bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to read a research article

Posted in Academic Practices, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2016

At the University of Essex, where I teach, we have introduced a new assignment to help our second years with their preparations for choosing and researching a topic for their undergraduate dissertation. It involves each of them taking a research article and writing a short report on how the author would have gone about defining their topic and building up the evidence on which it is based. We appreciate that this could be a challenging task and so, in suggesting a couple of articles they could study from my reading lists, I have included one of my own articles with the offer of explaining how I came about writing the piece. I now realise that was rash: if the task of writing a report is challenging for them, it is all the more difficult for an author to think back to where they were intellectually a few years ago: the moment has passed and none of us, I imagine, would write now precisely how we did then.
What I can do which should be of some help is to give some hints of what an historian looks for when analysing a research article. So, here are some tips, meant to be of more general use, but which grow out of some reflections on an article entitled ‘Humanism across Europe: the structures of contacts’ which was published in 2012.

Not all research articles are equal. There is no one formula for a ‘research article’ – the term covers a range of styles of writing, and appear in a variety of publications. Some discuss the results of an investigation in a single archive, usually drawing out conclusions at the end. Others are more argument-led, with the research likely to be more eclectic. This is not simply a binary opposition: it is more like a spectrum, and my article falls closer to the ‘argument’ end than the ‘research’ end. As we shall see, however, no article can omit either of those two elements. You might well ask how you judge the article’s place on the spectrum – the basic answer is to pay attention to its content and how it is constructed but there is also another element which sometimes can help.

Be aware of the context. An article never appears on its own; it always appears in a larger publication. The classic format is for a research article to appear free-standing in a learned journal – in that case, it is unlikely for there to be dialogue between it and others in the same issue – but some journals increasingly produce ‘special issues’ where a set of essays discuss a related theme. This is similar to the collection of essays, like that in which my article appeared. In such a case, the author of the article you are reading may well be aware of what the other contributors have written and be engaging with them, even if it is by consciously bringing a different perspective. Look at where my article appeared and notice who was the editor of the volume: as it was the same person as the author, you can be sure that the chapter was written in full knowledge of the other contributions. You might even conclude that its purpose was to provide an overarching interpretation, placing the chapters that preceded it within a wider argument.

Check the date. Part of the issue of context is to understand when a work was written. We know that time’s arrow travels in only one direction: an article cannot be influenced by scholarship that appeared after it – and even the most assiduous academic may not be fully up-to-date with what has been published. So, the date of publication gives something like the cut-off point (the terminus post quem non) of possible influence – but it is only approximate. How long did it take the work to reach print? Was it written as a conference paper and the revised for publication, pushing the date of original composition back further? Are you using the original version or a re-print? Make sure you understand this element of the context: in a collection of essays, the preface will help; in an article, there is often a first footnote, listing acknowledgements but also, sometimes, explaining the origins of the work. Paying attention to these details will help you appreciate where the work sits in the historiography – that is, at what point it inserted itself in existing debates. That takes us to the next and perhaps most important point.

Find the debate. Historians are argumentative (and if one of them denies that this is the case, they have proven my point). Historians thrive by placing themselves in a debate, by detecting or creating disagreement so that they can then construct a new perspective. Any article, then, is more than its research: it forwards a position. How an article does this differs. Some might not even seem to be intent on making an argument, and some might be written as if what it has to say is not open to debate. In those instances, it is your essential task to detect how it fits into the historiographical scene and how it can be used to enlighten the big issues of scholarship: this creates the possibility that you, as an historian yourself, can use an article in ways the author might not have expected. But, as historians prize argument, it is unusual not to have the position being taken placed in the foreground. Admittedly, it is rare nowadays to find an academic in our discipline launching a full-frontal attack on another (‘Prof. X shows a shocking inability to do justice to the evidence…’) – and some would say we are better for that, even if it makes scholarship less entertaining for the readers. Some might even not mention an opponent by name in the text – my own style is often to talk about ‘the standard narrative’ or to remark ‘it has been argued…’. When that happens, how do find out who they have in their sights? The solution is to heed the next piece of advice.

Follow the footnotes. The text of an article and its footnotes relate to each other like the two hands on the piano. To read an article without paying attention to the notes is like hearing a melody without its base line – or, rather, an argument without its basis in evidence. The footnotes reveal what the text might hide: they reveal the author’s debts and disagreements – but they do more than that. They do not only help you more fully understand where the historian sits in a debate; they also make explicit the evidence – the research itself – on which the article and its argument is based. This is why footnotes matter so much to historians and why we disparage other disciplines which think that citations can be confined to a brief bracket at the end of a sentence: historians live by the demonstration of sound research their footnotes display. Or, sometimes, they fall because of their poor quality; more than one scholarly reputation has been damaged by the revelation that the author’s footnotes are inaccurate or, worse, borrowed – a kind way of saying plagiarised – from others. In my own area of study, footnotes most often cite unprinted primary sources (and so list a manuscript or document by its present location), though in the article I have set my references are more often to published editions.

