A Teachable Moment: Data-Sharing & Historians

Scholarship flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and candor, which should include the scrutiny and public discussion of academic deception. (AHA, 2011)

Several days ago B.R. Myers, a historian and writer, published a post on his blog, Sthele Press, challenging Charles Armstrong’s book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992, for what Myers called “text-citation disconnects.”

Myers’ critical review piqued my interest, in part, because Tyranny of the Weak has been so widely praised for its underlying source base. Documents in Russian, German, Chinese, Korean, English, and other languages populate the footnotes. Awarded the Fairbank Prize by AHA in 2014, the book, on paper, looks like an impressive, deeply researched international history of North Korea.

But Myers’ detective work revealed some troubling things about the award-winning book:

  • the archival sources Armstrong cited, at least in a handful of cases, do not say what Armstrong says they do
  • at least in a few parts of the book, Armstrong probably derived information from another scholar’s original work, but instead of citing the scholar, he borrowed sources from their footnotes

The post was shared on the moderated Korean Studies listserv, and a few stakeholders in the debate subsequently chimed in:

  • Balazs Szalontai noted a few more examples of the archival documents cited in the text not corresponding to Armstrong’s claims (one, two, three, four, five, six), as well as cases where it appeared that Armstrong probably got his information from a secondary source (including Szalontai’s own Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era)
  • Andrei Lankov provided more evidence that Armstrong misattributed the source of several of his claims or misrepresented his documents
  • Jim Hoare and Stephan Haggard cautioned that mistakes inevitably crop up in the researching/writing/publishing processes and that before dismissing Tyranny because it contains a few errors, we need to weigh whether the mistakes fundamentaly undermine Armstrong’s argument
  • Charles Armstrong admitted some error and stated that he would take steps to rectify his mistakes, but otherwise “stand[s] by [Tyranny] as a sound work of scholarship” (one, two)

I don’t really want to intervene into these aspects of the discussion, other than to say that Myers, Lankov, and Szalontai have raised some valid questions but that further review is still required to determine the scale and seriousness of the “text-citation disconnects.” I personally can’t offer such an evaluation since I lack the linguistic faculties to seriously evaluate how Armstrong used his German, Russian, and Korean language sources.

I do want to take the conversation in another direction: toward data-sharing. I think this is a “teachable moment” for historians, one that shows how data-sharing can usefully promote transparency, accountability, and debate amongst scholars.

The online discussion about Tyranny of the Weak has been able to unfold in part because of data-sharing. Not everyone scrutinizing Armstrong’s research has been to Moscow, Beijing, or Berlin. They have still, however, seen some of the same sources, drawing on online repositories such as www.DigitalArchive.org to access Russian and Chinese language documents. Szalontai, for instance, challenged Armstrong on his characterization of two Chinese Foreign Ministry files (available online here and here).

These are two small examples of data-sharing being used to hold a researcher accountable. But data-sharing is not just an asset for would-be critics. Historians who are confident in the integrity of their work can preemptively share their sources, perhaps even for the benefit of peer reviewers. Put the documents online or deposit them in a library. I did this with my article on decolonization and cold war in anti-communist Asia: every footnote referencing a primary document includes the archival citation and a URL to read the document online. I have no expectation that others will draw the same interpretations as I did from the documents, but at the very least they can see that I faithfully represented their contents.

I’ve previously discussed data-sharing as a courtesy historians could offer to one another (and one which need not aggravate the perceived risks of “getting scooped”). At that time, I also noted that historians have so far been reluctant to share data, probably because the discipline had not been hit by a high-profile case of alleged academic dishonesty. As I said, I don’t want to, nor can I, tender a verdict in this particular instance. Whatever your thoughts on the seriousness of Tyranny of the Weak’s “text-citation disconnects,” however, I think you’ll agree that data-sharing is helping to facilitate an important discussion about this piece of scholarship.

Historical research has to involve a dialogue among historians over the same sets of sources. This is how scholarly knowledge of the past develops and improves. Data-sharing can facilitate and enhance this critical component of historical methodology. Herein lies the silver lining in an otherwise regrettable academic episode which has not brought out the best in some scholars. Through Tyranny, we can now more clearly see the value and importance of data-sharing among historians.

UPDATE (2016-09-27): There is now a long Google Sheet documenting more than 30 cases of “text-citation disconnects” in Tyranny and offering detailed explanation for each case (link).

UPDATE (2016-10-03): B.R. Myers adds more evidence to Sthele Press (jump down to his update, also dated October 3), recounting his failed efforts to track down German documents cited by Armstrong. His critique of the discussion is also notable.

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2 thoughts on “A Teachable Moment: Data-Sharing & Historians

  1. In puncto my “detective work”: I wish I could lay claim to such a sharp eye! I had good reason for writing in my blog that I did not discover the problems but “became aware” of them. I did track down and read both the North Korean newspaper article (example 3) and the East German document (example 4). But I would not have thought to do so if not for a tip from a superior researcher. No doubt the whole story will come out soon enough.

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