On Academic Ward Bosses — B.R. Myers

I’ll say this for the press, having recently said a few things against it: a journalist at a respectable newspaper who was found to have linked plagiarized information to a bogus source 8 times, let alone 80, would be out of a job very quickly. But this makes it all the more remarkable that no major news outlet reported on the scandal surrounding Charles Armstrong’s prize-winning book Tyranny of the Weak (Cornell University Press, 2013), which contained 83 separate linkages of plagiarized information to irrelevant or — more often — non-existent East Bloc sources. Nor did any big paper except the New York Post report in 2019 on Columbia University’s decision to force the professor into early retirement.

In contrast, evidence of relatively minor research misconduct in Arming America (Knopf, 2000), a study of 18th century gun ownership, made the Emory professor Michael Bellesilles the object of several critical articles in both the New York Times and Washington Post. He resigned in 2002, but the press dredges up the affair in regular updates on his effort to live it down. So it is that he and not Armstrong is thought responsible for “arguably the greatest scandal the historical profession has ever seen” (The Week, 18 September 2019).

Why did the more newsworthy story — an Ivy League research hoax dealing with the perennial headline topic of North Korea — go virtually unreported on? Armstrong’s bland centrism had something to do with it; neither the left nor the right saw anything to crow over. (The gun lobby went after Bellesilles.) A more important reason, I believe, was that the scandal would have embarrassed the top echelon of US academia, and by extension our intelligentsia, at a time when all their authority was thought necessary to counter Trumpism and “fake news.”

The field itself, it seems, is yet to come to terms with what happened. To my knowledge I remain the only person to have revoked a recommendation of Tyranny. None of the Koreanists who publicly accused Szalontai in 2016 of “sour grapes” or “cyber-bullying,” of having “no balls, no decency,” etc, has apologized. In October 2021 a Canadian Koreanist tried to frame the scandal in passing as a methodological controversy over actual research, even warning gothically of “temptations” inherent to archival work. (My understanding is that archival work didn’t tempt Armstrong enough.)

But now the European Journal of Korean Studies gives us Robert Winstanley-Chesters’ account of the Tyranny affair, a welcome step forward. A brave one too, for which I commend both the British geographer and his editors. The title of the article (which deals with other cases as well): “Authorship, Co-Production, Plagiarism: Issues of Origin and Provenance in the Korean Studies Community.” This is a much more dispassionate and thorough chronicle than the one I created here piecemeal as everything unfolded; the precise nature of the research misconduct that went into Tyranny is discussed in great detail. Winstanley-Chesters also fills readers in on the Columbia committee’s report, quoting, for example, its conclusion that Armstrong had “more likely than not” made uncredited use of Balazs Szalontai’s work even in his tenure application package (2003), which has conveniently gone missing.

We learn too that the committee found against Armstrong in all 61 of the cases of alleged misconduct that it chose to examine (namely cases in which his bogus Russian or German source bore the exact same date as Szalontai’s authentic Hungarian one). There’s an interesting revelation in puncto Soviet archives that I won’t spoil here. Also noted is an allegation of sexual assault that a former student has leveled against Armstrong, who denies it.

I have to admit, I’m much less interested in the Tyranny hoax itself than in the academic power elite’s efforts to sweep it under the rug. Like, say, how the American Historical Association privately informed Armstrong in 2017 that it would have to revoke his Fairbank Prize, only to let him “voluntarily” return it weeks later. That kind of thing. But Winstanley-Chesters prefers

to use the experiences of 2016–2019 to explore previous moments of unsavory, unconventional or substandard academic practice in Korean Studies both historically and in contemporary times. 

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see a Koreanist grouping “unconventional” with “unsavory” and “substandard,” but this reverse-chronological, large-to-small approach seems odd, like bringing up a recent bank heist only to draw attention to old shoplifting cases. We’re taken from the drama of Tyranny to the story of how, in the late 1990s, an Italian lifted stuff from a prominent American’s translation of an old Korean text and got quickly rebuked for it. No collegial wagon-circling then. Why did the field react so differently, 20 years later, to a far more serious case of misconduct? I would have liked to see this question answered or at least asked. Winstanley-Chesters alludes in passing to the power Armstrong had amassed, but the declared goal of this article is

to question and consider issues of authorship, co-production and plagiarism in Korean Studies more widely than simply a highly detailed review of the issues surrounding Charles Armstrong. In order to do so the paper will have to a certain extent, define terms and concepts. When it comes to authorship or by co-production what do we mean as scholars of Korean Studies?

