the perils of provenance

Steven Spielberg believes young filmmakers should understand the provenance of the ideas and conventions that they see in contemporary films.

Speiberg argues that film-makers need to go back to learn from the past. It’s not all about the new and the now. Is this a message for academic writers too? Well, we certainly all understand the importance of acknowledging sources in academic research and writing and what happens if we don’t. Plagiarism. 

But understanding provenance is not simply a matter of avoiding plagiarism. It is also about avoiding the production and reproduction of falsehood. If we wish to make credible claims we need to base our research on credible claims. So it is critically important for us to understand our antecedents. It is vital that we understand the provenance of the ‘facts’ we build our own research upon.

There’s a paper that illustrates this point very well. When I teach research methods I often ask people to read Academic urban legends by Ole Bjorn Rekdal. Today, as I’m writing this post, the paper is open access, but it’s not always. I’m going to quote some pieces of the paper so you get the drift of Rekdal’s argument.

Rekdal’s paper concerns spinach.  We all think that spinach is good for us, right? Yep, Popeye and all that. Well it turns out that spinach is actually not any better for us than most other green vegetables. And Rekdal begins his paper by describing how his interest in the myth of good spinach was sparked. It happened when he read a paper which debunked the notion that spinach contained a lot of iron and was therefore a veritable vege super-food.

The following quote, including the reference, is taken from an article published by K. Sune Larsson in the Journal of Internal Medicine:

“The myth from the 1930s that spinach is a rich source of iron was due to misleading information in the original publication: a malpositioned decimal point gave a 10-fold overestimate of iron content [Hamblin, 1981]. (Larsson, 1995: 448–449)”

Rekdal first of all considers how he might write about this misunderstanding.

How, then, should I properly pass on the important messages I learned from a single sentence in Larsson’s article? The following seems like a fairly appropriate paraphrasing of the original text:

“The idea that spinach is a good source of iron is a myth that was born in the 1930s, due to a misplaced decimal point, causing the concentration to appear ten times higher than its real value.”

But how is Rekdal to appropriately cite the source of this insigh, to acknowledg it’s provenanc? What should he put in a subsequent academic publication?

In academia, the following is fortunately a far more common way of passing on such a message:

“The idea that spinach is a good source of iron is a myth that was born in the 1930s, due to a misplaced decimal point, causing the concentration to appear ten times higher than its real value (Larsson, 1995: 448–449).”

Here, I simply and honestly refer directly to the source where I found the information, and I am even courteous enough to provide exact page numbers for readers who would like to verify it, or who may be interested in exploring whether there is more to learn from Larsson. The problem in this case is that I omit a piece of information: the fact that Larsson’s statement is based on an entirely different source, namely Hamblin (1981). In other words, I am referring to an article that I very well know is a secondary source, and thus hide from my readers the fact that Larsson actually just passed on information published by Hamblin 14 years earlier. A good reason for avoiding the use of secondary sources in academia is that messages that pass through several links have the unfortunate tendency to become modified or altered along the way, as in the whisper game. My readers will in this case think that Larsson is the primary source, and my statement will therefore look more solid and trustworthy than it actually is.

But if Rekdal is to avoid citing a secondary source as if it were the original, then what is he to do?

An even more honest alternative would be to refer to my source in this way:

“The idea that spinach is a good source of iron is a myth that was born in the 1930s, due to a misplaced decimal point, causing the concentration to appear ten times higher than its real value (Hamblin, 1981, cited in Larsson, 1995: 448–449).2

This is a perfectly legitimate way of referring to sources in cases where it is difficult or impossible to obtain a primary source. The 1981 volume of British Medical Journal is, however, easily available for anyone with Internet access. Should this type of reference be used in this particular case, it could reflect a case of academic laziness, but coupled with utmost honesty. Another and perhaps more likely explanation is that we are dealing with an academic who has not understood the importance of the principle of striving to use primary sources in order to minimize the whisper game effect.3

Rekdal then considers another option which he says is “unfortunately… far more common than we should wish“.  He could solve the citation problem without consulting Hamblin (1981) at all:

“The idea that spinach is a good source of iron is a myth that was born in the 1930s, due to a misplaced decimal point, causing the concentration to appear ten times higher than its real value (Hamblin, 1981).”

