Recently, the author Naomi Wolf learned – on-air, no less – that a major premise of her book is based on a misunderstanding. Her book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love says that men were executed for sodomy – her understanding of the 19th-century English legal term “death recorded.” It does not mean executed, but just the opposite – it means the person is pardoned. The book is a rewrite of her 2015 doctoral thesis at Oxford, which begs the question: how did it get this far without her misunderstanding being cleared up by someone?
Granted, we don’t know just how deep she delved into this in her dissertation, but the fact remains that she never bothered to even look for the basic definition of “death recorded,” as the on-air interviewer Matthew Sweet did. If she had, she would have clearly seen that it did not mean what she thought it did. Wolf went on to cite several articles on Twitter from AD Harvey, a historian known as a hoaxer and who has created, among other things, a fake community of academics. You can imagine how well this has gone over.
Many academics collectively cringed when they heard Wolf, and posted on social media their horror and fear of this happening to them - not to mention their amazement that she managed to do doctoral work on this without ever learning the correct meaning of the term. The thing is, though, this was an easy thing to avoid. Knowing your research – and this means if you don’t understand something, looking it up or asking a knowledgeable person in the field – can help you avoid being in a similar situation. Here are some other ways you can help avoid this situation for yourself.
Re-read. When reading peer-reviewed articles or in-depth, complicated research with lots of jargon, it's very easy to misunderstand something or skim/skip over pertinent information. You read A LOT for your thesis or dissertation, and it can be hard to always maintain tip-top focus - which is why you should slow down, and re-read something, especially (especially!) if you aren't sure what you just read or it's more challenging than usual.
Talk about it. This is nothing to be embarrassed about. Talk about your research with your advisor, your peers, and other people in your field. The more you talk about the research, the better grasp you'll have on it, and any misunderstandings can be cleared up.
Look it up! If you're even the slightest bit unsure about what a term or concept means, look it up. It was clear that Wolf never even bothered to look up the legal term of "death recorded," which anyone can do on the internet. If you can't find an exact, clear definition of what you need, ask your advisor or a professor. Better to be sure than not know and be wrong.
Use reputable sources. Only use textbooks, scholarly works, and peer-reviewed articles. If you use something else, make sure the findings are corroborated in scholarly material. Try to stay away from special interest group websites, biased sources, or reading for the layperson when doing your research.
Fact-check! If something seems off or you're not sure of something, find other sources to verify claims or information. This will only serve to strengthen your own writing and research.
Hire an editor. We say this with this caveat: editors ARE NOT fact-checkers. Even in publishing houses (like Naomi Wolf's), editors do not fact check. That's not their job. What they can do, however, is if something sounds "off" to them, or doesn't fit with the larger work, they can make a note and leave it up to you to pursue further. Better yet, if the editor is familiar with your area of research, they will go into editing with a background and context from which to read.
Here at Dissertation Editor, we can't fact-check for you, but we can help edit and format your thesis or dissertation, and assist you with data analysis and more! Contact us today to learn about our range of services to see how we can best help you reach your goals.
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