Evaluate the evidence. By reading both the text and the footnotes, you can build up a fuller sense of the research that lies behind the article – and you can also begin to judge the strength of its argument. You will want to ask yourself what types of evidence are used and what range. Some articles will be tightly focussed on one set of materials, others will range more widely – but always with a sense of coherent whole to them. In my article, you will find several different types of primary material used, as well as what the social sciences call ‘secondary research’; that is, some statistics based on data-sets compiled by earlier scholars. As you think about how the author developed their article, you will also want to ask yourself: what is the most significant evidence used here? Remember that the way an article is written is very rarely an unfolding of the story of how the research was conducted. It is constructed after the research was completed and will order the evidence in a manner that makes it as convincing as possible, with the result that the most significant material is unlikely to be at the very beginning (or very end) of the article. So, what you are doing is understanding how the results of the historian’s time in the archives has been organised and deployed in order to make their argument persuasive.

Sense the sections. The consequence of this is also that an article is – like an essay you write should be – a set of steps. The author needs to lead the reader through the stages of the argument as the evidence is unveiled. Sometimes (but only in a minority of cases), these steps will helpfully be flagged up by sub-divisions in an article: these might involve sub-titles or numbers or (as in my article) simply an extra line-break. By being aware of these, though, you can get a better sense of how the author has arranged the information they have gathered. Of course, it is up to you as reader to consider whether the evidence could be organised differently or supplemented by other material, with changes to the argument as a result. When you do that, you move from being a reader to being a potential author, ready to do your own research and enter the sand-pit of historiographical debate.

Good luck.

Dickens, Dostoevsky and the Harvey Affair

Posted in Practices of Scholarship, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 5 May, 2013

Last month, the Times Literary Supplement gave an uncharacteristic expanse of print space to an extended Commentary article. It was by a Russianist, Eric Naiman, whose interested had been peaked by the description of an encounter between two giants of nineteenth-century novel-writing, Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens. The description of their conversation — or, rather, a self-revealing monologue by Dickens, as recorded by Dostoevsky — has excited public attention in recent years, and Naiman began his piece by puncturing that interest, pointing out the incident’s inherent improbability. Tracing the source of the description to an article by Stephanie Harvey in The Dickensian just over a decade ago, he began to uncover a web of published authors, who are mutually supportive to the point of replicating each other’s work. So, Stephanie Harvey had previously praised a novel by Leo Bellingham, published in 1981, which was re-issued, in revised form, in 2012 as the work of A. D. Harvey. Indeed, at the centre of Naiman’s story appeared to be the protean polymath, Arnold Harvey, who, it is implied, is probably also Leo, Stephanie and a few others besides.

The article has quickly become a celebrated work in various quarters: it is certainly an engaging story well told and perhaps, more fundamently, it speaks to a fantasy many have of turning our academic training to this sort of detective work, on display in such a high-profile location. There is something fitting about Naiman, an expert on Nabakov, revealing the multiple identities of a single individual. When I first read (and was mesmerised by) Pale Fire in the Penguin edition, complete with introductory essay, I could only imagine that the Mary McCarthy who wrote that introduction and entered so fully into the spirit of the novel must be an alter ego of the author himself. But not so: that essay was by the American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. It is an example of collaboration or complicity which is perhaps also there in the career of A. D. Harvey, who has had, on occasion, co-authors who are less than imaginary friends.

What, though, struck me most in Naiman’s article was the particularly unNabakovian moment when he dips his pen deep in righteous indignation. He comments how Harvey’s mystifications ‘leave an unpleasant taste’:

It is not only that the apparent practice of submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey …, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.

Note the phrasing of the last sentences — ‘hallowed’, ‘desecration’: are academic journals, then, sites of religious devotion? And does Harvey stand charged not just of irreverence but of sacrilege? It sounds as if this is not just about ‘good faith’ but ‘faith’ itself, a belief-system which is being underminded by one of those ‘independent scholars’ whom learned editors , in their innate generosity,want to help. Earlier in the article, Naiman dissected one of Harvey’s articles to lay bare a bitterness worthy of Jude the Obscure for not being allowed within the inner sanctum of academe. The implication — and I do not suggest that Naiman was fully conscious of this — seems to be that a proper academic would not have perpetrated such impieties.

