites a footnote that relates to a reference to a writers' congress that took place in North Korea. The footnote leads to a publication that makes no reference to this meeting, so a reader has no basis for knowing where the information came from, Myers writes. He cites several other such footnotes that, he says, do not relate to the material covered. In other cases, Myers argues, the material appears to come from others, who were not properly credited (and he includes Szalontai among them).

Myers repeatedly notes that, as a scholar, he has made mistakes in his own scholarly writing and had to correct them later. But he argues that Armstrong has not acknowledged the significance of some of the errors in his book, or the significance of having so many errors.

In December, Armstrong published an explanation of the errors, saying that he had notified the Cornell press of 52 errors for correction. Armstrong cites several reasons for the errors. He notes that he is a scholar of East Asian history and thus "came to the study of Russia" late in his career. As such, he said, his Russian language skills are more limited than his other language skills and contributed to some errors.

Further, he writes that "the book’s narrative was constructed through multiple transfers of notes, some made by my research assistants and others done by myself. This too, in retrospect, may have resulted in some inaccuracies." Armstrong goes on to cite a few examples of errors that may strike most readers as minor -- and notes that he has corrected them. He says all of the errors were honest mistakes, and that no attempt was made to deny credit to others or misrepresent his findings.

Armstrong closes his note by saying, "I appreciate the efforts that Szalontai and his collaborators have made to correct inaccuracies in my references in Russian, German, Chinese and Korean. Having addressed these errors, I reaffirm Tyranny of the Weak as a solid work of scholarship whose arguments remain valid both in the historical record and in the way North Korea deals with the world even today. For those who find the book flawed, inaccurate or insufficiently researched, the answer is simple: write a better book. I would look forward to reading it."

Some of the criticism of Armstrong of late comes from the way he started his statement on the errors: "Since early this past fall, a group of people, including Dr. Balazs Szalontai, has circulated lists of problems with my book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 (Cornell University Press, 2013), to a number of institutions and online forums. Dr. Szalontai never communicated his concerns or criticisms directly to me prior to these various posts on different blogs. Why direct communication, a common professional courtesy and practice in academia, was not the preferred form of expression remains a mystery. Szalontai currently claims there are problems with 76 citations, and he claims that these problems seriously undermine the book and cause great 'damage' to the academic communities of Korean studies, Cold War studies and Soviet studies. These 76 citations amount to approximately 8 percent of the 1,000 or so footnotes in the book."

Some say that 8 percent is a serious proportion of footnotes to be incorrect, and that taking a swipe at Szalontai was inappropriate.

Wrote Myers, "The Columbia professor attributes improper academic conduct to Szalontai. That tells you all you need to know. As Fyodor Tertitskiy [a Ph.D. candidate at Seoul National University] pointed out last month, no honest scholar who had accidentally lifted dozens of items from a colleague would dream of scolding him for not complaining courteously enough."


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