Avoiding the Scoop, Sharing Your Sources

When it comes to sources, historians can be a proprietary bunch.

A 1998 book, Writing, Teaching, and Researching History in the Electronic Age: Historians and Computers, explains what I mean better than I can:

Historians, having invested untold hours of research in digging out the fragments of evidence they need to string together their arguments, develop a certain proprietary feeling toward their documents. This is only natural, especially when it is combined with the institutional pressures to publish and specialize that foster competition among researchers.

Essentially we are afraid of getting “scooped.” We put lots of time and effort into collecting sources, writing about them, (waiting), and publishing our results. But what if someone beats us to the punch? Or otherwise steals our thunder?

This fear is unsubstantiated, but I’ll indulge it for the moment. If the risk of getting scooped exists, the book cited above is right: sharing the sources which you yourself have collected only aggravates this risk. I spent months researching at the Shanghai Municipal Archives, and I’ll be damned if my documents end up in someone else’s footnotes before mine (so goes our paranoia over scooping…)

Yet, on the other hand, there are more and more discussions about data-sharing ongoing in the humanities and social sciences.

Political scientists, for example, are developing guidelines and platforms to do just this (see DA-RT, or the Data Access and Research Transparency initiative). These efforts are in part a response to at least one infamous case of data manipulation: Michael LaCour’s bogus study in Science on persuasion and gay marriage.

History is not being completely left out of the data-sharing discussion. In its Standards of Professional Conduct (2011), the American Historical Association writes that:

Professional integrity in the practice of history requires awareness of one’s own biases and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead. Historians should document their findings and be prepared to make available their sources, evidence, and data, including any documentation they develop through interviews.

These guidelines aside, it seems to me that historians have considered data-sharing slightly less than our colleagues in political science. This is probably because we often deal with different types of source materials than political scientists (less original quantitative and survey data) and because the field of history hasn’t been dogged by such high-profile cases of footnote fraud (someone correct me if I’m wrong). Our footnotes, moreover, should provide a clear roadmap to our sources.

But above all, I think it is our proprietary instincts and fears of “scooping” which stand in the way of historians sharing their sources.

There is a very easy solution for historians to proactively implement the spirit of the AHA’s recommendation while avoiding the “scoop”: simultaneously publish your results and your data.

Online repositories, digital archives, and even personal websites can be used to host primary sources. Even better, you can use the web to your advantage: include a URL to every one of the documents you cite.

I prepared an article manuscript in 2014-2015 on South Korea’s diplomacy with anti-communist Asia from 1955-1957 based on materials from the Syngman Rhee Institute at Yonsei University. As I was writing the article, I also added the documents I cited to the content management system behind the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive. At this point, the documents were not public, but I was able to get URLs for them. I included the (non-live) URLs in my footnotes:

An example of the footnotes in my draft paper

When I submitted the article to the International History Review, I explained my intentions to the editor: the URLs in the footnotes were not active yet, but they would become publicly visible when-and-if the journal accepted my manuscript. This was being done in the interest of collegiality and transparency.

When I (finally) received an acceptance notice a couple of weeks ago, I quickly followed up on my promise. I published all of the documents online, ensured that everyone one of my footnotes included a URL, and double-checked that all of the links worked:

Footnote number 1 in the final version of my manuscript submitted to IHR

I also went ahead and created a dedicated collection on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive on “South Korean Diplomacy in Asia, 1955-1957” to house all of the materials, plus a few more, than formed the basis of my research.

Of course, not all archival data can be published: many archives hold copyright on their documents (thus requiring researchers to obtain permission to re-publish); there could be sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) in documents; etcetera. A researcher may have legitimate concerns about publication of sources.

Still, I would encourage historians to think about sharing their sources in this manner. You get first dibs on the documents, you don’t have to worry about scooping, you are being transparent, and you are offering a generous professional courtesy.





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