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From Whoops to Sorry: Columbia University history prof relives 1968

I haven’t had much contact with the history department here at Columbia. A bunch of years ago I co-taught a course with Herb Klein and some others, and the material from that class went into my book co-edited with Jeronimo Cortina, A Quantitative Tour of the Social Sciences. More recently, I’ve had some conversations with Matt Connelly, who organized a working group on computational social science. And I know some of the other professors socially through various connections. But I’d never heard of Charles Armstrong until I saw this item today in Retraction Watch: “Historian returns prize for high-profile book with 70+ corrections.”

According to the American Historical Association, 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.”

Going through the links in the Retraction Watch article, I found this story from last year, reporting a series of complaints by Balazs Szalontai which, if correct, imply that Armstrong did not just have “citation errors” but behaved unethically. (In his later note, Armstrong refers to the old, old excuse of “multiple transfers of notes, some made by my research assistants and others done by myself.”) Anyway, in that earlier post, Armstrong responded to Szalontai’s criticism with this:

I have, as far as I know, never offended him. I’ve known him for years, and appreciate the work he’s done. His book appears in my bibliography. I don’t understand why he would come after me this way.

As if the only reason one would want to criticize bad work is because you’ve been offended.

Flip it around, and you see that Armstrong was saying, essentially, that all he has to do is “never offend” people and include their books in his bibliography, and he should be immune from criticism.

I followed another link and found this detailed report by Szalontai, “Invalid Source Citations in Tyranny of the Weak: My Response to Professor Armstrong’s Explanation,” which includes lots of damning details, for example this sequence:

Armstrong had written:

Szalontai then took this apart, bit by bit:

Wow. There seem to be three things going on here: (1) Getting the meaning of the quoted passage entirely backward (a big-deal correction almost entirely occluded by Armstrong’s dry-as-dust correction notice); (2) How the error happened in the first place, given that the research assistant was a native speaker of Korean and the supervisor received a diploma in Korean language; and (3) That horrible way that supervisors like to blame their errors on “research assistants.”

Szalontai pushes further on that last point:

Also this, from that old Retraction Watch post:

Armstrong noted that none of the errors he has discovered so far undermine the main conclusions of his book:

Not that I agree with all of the criticisms. But to the extent I can find them to be justified, I am correcting them. And so far I find nothing that affects the core arguments of the book.

Jeez . . . if none of these fake citations affected the core arguments of the book, why include them in the first place? I guess cos he felt it would make his arguments seem stronger. I hope Armstrong will take the next step and apologize to Szalontai for dragging this out for so long.

Of course I’d be happy to hear any other side of the story, if there is one. Maybe Matt Whitaker has some relevant perspective to offer here. In the meantime, it’s sad to see this sort of thing happening at Columbia.

Let me conclude with one more item, this one from Armstrong’s blog, after he got caught with his hand in the citation cookie jar but before he decided to return the prize:

Since early this past fall, a group of people, including Dr. Balazs Szalontai, has circulated lists of problems with my book . . . 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.

This is just ridiculous. Armstrong’s the one who ripped off Szalontai and listed false citations in his book. What ever happened to “direct communication, a common professional courtesy and practice in academia”? Did Armstrong engage in “direct communication, a common professional courtesy and practice in academia” with Szalontai before taking and garbling the material from his book?

Armstrong’s book is in the public record. It has errors, and those errors, too, should be in the public record. To the extent that the contents of his book matter at all, readers should have access to the correct information right away.


  1. Thomas says:

    We have to stop letting professors pass the buck to their research assistants and graduate students. It cannot become the norm that being thanked in the acknowledgments for your hard work on a book puts you at risk of being accused of the author’s plagiarism. An author will often say something like “any errors are of course my own.” We seldom notice it, but it is an absolutely crucial part of being an author, i.e., the authority behind the words in the book that has your name on it.

    I’m sure we can find examples where people who have said this in their acknowledgements forget it completely when trying to deflect a plagiarism accusation. Armstrong, in any case, appears to have left it out. But he does find time to mention that, on at least one occasion, he discussed his ideas “over some of the best vodka to be had in Paris.” Being a professor has its perks. And responsibilities.

    • Jonathan (another one) says:

      Any errors are my own, well, not really my own, but it’s the sort of thing one says, innit? In fact, the only errors that are really my own are the ones I can’t blame on my research assistants, the printer, Microsoft Word autocorrect, sunspots, a rough night last night at the pub, a nasty breakup, my genetic inheritance, or, if all fails, quantum superposition of my text followed by an ex ante unlikely collapse of the wave function, by you, the reader. So leave me alone, because my last line of defense is: You did it!

      • Kyle C says:

        I recently read a preface to a book in which the author thanked his thesis advisers, then added (tongue in cheek), “Any errors in this book I blame on them for not training me better.”

  2. Statsgirl says:

    What a mess. And the award committee didn’t notice any of these problems?

  3. Armstrong Szalontai says:

    Columbia recently awarded him a Presidential Innovation Fund Grant

    Charles K. Armstrong Receives 2017 President’s Global Innovation Fund Grant from Columbia
    June 1, 2017 by Ross Yelsey

    Charles K. Armstrong, the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia University, has received a 2017 President’s Global Innovation Fund Grant from Columbia University for the project “Educational Exchange with Scholars from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Professor Armstrong will coordinate the project with Joseph Terwilliger, Professor of Neurobiology (in Psychiatry, the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, and in Genetics and Development) in the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. The projects selected all make use of the network of Columbia Global Centers and provide opportunities for faculty and students to address pressing global issues.

  4. Armstrong Szalontai says:

    Interesting details from an IHE article that downplays Armstrong’s fraud (no mention of accusation of at least 55 cases of faked sources) and, along with the publisher’s reaction (Cornell UP), carries echoes of the Whittaker-Nebraska Press case. But Whittaker ultimately faced justice.

    “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.'”

    “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.”

    It’ll be interesting to see how the book will be “corrected” especially the faked sources. Guess we’ll see in a “week or two.”

  5. Arbys says:

    The whole post on the affair on the blog of B.R Myers is actually even crazier:

    The Armstrong book appears to involve nothing less than wholesale theft of the entire research effort of this earlier author Szalontai. I have no connection at all to Korea studies but found this entire situation really appalling.

  6. Armstrong Szalontai says:

    How widely is the Armstrong situation known on the Columbia campus? Why didn’t the Spectator catch on?

  7. Armstrong Szalontai says:

    In the meantime, no sign of his corrected edition promised by Armstrong and Cornell Press Director by mid-July. A check with Harvard Coop shows no record of such an edition forthcoming and thus impossible to pre-order.

    Looks like a ruse to throw off the scent.

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