misquoted, misunderstood? no, it’s misrepresentation that gets to me

A while ago I was part of a tweet conversation about being misquoted. I think it began with someone asking whether anyone had been misquoted and what it felt like. I said that I had, and volunteered to blog about it. Another tweeter, Greg @effectsofnaplan, if I remember correctly, asked if the issue was not one of misquoting but of misinterpretation. I took that on board and now, months later, here is the promised post. It’s taken a while because I’ve had to sort through a few issues for myself, and work out how to make the post constructive, and not just a whinge. Judge for yourself if I’ve managed that.

It’s always interesting to see yourself cited. This interest is, in my experience anyway, not primarily about whether the citataion might add to some kind of metric of academic worth. No, I think the interest comes from seeing which work has been used, and how. What has this other scholar found to be relevant? Has the work been used as a building block to support a new argument, or is the writer taking issue with what I said?

It is often a shock to see yourself quoted. In our tweet conversation Martin @mweller observed that he often didn’t recognize his own words, and his first response was usually “Did I say that?” I recognize this response and I reckon it’s because we can’t generally remember our exact sentences, although we do generally recall very well the point that we were making and the shape of the argument.

Mostly, seeing yourself cited is interesting, affirming and, even if the writer takes issue with something you’ve written, it does mean the work is being taken seriously. The times when I have negative reactions to seeing myself cited is when I think/feel the work has been misrepresented.

So not misquoted, or misinterpreted, but misrepresented.

Let me give you an example. I have to be specific here so I’ve chosen an instance where I’ve been able to make this point to the writer. The example comes from a doctoral thesis I’d been asked to examine. I as chosen on the basis of the researcher using a bit of my work as foundational for their study. Please forgive the specifics here as I elaborate what I mean by misrepresentation.

The doctoral thesis was a study of headteachers’ work. The researcher argued the necessity for heads to be charismatic leaders. They had taken from one of my books some definitional work about charismatic leadership, and an analysis I had conducted of head-teacher recruitment advertisements which showed that governing bodies were looking for charismatic leaders. However, the chapter from which these were taken actually argued that the scholarly and training orthodoxy was of distributed leadership, that policy and inspection practices were designed to tick off both charismatic and distributed leadership, and that this duality placed many headteachers in a pretty impossible situation. I suggested that in practice the distribution of leadership amounted to delegation. In other parts of the book, and in much of my other writing on the topic, I’ve made a case for a more participatory approach – in training, policy and practice – to school leadership and management.

So the problem was the cherry-picking of something that was useful to the doctoral researcher, without due recognition of my overall argument. Anyone reading the doctoral thesis would conclude that my work supported the case made in the thesis. In reality of course, the doctoral research was diametrically opposed to my own. All it would have taken for me not to feel seriously misrepresented was for a simple caveat to be made in the text, or even a footnote, which said that my definition and empirical work had been used, although my actual argument was very different from what this thesis was suggesting.

I’ve seen this kind of cherry-picking before and since, and not just in relation to my own work. A while ago I refereed a journal article in which a paragraph from the introduction to an edited collection was used to suggest that the book editor occupied a particular ideological position. I was really surprised to see this since I knew the person’s work. So I went to find the book which I actually had on my bookshelf. My reading of the introduction and the text was that the article writer’s interpretation was a gross simplification and thus a misrepresentation of the book editor’s position. Needless to say I suggested in my referee comments that this amounted to pretty sloppy scholarship, in nicer terms of course, and far nicer than the ways in which the book editor’s position had been depicted.

So is there a moral to this little post about misrepresentation? Well yes, I think there is.

The lesson here goes to understanding that pieces of any academic work/text fit within an overall argument. It’s important to understand and acknowledge their place in the whole, as well as their utility as a part.

I always suggest in workshops and writing courses that when doing literature work and when noting texts, one of the very first things to do is to summarise the argument. I think after writing this post I might add that it’s important to use this information about the argument later when choosing citations. It’s critical when using parts of texts to use the summary of the argument to avoid the situation where textual bits and pieces are used willy-nilly to misrepresent the writer’s overall intention.

I think I’ll say that it’s of course OK to use bits and pieces of someone’s work in your writing – but if the overall argument is importantly different, just note this succinctly.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, citation, misinterpreting, misquoting, misrepresentation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to misquoted, misunderstood? no, it’s misrepresentation that gets to me

  1. I am a doctoral candidate with Saint Louis University in Missouri. Your posts are always very helpful to me as I progress through my research. Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to blog.


  2. Pingback: misquoted, misunderstood? no, it’s misrepresentation that gets to me | Metawriting | Scoop.it

  3. nickhopwood says:

    Reblogged this on Nick Hopwood and commented:
    An excellent post on the perils of cherry-picking and what it means to cite and be cited well


  4. This made me smile.. I’ve had to live with being grossly misrepresented where I study and work for about 6 yrs now – I’m not sure we’re ever faithfully represented, I’m not sure we would know how to do so ourselves. However, I understand the point of your argument and agree with it to a large extent. Yet, I’m worried that the sort of ‘cherry-picking’ you describe may be a practice that the system encourages – at least in the social sciences (if perhaps less so in the biological sciences (?)).


  5. Pingback: Workshop: Scientific Work — Topic Notebooks | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

  6. Pingback: an ethics of analysis and writing | patter

  7. Pingback: An ethics of analysis and writing – educationandsocialpolicy

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