If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.Isaac Newton, in a personal correspondence to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675.
A previous post on the types of sources examined how information in historical research is categorized according to the author and their relation to the events under discussion. Additionally, the post on Digital Journalism and Media Literacy explained some of the important reasons for citing sources. One of those reasons was giving credit where credit is due. More poetically, many historians reference the notion of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” So, who are these giants and why are we standing on their shoulders? Let’s examine what we really mean by giving other people their due credit.
Working with secondary sources
If there’s one thing about doing historical research, it’s that much of the research has already been done for you. In fact, there’s a good chance that it’s currently being worked on. If you examine the sources I use and compare the information in them with the information in these blog posts, you’ll note that there’s nothing really original about the research or the writing that I do. Most of the sources that I use are secondary sources. This is to say that hardworking researchers have already put in the time by digging through the archives and mountains of primary documents in order to come up with an analysis and evaluation of the materials.
When I find a topic that interests me, then I usually start by researching online, reading the Wikipedia article, and digging up some books on the topic at my local library. Nearly all of the sources that I come up with are secondary sources. All that’s left for me to do is to read them and see if I agree or disagree with their analysis and evaluation.
Working with primary sources
The preferred alternative to using secondary sources is to locate primary sources. In historical research, primary sources are favored over secondary sources. Remember that primary sources are anything from the time period that you’re studying, such as news articles, videos, sound recordings, interviews, personal correspondence, journals, etc. Once you’ve found some primary source materials, you need to analyze and evaluate them.
Some primary sources are easy to locate and simply involve doing an online search or maybe searching through an academic database (provided that you have access to one). At other times, the primary sources may not be readily available and may require you to locate a physical document in an archive. Sadly, even in our modern Information Age, not everything is readily available online. It would be awfully nice if we all had the convenience, time, and money to jump right into the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C. That example constitutes the primary barrier to locating primary sources in that there may be expenses involved in both time and money. Remember that your university professors spent a lot of time and money on getting their degrees (i.e. becoming experts in their fields), and that means they’ve read mountains of primary and secondary sources.
Doing original research
Sometimes, the data or information isn’t available because it literally doesn’t exist. This means going out into the field and doing original research. Interviews need to be conducted, experiments need to be done, and the results need to be collected, analyzed, and evaluated. In short, it creates a new contribution to the field. The process of doing original research is very time consuming and expensive, hence why many research universities make the big bucks to do it.
Let’s never forget the famous phrase:
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
This is probably true for bolstering weak arguments with made-up numbers. I always chuckle a little when people quote a statistic, and yet they can’t provide an accurate source from where they gleaned that astonishing information. I guess we’re just supposed to take them at their word and believe whatever BS they’re selling. However, any researcher with any sense of integrity, self-respect, and desire to maintain their credibility will not just make up the data. If you don’t have the data, then find a reputable source, or go out and get the data yourself!
Of course, if the history you’re studying is in the distant past, you can’t exactly go out and collect interviews of people from that era or conduct experiments with equipment that no longer exists. Maybe you know something I don’t, but I’ve yet to meet anyone left alive from ancient times who can confirm whether or not the Hanging Gardens were actually in ancient Babylon. In another example, I can’t exactly take measurements of the RMS Titanic because it’s 2 miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean and I don’t have the money to fund an expedition that deep. In cases like that the researcher is pretty much stuck with trying to locate primary and/or decent secondary sources.
Working in the classroom
Most non-original research isn’t terribly difficult, but finding good sources can be. When I talk to students, I tell them that finding reputable sources adds more weight to their argument. Since they’re not doing original research, they don’t have to worry about doing the field work because it’s already been done…unless of course, they want to challenge or confirm the data. Occasionally, I’ve seen a student voluntarily go above and beyond to really dig into the material. Most of them just want a decent grade and that’s the end of it.
A simple phrase can make a big semantic difference in writing. Saying that “XYZ is ____,” doesn’t carry as much weight as saying, “according to ____, an expert in ____, their study on XYZ observed that ____” (insert citation here).
Referencing your sources, both in-text and in a bibliography, have powerful effects.
Who are the giants?
This discussion speaks more broadly to the notion of the long line of people who have come before you in any field. It could be history, science, art, mathematics, etc. Yet, these days we’re so heavily focused on instant gratification and convenience that we often forget about the “giants.”
It’s easy enough to sit around and fact-check or nitpick other people’s work. The peer review process already does that in academia. You put a lot of hard work into coming up with something to be proud of only for other people to tear it all apart and tell you everything that you did wrong. Social media has arguably made the process even more vapid and accessible to the average person. Then again, social media isn’t exactly a field known for its rigorous scholarship. Social media and scholarship probably don’t even belong in the same sentence, for that matter. (Then again, you could be writing an academic paper on social media). Whatever arguments and counterarguments people have are more akin to flame wars and ad hominem. In short, arguments on social media don’t hold much water.
In a way, it’s a tug-of-war between academic and casual/popular knowledge. Let’s take history books as an example. I’ve read books written by esteemed history professors, but which are poorly written, or have unconvincing or weak theses. Yes, even professional historians sometimes produce boring stinkers. Conversely, I’ve also read history books written by experienced journalists who are excellent writers and tell great stories which appeal to the masses, but they’re not the best historians in terms of referencing their sources. In short, history ≠journalism, and vice versa. There is also a marked difference between history written for an academic audience, and that which is meant for a more popular audience (i.e. academic history vs. popular history). Most of the history you find on the bestseller lists is popular history because it’s easy to read and thus, more accessible to the layperson.
From a more professional and academic perspective, remember that having an advanced degree (e.g. Ph.D.) is, by itself, not a sufficient indicator of scholarly quality. A person with a doctorate in biology may be a great biologist, but that doesn’t automatically make them a great historian. A doctorate does not confer expertise in everything. That being said, there is an argument that the general research skills required to obtain an advanced degree broadly translate to many fields. Indeed, earning a doctorate in any field is no simple task, so it’s arguable that these people have well-developed research and analysis skills that are widely applicable. Still, take their academic credentials as but one factor, definitive or not. Additionally, the time and effort spent on advancing a field of study is valuable and doesn’t come without the assistance of far more intelligent people. We all have to put in the hours and pay our dues. Some of us will spend our time reading books and others have the resources to find genuine articles. Still, others can go out and collect the data for themselves.
I’m certainly no giant. What I do is mostly parrot the other sources. Maybe in 10 or 15 years after I’ve done enough research to justify knowing what I’m talking about will I have applied my skills enough to qualify to be one of those giants. While I’ll likely never attain fame or fortune from these pursuits, it’s important to remember the pioneers who worked hard to blaze the trail for me to follow. I would not have the knowledge of the Pacific War that I have today without the hard work and research done by historians such as David Evans, Mark Peattie, Richard Frank, H.P. Willmott, Jonathan Parshall, Wayne Hughes, and many others. Their work forms the foundation of my work, and hopefully, my work can further provide a small contribution to someone else in the future.
Effectively, the proverbial giants are the people who have done the original research, analyzed the primary sources, and published the secondary sources. Some have done one, two, or all three of those. They are the people who have crafted the original works of scholarship, art, entertainment, etc. Their work is the result of many long hours of reflection and study. It is more than just mindlessly posting and re-posting facile garbage on social media. In creating something new they have significantly advanced and contributed to their field for all to enjoy.
Newton, I. (1675, February 5). Personal Correspondence. https://digitallibrary.hsp.org/index.php/Detail/objects/9792