How honest do we need to keep them?
John Grenier commented on a past post, and I think the topic raised is important enough to be promoted to its own post. Grenier wondered about the historical conventions for citing a primary source that you found through a secondary source. In my previous post I argued that we should avoid a footnote of the form “Vauban quote cited in Guerlac” (“2 quoted in 1”) unless we didn’t bother to look at the original (Vauban) quote. John offered a different interpretation: he’s used that “2 quoted in 1” formulation to indicate that even though he did check the quote in the original, he found it via a secondary source, so that secondary source should be cited. So who’s correct?
Of course there probably isn’t a correct answer. But maybe a poll will help:
Personally, I take John’s point, but only up to a point. It seems this might be a philosophical disagreement over what purpose a footnote serves. John’s idea seems to be a moderate example of the broader idea of “footnote as research process”, whereas for me a footnote isn’t so much about the process as primarily about indicating the source. The idea that a footnote should indicate more than just the (ultimate) citation seems to have taken a turn for the worse since the arrival of the Internet, though I won’t lay this at John’s door. You can find, for example, some guidebooks that tell students to include the source of the source, e.g. that a student needs to mention the fact that they got a particular journal article from a specific database (JSTOR, EBSCO…). This, to my mind is just dumb. First, this has never been required before – historians have never been expected to indicate which library they got a published work from, nor that they received it through interlibrary loan, nor that it was a copy borrowed from a friend…. That would be pointless. If it’s a unique document in an archive or rare book room, you obviously need to cite the call number of the holding institution. But it doesn’t matter to the reader if the author was looking at the 3rd edition of Bland in the British Library or in the Newberry. They can find a copy of the 3rd edition at the Library of Congress, and the quote will still be on p. 203. (Marginalia is another matter, in which case you do indicate which exact copy you’re looking at.)
Admittedly, the Internet has made it slightly more complicated since you can find a text version of a document as well as a scan of the original. But still it isn’t that difficult. If it’s a text-only version, find a scan of the original, or else include the website info (because you don’t have the original). But if you’re looking at a photographic reproduction of the original, you don’t need to mention that you got it from ECCO or Google Books, or whether you photocopied it in the library 20 years ago, or looked at a microfilm version of it at the Bibliothèque nationale. Historians have never had to do this in the past, and there’s no reason why we need to clutter up our footnotes with such extraneous information. Now if you want to mention these locations in the Acknowledgments sections, or if the institution insists on a specific citation formulation, that’s another matter.
But back to John’s more specific point. I’d argue the key message for an author to get across to your readers is 1) to say which source you got that information from, and 2) to indicate, in the case of primary source/secondary source, that *you* looked at the original. At the least, I think there needs to be some way for you to indicate to your reader that you did actually look at the original. I don’t think “2 quoted in 1” tells the reader that – that could just as easily be interpreted to mean that you’re simply noting that the historian you are citing wasn’t the origin of the quote. That’s in fact how I interpret such wording. Not that I bow down to the AHA, but I think they agree with my interpretation (as I mentioned in an earlier post on the topic). A good test might be to look at all those works that cite the same quote over and over – “Marlborough captured every town he besieged” or the “we fight more like foxes than lions” – how do most historians cite them? Can we actually trace them back to the original scholar that realized the quote was important? Google Books, here we come!
Personally, I don’t assume an author is the first scholar to discover a quote. I might be a bit jealous if somebody publishes it before I do, but I don’t assume they were the first to come across it. If promoted to the status of a rule, using “2 quoted in 1” every time you found a quote/cite in a secondary source would be impossible to follow. It’s assumed that every historian relies heavily on the sources of previous historians, if only because everyone has to start somewhere (we were all grad students once…). For example, I’ve tracked down 95% of all my sources because other historians cited or quoted or mentioned them at some point (either in footnotes, bibliographical guides…). Yet we don’t want “2 quoted in 1” for every single footnote – I think it’s assumed you’re not exploring virgin territory, and it would choke the notes to death in any case. But if you’re only using a single quote, if it’s the kind of source that you’d never think to look at, or it’s on a topic slightly tangential to your work, and/or you only looked at that single part of the source, then I could see using the “2 quoted in 1” formulation. Just beware that, when I read something like that, I assume that the author DIDN’T go back to the original. And I wouldn’t assume that you checked the original (even if you had).
It is, of course, a matter of degree. If the single quote you’re using is part of an argument that you are lifting from someone else, it makes more sense to use the “2 quoted in 1” formulation. That being said, in my own experience I almost never see that convention used by other scholars, making one wonder who exactly deserves the credit in the first place: the originator of the quote-argument pairing who needs to be tracked down, or some ‘plagiarizer’ who just copied it without proper attribution? I’d prefer to avoid giving the credit to author X if I’m not even sure that they didn’t lift it from some other scholar.
Now that I think about it, maybe we should ban the “2 quoted in 1” formula use for another reason: it encourages us to overgeneralize from a single anecdote? (Depends on the type of historical argument you’re making of course.)
