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A lesson from the Charles Armstrong plagiarism scandal: Separation of the judicial and the executive functions

[updated link]

Charles Armstrong is a history professor at Columbia University who, so I’ve heard, has plagiarized and faked references for an award-winning book about Korean history. The violations of the rules of scholarship were so bad that the American Historical Association “reviewed the citation issue after being notified by a member of the concerns some have about the book” and, shortly after that, Armstrong relinquished the award. More background here.

To me, the most interesting part of the story is that Armstrong was essentially forced to give in, especially surprising given how aggressive his original response was, attacking the person whose work he’d stolen.

It’s hard to imagine that Columbia University could’ve made Armstrong return the prize, given that the university gave him a “President’s Global Innovation Fund Grant” many months after the plagiarism story had surfaced.

The reason why, I think, is that the American Historical Association had this independent committee.

And that gets us to the point raised in the title of this post.

Academic and corporate environments are characterized by an executive function with weak to zero legislative or judicial functions. That is, decisions are made based on consequences, with very few rules. Yes, we have lots of little rules and red tape, but no real rules telling the executives what to do.

Evaluating every decision based on consequences seems like it could be a good idea, but it leads to situations where wrongdoers are left in place, as in any given situation it seems like too much trouble to deal with the problem.

An analogy might be with the famous probability-matching problem. Suppose someone gives shuffles a deck with 100 cards, 70 red and 30 black, and then starts pulling out cards, one at a time, asking you to guess. You’ll maximize your expected number of correct answers by simply guessing Red, Red, Red, Red, Red, etc. In each case, that’s the right guess, but put it together and your guesses are not representative. Similarly, if for each scandal the university makes the locally optimal decision to do nothing, the result is that nothing is ever done.

This analogy is not perfect: I’m not recommending that the university sanction 30% of its profs at random—for one thing, that could be me! But it demonstrates the point that a series of individually reasonable decisions can be unreasonable in aggregate.

Anyway, one advantage of a judicial branch—or, more generally, a fact-finding institution that is separate from enforcement and policymaking—is that its members can feel free to look for truth, damn the consequences, because that’s their role.

So, instead of the university weighing the negatives of having an barely-repentant plagiarist on faculty or having the embarrassment of sanctioning a tenured professor, there can be an independent committee of the American History Association just judging the evidence.

it’s a lot easier to judge the evidence if you don’t have direct responsibility for what will be done by the evidence. Or, to put it another way, it’s easier to be a judge if you don’t also have to play the roles of jury and executioner.

P.S. I see that Armstrong was recently quoted in Newsweek regarding Korea policy. Maybe they should’ve interviewed the dude he copied from instead. Why not go straight to the original, no?


  1. I totally support this idea. We’ve talked about this before: there must be some way to reach closure on the factual questions. After that, the institution/employer will have to decide what to do about those facts. It seems on the face of it not serious to let an entity that is tasked with doing something depending on what the facts are determine what those facts in fact are.

  2. I would be very interested in the disposition of that case b/c of my own interest in historical methodologies and bibliographic sources.

  3. zbicyclist says:

    “I see that Armstrong was recently quoted in Newsweek regarding Korea policy”

    I still see Doris Kearns Goodwin on the news shows.

    Maybe hers wasn’t as egregious. Or, maybe you can put your “crime” behind you after a while.

    • Andrew says:


      Yeah, it seems that the three crucial attributes possessed by Goodwin and Amstrong are: (a) an ability to give quotes for the news media, (b) a willingness to do so, and (c) being well connected.

      It’s funny—there are a zillion experts out there, but not many who are well connected to the news media.

  4. Good point. we rely on too few experts for the very reason you stated. I haven’t followed tv expertise much in last few years.

  5. Kaiser says:

    I would separate the university setting from the corporate setting. Both are dysfunctional but the organizational structure is different. In the corporate setting (not all but most corporations), the CEO is an authoritarian figure (“You’re fired!”), and because of this, the CEO typically has amassed a group of yes-persons around him (extremely infrequently, her). The board supposedly has oversight but most often “independent” board members are appointed by the CEO. So yes, the CEO sets his own rules. At a university, given that senior faculty has tenure, and the organization is decentralized, the dynamic must be a bit different.

    On the probability matching problem, is there a good reference for how it applies to measuring accuracy in predictive models?

  6. Adede says:

    And now he has been fired…or placed on “sabbatical” for a year before his “retirement” at the end of 2020.

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