Review: the global world and writing history

As a result of having to change my reading patterns, rather than review a single text this time, I thought it might be worth considering some of the positives and negatives that have come to light with regards source material.

Not too long ago, I was rather harsh on a new publication – my comments were not at the author but rather at the support systems around his book. One of the issues with the book was that I felt the author had paid lip service to a particular topic to meet certain requirements. This omission was not within keeping with what I know of the author, so I was over the moon to read an article by the same author, published before the book, which set out what was and was not available on the topic. My question therefore became, why did this not feature in the book?

Sadly, I think this is the result of current education policy where everything has to go through some sort of electronic plagiarism testing. This was coming in as I was moving out of education and already then I could tell what the implications were going to be. Gone are the days of students developing on their prior writing – thoughts have to be completely rewritten or fully references (to an undergrad essay?) in order to comply with computers determining how much is original. This view has been reinforced and brought to light on numerous occasions when I’ve been discussing historiographical or literature overviews with history students at different institutions – what they submit in their dissertation proposal can’t be copied and pasted into their dissertation. Where does this leave us then when those same documents come to be used in books and later publications? I’m not promoting self-plagiarism here but rather a more practical approach to developing student thinking and training that reflects the reality of writing for a wider audience who do not have access to separate publications, published or not.

This leads to the next issue – where material is available. The article referred to above is behind a pay-wall. Thankfully I have ways of accessing such articles including through the British Library, but what about other researchers who are not in an academic institution or close to a repository such as the British Library? (I’ll leave my gripe about new legal deposits, and many review copies, only being available in electronic form for another day, it’s not as effective as paper!) Yes, there might be an abstract, but in my experience an abstract doesn’t always tell me what the article contains in relation to what I’m looking for. A quick flick through does. You might then say, that’s why open-access has been put in place. That’s all well and good too, but unless one is in an academic institution again, invariably the author submitting an article to an open-access journal has to pay for the privilege. What all this is resulting in, is a skewing of access to source material and incomplete conclusions (in my own work as much as in others). And then there are the book titles – so many, including my own – do not reflect the true nature of the content. While some of this might be due to author ignorance of wider interest, experience suggests this is more to do with what marketing departments think will sell. The old adage of don’t choose a book by its cover seems very apt here (although change cover to title). No doubt I’ll have more to say on this in future reviews.

A related point in skewing source material is what is now available online. While the internet has revolutionised access and linking with people across the globe, it has also unwittingly (?) contributed to the skewing of information. Access to information is at the whim/fancy of the person putting it on the web – politics (certain cultural gender groups have no voice online), interest and what is perceived as topical, play a big part here. In days gone by, before the internet, researchers would visit archives in one or more countries. What was produced was therefore more local with, depending on what was being researched, an element of the other side’s version. Reviewers and readers generally had access to the same material. Little made it outside the country of origin, and where it did, has led to varied interpretations of other country events. Now, as a result of the web, it’s easier to access texts from other countries, and online translators allow texts in other languages to be accessed too. However, not all countries (and here I think especially of colleagues in Africa and Asia) have access to material online and if they do, it is filtered. Similarly, not all universities are able to access all journals as some are too expensive for the local budget. In the same way, some archives have made their catalogues available online while others are still very much paper-based. Accessing the archives in person, is another matter altogether. Popular material is digitised and made available online (generally for a fee, which in principle is acceptable but not always affordable depending on where researchers are). And not all archives allow photographs or copies being made of documents – to maintain copyright etc. This all impacts on the material researchers use in creating their historical jigsaw.

The result of this, together with researcher bias (which we need to own rather than dismiss), is a range of new histories which remain incomplete, despite our thinking otherwise. How one overcomes these challenges, I’m not sure, but they’re worth keeping in mind when writing and reviewing works of an historical nature. It would be remiss not to express my gratitude for the move by education institutions to put dissertations and theses online, and to do so for older papers too, free of charge (despite the implications). This has been revolutionary in terms of opening up access to new ideas and archival sources. Yes, these publications need to be treated with care, as do all writings. If there’s one thing I’ve come to learn over my years as an historian – one never gets the full story, there’s always something new coming to light. And as a significant historian told me when I started on my journey, critiquing one of the first academic historians to have written on East African campaign, ‘if someone was looking at my work 40 years after I’d written it, no matter what they said, I’d be more than satisfied’ – that piece of work is now over 60 years old.

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