But I can see how this might lead to a slippery slope if you move beyond a single quote. For example, if you find that another author is using the exact same quotes (plural) you’ve used AGAIN AND AGAIN, and advancing the same argument as you made with those same quotes, that’s plagiarism because they haven’t put the pieces together themselves, even if they did add a few new quotes of their own. Not that that has ever happened to me AND to one of my colleagues. Nope, not ever. So if your quote is part of a larger part of your argument, you should indeed cite the secondary author that you’re taking your lead from. If you read a secondary source and it directly talks about the exact subject you are discussing, you need to cite it regardless of whether you thought of it first or not, and regardless of whether you then go to the originals and find the same thing they found.
So am I in the minority regarding how I read “2 quoted in 1”? Is there a different phrasing to indicate you went back to the original, but want to give the secondary author credit? Historians are largely apathetic when it comes to methodology, so I doubt there is a standard convention that everyone follows.
In summary, this is how I see the ethics of scholarly citation and plagiarism:
- Did you consult the original? If yes, and if it’s a single instance, you can cite the original source. This is particularly legitimate if you bother to explore the original beyond the single quote. Of course if you want to use “2 quoted in 1”, there’s not much harm, though other readers might not interpret it the way you do. The harm comes, however, from just trusting the secondary source attribution.
- However, if you found a single quote through a secondary source and wouldn’t have known/thought to look there (because it’s outside of your field, or beyond your main focus), or you aren’t able to access/read the original, you should cite the secondary source.
- That being said, if you came across a single quote during your initial foray into the topic, and are making that topic your focus, I’d argue you don’t need to cite the secondary source. This is a bit vague, but if I’m an expert on Vaubian siegecraft, I’m not going to footnote that I read a quote on Vauban in Chandler back when I was in grad school (I’ll cite him in other places), especially when I’ve done far more research on the topic than he has. Petty? Perhaps – but historians deserve credit when they move the historical debate forward.
- There are some quotes that become so ubiquitous that I’ll just go back to the original and cite it there, because I know many of the previous authors who quote it found that quote from somebody else, but they didn’t bother to cite that secondary author. This is easiest to tell in broad surveys, often written by scholars whose specialty is in another period/place altogether from whence the quote came.
- If you use multiple quotes from the same secondary source (even if you’ve checked the original), you must cite the secondary source, since that secondary source clearly understood the importance of the source and passed that appreciation on to you. This is still the case even if you find additional quotes from that primary source that weren’t cited in the other secondary source.
- If you use more than a couple of quotes from different secondary sources, then you need to use the “2 quoted in 1” formulation, because you’re essentially just cherry-picking from secondary sources rather than personally grappling with the original documents.
- If the single quote is an important part (e.g. the crux) of your larger argument, you should probably cite the secondary source, but make it clear that you also consulted the original. I’m not sure if you have to do cite the secondary source precisely where you use the quote, but it should appear in a footnote rather than as a simple entry in the bibliography.
- If the quote is connected to a larger argument, I’m not sure what’s appropriate. If you’re just adopting another’s view, “2 quoted in 1” makes sense.
- If somebody points out a source to you (or gives you a copy) and you personally go and look through it, you can cite the original. It would be nice, though, to say something like “Thanks to Dr. XYZ for pointing me to this source.” I’ve done this, for example, when a friend says “Hey, King William’s Chest has a section on the siege of Charleroi – you can borrow my microfilm.”
- A further complication is the type of publication: the audience of a more specialized work probably expects you to cite the original, whereas it’s more acceptable in a survey to cite the secondary work. Similarly, you might have to worry about the publisher’s policy on footnote length and conventions generally.
Fundamentally it boils down to the issue of how important the secondary source is for your research: how important is the secondary source to you finding the primary source, and how important is the use of the quote to creating your argument. If a secondary author plays a seminal role in how you fashion your argument, they merit mention. If it’s merely a further example of something you’ve already established, it’s optional, and I tend towards the “no.” And it necessarily requires personal judgment, even idiosyncratic judgments. To give an example: I’m reading a dissertation, and an epigraph at the beginning of a chapter is a wonderful quote for one of the points I’m making in my own work. Yet I’m not going to cite that dissertation (for this quote at least). Why not? Because I generally subscribe to the “if you find the original you can just cite it as a primary source” school of thought. But if specific reasons are required in this case, here they are:
- That archive volume is already on my list to go through, so I would have found it anyway.
- I will be going through the entire archive volume myself – not just this single letter.
- That epigraph is just one more example of the sentiment I’ve already found in dozens of other sources. So perhaps this is uncharitable, but I came up with the interpretation of such quotes before I ever came across this quote. The dissertation author contributed nothing to my interpretation of his quote.
- Expanding on my last statement, I don’t want to give extraordinary credit (and that’s what “2 quoted in 1” is, in my book) for this specific point in my argument if the author doesn’t even appreciate what he has. In this case, the dissertation author doesn’t really use the quote for any purpose, much less to make the point I’m making. The quote is interesting because it quite clearly suggests something important about the period, but the author doesn’t see the obvious conclusion to draw from it. That does not merit a citation.
Possibly petty, but that’s how I roll. Definitely cite to reward original and sound argumentation, as well as skulking in archival holes and corners. But don’t praise people who aren’t curious enough to pay attention to what their sources say.
Not sure if these are totally consistent, so thoughts appreciated.