Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Human Error

In the past week, I’ve been engaged in one of the things I like least about academic writing (although I’m sure I’m not meant to admit it) – laboriously checking every fact, statement and reference in an article that I’m about to send off to a journal. It’s the end-game: after months, and maybe years, of reading, thinking, analysing, writing, redrafting and redrafting again the very last thing we’re meant to do before unveiling our research to the wider world is to check that all the nuts and bolts are in the right place – or, put more bluntly, that what we’re saying is error-free. So this means double-checking every date against some reputable source, and in particular going through every footnote, using library catalogues to check you’ve got the details of the publication right, your own notes to ensure that the book/piece you’re citing does indeed say what you thought it did when you devised your own arguments, and returning to originals where necessary.

The messy reality - a double-checking check list.

Done properly, this is hugely time-consuming and extraordinarily dull, involving not only hours in front of a screen staring at footnotes in 10 point font, but bitty trips to libraries to check a page number here, the spelling of a 16C surname there. Meticulous double checking of every single detail really is the pedantic end of academia. But it’s important because it’s also the intellectual bedrock of what we do as historians, as it anchors our work to the known ‘facts’, both major and obscure. It gives us whatever credibility we have.

The more I write, the more I realise just how many tiny slips creep into a text unnoticed as you work with it, like a file slowly corrupting itself. I’ve also realised that different academic cultures regard those tiny slips in different ways. In the English-speaking world,  it seems to me, it is assumed you’ve done all you can to check the accuracy of your information and references, but fellow scholars are mostly sanguine about the fact that any piece of research, no matter how exhaustively checked by how many people, will still have some small mistakes left in it. In certain European academic cultures, by contrast, where history is still regarded as a science, error remains a disgrace: 100%, infallible technical and typographic accuracy is the basic expectation of any academic. Reviews of history books in some countries frequently consist of nothing more than a list of the minor errors the reviewer has gleefully identified, and publicly castigates the wretched author for, regardless of the wider value and achievements of the work itself. Like some of the more pragmatic 16C religious reformers who grappled with expunging sin from their communities, I think the 100% error-free article is a lofty, almost transcendental thing to aspire to, but in the meantime we have to accept gracefully  the messy reality of human error.

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