In this case, I am referring directly to a source that I have not consulted myself, and in doing so I am committing an academic lie. The same degree of trust as in the previous alternative is present, but the difference is that the stakes are now much higher. What I hope to achieve with this type of reference is that nobody will discover my laziness. I simply pretend that I have taken the effort to consult Hamblin (1981), without having done so. In short, I have plagiarized the Hamblin reference from Larsson.

Having discussed the attribution problem, the remainer of the paper traces the consequences of Rekdal’s decision to hunt down the provenance. Rekdal wanted to find what seemed to be the original source of the revelation of the mistaken attribution of spinach’s extra nutritional power. He explains why he decided to do this in a paragraph that ought to be etched into the minds of any academic over-anxious to simply ‘get through’ their reading.

Referring to sources that one has not consulted can be, however, a risky business. Academics, as other human beings, do from time to time misinterpret or make errors that are not discovered by peer reviewers or editors, even in respectable journals such as the Journal of Internal Medicine. When several authors independently of each other manage to misrepresent a single source in exactly the same erroneous way, the explanation is either a statistically unlikely coincidence, or a case where authors have plagiarized references. Systematically patterned distributions of errors and misinterpretations are in fact common enough to make it possible to study the prevalence of citation plagiarism and the unfortunate consequences of the practice.

The reminder of the article concerns Rekdal’s investigation of exactly how the urban myth of the only average goodness of spinach was uncovered. Through a very careful account he reveals to the surprised reader that “Hamblin’s debunking of the myth about the exaggerated iron content was itself a myth” – but one that kept recurring through the literature long after Hamblin himself acknowledged his mistake, and even though he took great efforts to redress his original erroneous statement. It’s an interesting read and a fascinating bit of academic sleuthing.

Rekdal’s conclusion also gives pause for thought. He suggests that in a digital environment it is all too easy for something like the spinach myth to be created again (1). He argues that

The digital revolution has provided us with marvelous weapons for exposing and cutting down the prevalence rates of rumors and urban legends in academia. The problem is that the same devices can also be used for other purposes, such as contributing to what Haralambos Gavras (2002) has called the ‘Lazy author syndrome’: throwing a few keywords into a database to come up with an impressive list of references which at first glance cannot easily be exposed as secondary, irrelevant, unreliable, or sources not even read by the author.

This is something that we all need to keep in mind. Provenance is important – and also sometimes very, very tricky.

Notes

I haven’t given page numbers for my quotations from Rekdal as I’ve read an online version of the paper. What issues does that raise, if any?

These are Rekdal’s references – and note that I haven’t read any but the first one so I may very well be perpetuating the problem I purport to report on!

  • Gavras H (2002) Inappropriate attribution: The ‘Lazy Author Syndrome’. American Journal of Hypertension 15(9): 831
  • Hamblin TJ (1981) Fake! British Medical Journal 283(6307): 1671–1674. Available at: http://www.bmj.com/highwire/filestream/351132/field_highwire_article_pdf/0/167
  • Larsson KS (1995) The dissemination of false data through inadequate citation. Journal of Internal Medicine 238(5): 445–450

And (1) one of those often repeated scholarly  myths is that the vast majority of journal articles hardly ever get cited  – Rekdal also points out where and how this myth began.

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 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to the perils of provenance

  1. Elaine says:

    As my music teacher (Mrs Crisp) used to say: “If in doubt, leave it out”.

    Works fairly well with academic writing too, I think!

    thanks for this post, Pat

    Like

  2. lindathestar says:

    Professor Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay called The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone (In Bully for Brontosaurus, 1992, Penguin) that outlines the same concept of repeating a source without checking its accuracy. It influenced my academic habit of checking the source and citing primary sources. If he had been around in blogging times I bet he would have blogged interesting things–he was a prolific writer and this medium would have suited him. Love your work, Pat.

    Like

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