Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

Today I put up a different kind of video in which I discuss the recent prevalence of fraud in academia, and why we haven’t seen any historians involved. Hint — it’s not the historians are more honest.

I wanted to add a footnote here. I mentioned in the video that it is hard to track down miscitations. That’s because there is virtually an infinite amount of historical documents, and few people are familiar with any particular ones. If you write a history book, it is possible that you are citing things that no historian has ever read before. Even if your sources have been studied before, there are probably only a few people alive who have seen them. When a journal or a press sends out a work for peer review, they send it to someone who has studied things similar to what the work is on, but it is entirely possible that none of the reviewers have actually read the documents. That means that reviewers can only comment on your argument; they aren’t in a position to verify your veracity.

I’ve always been bothered by this, but the extent of the problem became clearer to me when I read (in an article I cited about Belleisles’s work) that law journals actually have a team of people who verify citations. This shocked me. Now, law citations are usually easier the track down that primary historical documents (and they did this prior to the internet age), but this is still an enormous amount of additional work. Why do it? An attorney cited in the article puts it simply: “Law reviews check facts because lawyers lie.”

Do we have any reason to believe that historians are more honest? I’m sure historians would like to think so, but I’m inclined to think that unlikely. And remember, we’re talking about law journals, not cases where lawyers might lie to try to win. They have nothing to gain here except a publication — which is the same thing that historians have to gain by lying. I am reminded of an admonition of Thomas Jefferson: “Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so.” It is a grave mistake to assume that people in academia are more principled than those in other professions. It has recently become obvious how much that is true in the sciences, and we would be naive to assume that it is different in history. I wonder if journals should not try to implement some sort of citation checking along the lines of law journals. True, this would entail additional expense; but it would also increase the value of the material published, so that journals following this pattern could charge more because they vet their materials.

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