But, of course, we know that proper academics can behave badly. Leave aside the everyday instances of sloppy scholarship revealed in footnotes, with authors citing a source at second hand, clearly not having checked the original. Such poor standards slide into plagiarism, the most heinous heresy which — quite rightly — the apparatus of academia wish to root out from contemporary practice. Not, it must be said, that the structures put in place are either sturdy or consistent. In the recent case of Martin Stone, the accusations led to inquisition and condemnation, and the offending works were branded for all to see. Look at the Wiley On-line Library and you will find an example of an offending article, stamped on every page ‘This Article is Retracted’; no explanation, however, is given, leaving the unsuspecting reader no sure way of surmising the reason for this retraction, which leaves the text no less legible than did the underlining which Spanish Inquisitors sometimes used to mark prohibited passages in the sixteenth century. What is more, type in the author’s name in that same database, and the result will be this retracted article and two others which have not been subjected to the same treatment. I know from my own research that a scholar’s act of plagiarism does not mean his other works should similarly be judged unacceptable, but how is the reader to know in this case? Surely if some works by a scholar have been found guilty of plagiarism, the others by that author need to be investigated and, where appropriate, explicitly be acquitted.

I draw this separate case into this discussion for two reasons. First, because it seems to me that what I have called the academic apparatus is so incomplete because the belief-system which underpins it is itself only half formulated. That is partly because we are talking of a cluster of assumptions and shared practices that are continually in the process of being constructed but it is also because that construction remains too often uninterrogated: it creates articles of faith rather than reasoned arguments. If we compare our practices with previous patterns of behaviour we might notice what we have lost as much as what we have gained. And this is the second point. I alluded in the previous practice to the scholars I research, the humanists of the Renaissance. There is much we pride ourselves of having rejected in their habits — they sometimes plagiarised, they were often intemperate in their criticism of enemies, and partial in their praise of friends: all practices that are not allowed to happen nowadays. They also — from the future pope Pius II to Erasmus — perpetrated fakes, creating false sources for their work, much in the manner of which A. D. Harvey is accused. They did so, though, in a spirit of serio ludere, often using their misquotations or misattributions as a way of allowing those who had ears to hear the chance to recognise that a deeper irony was at work.  The process, in other words, was a way of creating differentation within their audience, with those who got the joke being in the club. How different it is nowadays: in Naiman’s description of the Harvey affair, the culprit is an independent scholar who sits outside the club. But if the rules of the club do not allow a certain playfulness or a challenge to standards by testing their perceptiveness, then should we really want to be members?

The Unacceptable Face of The English Face of Machiavelli?

Posted in Historiography by bonaelitterae on 29 August, 2010

I notice that Routledge have reprinted Felix Raab’s 1964 The English Face of Machiavelli – at a price that only the best-heeled institutions could afford. Its republication is testimony to its status as a classic, frequently cited as required reading in scholarly footnotes and undergraduate bibliographies. It is also, of course, a classic tinged with the tragic.

The English Face began life as Raab ended his. He had come to Oxford from Melbourne, the son of Jewish emigrés from Nazi Austria, as a graduate student. Late in 1962, he submitted his doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Machiavelli and secular political thought in England during the seventeenth century’, and went off for a walking holiday in Italy. It took a month for his body to be found after he fell fatally into a ravine. He could not, then, defend his thesis at a viva – we can only imagine what the conversation might have been – but he was posthumously awarded a doctorate. Raab’s name was kept alive in his first university by his father’s donation of his son’s book collection and by the establishing of a prize named after him; in Oxford, his thesis received what was, at the time, the unusual honour of being seen quickly into print, with a foreword by his former supervisor, Hugh Trevor-Roper. The adjective often used for the foreword is ‘affectionate’. It is a memoir of Raab, describing, for instance, the time that he arrived at a supervision and sat down opposite Trevor-Roper: the latter pushed across the table Raab’s latest piece of work and said ‘You know this won’t do’; Raab responded by pushing it back across the table and declaring ‘Yes, it bloody well will!’.

Knowledge of the author’s fate impinged on the minds of reviewers, who felt the need to resort to an elegiac tone. The comment of an historian of a similar surname, Theodore Rabb, can stand as an example:

Few books have illuminated major changes in intellectual history, as this one does, by exploring a strictly limited subject. Even fewer have been, like this one, a doctoral thesis, written with skill, grace, and wit, and published without revision. The tragic mountaineering accident which ended Dr. Raab’s life shortly after the thesis was finished has deprived intellectual history of a penetrating scholar. [Renaissance News, xix (1966), p. 41]

The published volume, he concluded, was ‘a fitting monument to a fine mind’. The English Face was, in short, quickly accepted as a significant work, in both the learned community and in the wider press.