I think we mean what everyone else does. Neither the Tyranny hoax nor the attempted cover-up resulted from good-faith confusion that must now be brooded over with a lot of theoretical talk. Nothing good will have come of this bizarre and unprecedented scandal if we allow it to be filed away as “merely the latest example of the complicated navigation of notions of individual authorship,” to quote from Winstanley-Chesters’ astonishing conclusion. Complicated? Every college freshman knows that linking stolen info to bogus sources is wrong, always wrong, and that it can’t happen 83 times without an intent to deceive. It was because the old-boy network instantly grasped the import of our evidence that it attacked us for making it public. No debate over issues of “authorship and co-production” was even attempted.

The actual root cause of the whole affair was — must I say it? — the tendency of academic fields to concentrate too much power in the hands of one or two networkers. Most of my readers will know what I mean already. Let me explain for the benefit of the younger ones. Were I to become Korea Foundation Professor at Columbia University, and then get all the fellowships, journal and book editorships, board memberships and project managerships that accrued to Armstrong in his heyday, the whole tenor of Korean Studies in the West would change within a year, even if I did nothing to assert myself. Why? Because every Koreanist would have to reckon on encountering either me or someone intent on pleasing me at each key stage in his or her career: doctorate, journal submission, job interview, grant application, MS review, review of published book, tenure application, prize committee, and so on.

My main ideas would become orthodox very quickly. To be on the safe side, scholars would have to cite me within the first few pages of anything to do with North Korea. “This paper examines pre-natal care in Pyongyang, a city known for ‘enormous monuments’ (Myers, 2010)….” My citation index would go through the roof. Journals would give each new book of mine the double-review, roundtable, big-event treatment. Token acknowledgment of a flaw or two would be followed with something like: “But it seems petty to quibble with such an impressive….” Everyone who’d dissed me in the past would have to set out on the wanderings of Cain. “We can’t invite Fitz-Boodle to the Honolulu conference, not with Brian there. It would be awkward.”

All this would have a bad effect on more than just my work, for no academic community tiptoeing around a gatekeeper can compete with researchers working in freedom outside the gate. Each year my coterie and I would fall further behind. We’d have to defend ourselves by slagging off the outsiders, but rather than expose our disparagement to counter-criticism, we’d  restrict it to withering asides in classrooms, offices and conference breaks. The younger generation would get the message soon enough, and review our rivals’ work accordingly. Always the tactic in our own writings, to renew a formulation I’ve used elsewhere, would be that of moving cuckoo-like into the outsider’s nest with the air of being its first truly scholarly occupant. Naturally this would mean non-citation of the cite-worthy, shading into deliberate plagiarism and worse. And woe to anyone who called us out.

Junior scholars are more content with this culture than I’d always assumed. In Tied Knowledge (Sydney, 1998), which I wish I’d read earlier, Brian Martin writes: “Students and academics believe wholeheartedly in the necessity and virtue of a hierarchy of positions.” Yes. Go through that thread on the Korean Studies listserv in 2016, and you’ll see that young and old alike were much less bothered by the evidence against Armstrong than by the sarcasm with which the victim of his parasitical plagiarism presumed to address him. Whatever the author of Tyranny might have done he was an Ivy League professor, dammit, and that had to count for something.

A few self-styled neutralists even sounded us out on a proposal whereby Armstrong would wipe the slate clean by allowing Szalontai to co-host a conference with him. Yessir, the Hungarian would get to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the Columbia professor, quasi as his equal, right there on the opulent Manhattan campus! Surely there could be no ill will after that? 

I bring all this up again, for what I hope is the last time, not only to set the record straight, but also to urge anyone pondering a career in Korean Studies to think it over carefully. If nothing is changed, the field will get another ward boss in the last one’s place; it’s a matter of time. At the very least, the simple measure should be taken of ensuring that no professor sits on too many boards and committees. Or is even that asking too much?

Source: sthelepress.com

On Academic Ward Bosses — B.R. Myers