There was one discordant voice: a long review appeared in the Italian journal, Il Politico, by Sydney Anglo. It can be called nothing other than a merciless demolition of Raab’s work. It derides the book’s refusal to look more broadly than English-born writers, giving no space, for example, to Alberico Gentili’s writings, produced while in London (and now, incidentally, being studied by Diego Pirillo) – a ‘national’ methodology that, Anglo insisted, is simply unacceptable in the study of intellectual history. The review also picks apart, time and again, some of the specific interpretations of texts. But what we would consider most damning comes in its first pages when Anglo points out that Raab had been ungenerous in his brief acknowledgement of his debt to a 1908 London D.Litt dissertation by J. W. Horrocks when ‘well over a third of Raab’s material comes straight out of Horrocks’s thesis’. He points out how English Face picks up quotations from primary sources second-hand via Horrocks’ work. The most excoriating line comes next:

However, plagiarism is by no means wholly to be condemned, for a borrower can often put another’s material to better use – as Raab himself has claimed. It is then even more unfortunate that the material so painstakingly collected by Horrocks has been marred in the reworking [S. Anglo, ‘The Reception of Machiavelli in Tudor England: a re-assessment’, Il Politico, xxxi (1966), pp. 127 – 38 at p. 129]

Anglo does not return to the accusation in his text, though his footnotes include other examples of what he sees as unacknowledged copying in, for instance, Raab’s claim that Innocent Gentillet’s anti-Machiavellian writings had little influence in England.

Anglo’s review was brought to my mind by a conversation I had the other week in which I could not remember where it was published. In hunting it down, I was struck by how difficult it was to find references to it. It is a review that, in many quarters, has suffered a strange death. In 1990, an Annotated Bibliography on Machiavelli scholarship appeared, but, as one reviewer noted, it did not mention Anglo’s article (the reviewer does not give a full citation). It is symptomatic that an important recent piece reconsidering the ‘Myth of Gentillet’ [N. W. Bawcutt in The Modern Language Review, xcix (2004)] takes question with Raab on an issue previously raised by Anglo, but without reference to the latter. It is only very recently, with Sydney Anglo’s own volume on Machiavelli’s reception (2005) and mention of the matter in Alessandra Petrina’s Machiavelli in the British Isles (2009), that the article and the issues it raises have been resurrected; many, meanwhile, continue to make uncomplicated reference to The English Face. Most often, the book has been cited on its own, without mention of the early, trenchant and potentially utterly destructive criticism. On a some occasions, the book and the review are mentioned alongside each other but rarely with any sign that the former should be read with consideration of the latter’s criticisms. That could be done by a simple ‘but see’, as was the case in the Pelican Guide for Readers edited in 1984 by Boris Ford. Geoffrey Elton found another mode of expression. He had been part of the chorus of praise for The English Face when it appeared; in his 1970 Modern Historians on British History, Elton tempered that with the comment that the book ‘provides many insights but also some bad slips’ [p. 177], elliptically mentioning the review in the footnote.

‘Some bad slips’. My point is not about whether Anglo was right or wrong to condemn Raab for plagiarism – I have not done the checking to corroborate or deny the accusation. What interests me is what the frequent ignoring or overlooking of that claim tells us about our own standards or ethics. We now teach undergraduates that plagiarism is one of the most heinous of academic crimes, though we also debate the relevance of the concept to previous centuries. We also collude with a wider inflation in use of the term, which can see it stretched to include so much that it can end up meaning so little. That inflation — or perhaps it is deflation — could allow for some charges of plagiarism to be dismissed as trivial – but that can not be with Anglo’s examples which would suggest a heavy unpaid debt. A defence perhaps could be that Anglo’s comments focus on the Tudor period, when Raab’s main interest lay in the seventeenth century – but does that mean our culture would accept a breaking of the rules in one part of a work if it is offset by genius shown elsewhere in the same volume? Considering our society’s preoccupation with a work’s originality – and honesty – surely an accusation of largescale unacknowledged copying demands some response, some rebuttal or acceptance, rather than the silence it usually receives. As the claims, readily available, stand unchallenged, does that mean those who continue to refer to The English Face without a blush complicit in an act of plagiarism? Or should we conclude that we expect higher standards from our students than we would set for ourselves?

Modern publishing practice demands that when an article is found to be cribbed, it is not removed or destroyed; it remains available, but with each page stamped ‘retracted’. I doubt Routledge considered doing that when they reprinted The English Face of Machiavelli.