Thursday, March 08, 2007

A Question About Citing Sources

Didn't that title get you all excited about reading this post?

Okay, I'm still enjoying Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury. Oh, that Ralph Waldo Emerson! What a guy! But I have a question about the endnotes. There aren't a great many, and they aren't marked with numbers in the text. So I have to guess what material might have a note citing its source. And none of the things I expect to have citations have citations.

For instance, when an author of a piece of nonfiction says that someone actually said something, doesn't that have to be cited? When you state that both the Thoreau boys were in love with the same woman and each proposed to her, doesn't that information have to have a note stating where you found out about it?

Or is that just the case when you're an undergraduate student?

I'm not questioning Cheever's scholarship because last year I read a memoir/account of a murder (Girls of Tender Age by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith) that did similar things. In fact, in that book the author gave accounts of conversations among police officers that took place a few decades back with no citations regarding how she came to know of them.

That book, too, was quite decent reading.

So my question is, has something happened regarding the rules for citing sources? Do particular types of books--maybe, popular history, say--not require the same rigorous documentation?



Blogger Bonny Becker said...

>>“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” (sometimes given with “truth” replacing the word “facts") is something that seems either from Texas or Hollywood (or a bit of both). The phrase dates from at least 1940.

Folklorist J. Frank Dobie is sometimes credited with this phrase, but this has not been verified with documentary evidence. Delbert Trew (another Texas folklorist) has claimed: “I never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”<<
Entry from January 8, 2007

About the Site Editor
BARRY POPIK is a contributor-consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and the forthcoming Yale Dictionary of Quotations. Since 1990 he has also been a regular contributor to Gerald Cohen's Comments on Etymology. He is recognized as an expert on the origins of the terms Big Apple, Windy City, hot dog, and many other food terms, and he is an editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2004). He posts commentary on Americanisms to the American Dialect Society email list, ADS-L, where he has over 7,000 archived posts since 1996. Barry lives in New York City, where by day he is an administrative law judge of parking violations.

Bonny (who hates made-up history)

10:23 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

Given how hot everyone is on the issue of plagiarism these days, I'm always purely astonished whenever a non-fiction book is published without detailed citations...

Yes, the information that you mention should be cited properly...

4:03 AM  
Blogger Michele said...

Oh and I meant to say that, yes, your title did get me excited, but then I am, first and foremost, a scholar and a pedant!

1:45 PM  
Blogger Roger Sutton said...

It was Hazel Rochman editorializing in Booklist maybe fifteen years ago that got juvenile publishers to become far more responsible about source notes and bibliographies. I think different levels and methods of sourcing are okay, depending upon a lot of things including the age of the intended reader, whether the book is shaped as pop culture or a source for research, etc. I was scandalized earlier today when editing a review of a picture book biography of Lao-Tzu, and there wasn't one word about where the author (Demi) got her information. Bad girl!

5:20 PM  
Blogger Reading Fool said...

I agree that Girls of Tender Age was a very interesting read. It was so interesting, in fact, that I wanted to find out more about the defining event it discusses. So I went into the archives of one of the local papers and did some searching. I discovered, among other things, that at least a couple of names were changed. Now, I imagine that that was done to protect their privacy, since they probably didn't want to have to discuss their involvement in the case with every Tom, Dick, or Harry who read the book. But what I found curious and slightly disturbing was that I couldn't find a reference anywhere in the book to indicate that some names had been changed. There was little, if anything, indicating any other information about the research that must have been involved in writing the book. I thought it was a significant flaw. If names were changed, and this isn't noted anywhere, are there other things in the book that are basically true but not quite? Your question about the quoted conversations would be another reason to wonder. I'm not saying it's not a worthwhile book. It's quite a good read, and thought-provoking in many ways. But she does herself no good turn by not citing sources or indicating where and why her account may differ from other published sources.

2:47 PM  
Blogger gail said...

Reading Fool--Thank you. You are the first person I've found who noted any of that regarding Girls of Tender Age. I can't recall finding any reviews that made any mention of the research that must have (should have) been involved in the nonmemoir portion of the book. The author is going to be on a panel at Trinity College at the end of the month, and I've just registered to attend. The panel's title? Truthiness: Memoir and the Facts, Ma’am.

I also haven't found any reviews for American Bloomsbury that mention the lack of citation. But it's becoming more and more of an issue for me. This isn't Cheever's memoir, after all.

I've wondered if nonacademics don't have to meet as high a standard as academics. Yet if you're going to play the big kids' game, don't you have to play by their rules?

8:03 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

I've wondered if nonacademics don't have to meet as high a standard as academics. Yet if you're going to play the big kids' game, don't you have to play by their rules?

If you're writing/publishing a non-fiction book, you should cite your sources. Even if you only say "I spoke to X, Y and Z". For instance, Paul Parsons, in The Science of Doctor Who, has numerous quotes from scientists to whom he spoke. For every single quote he tells us who the scientist is and where they work. That's quite sufficient for this book - it doesn't need lots of fiddly footnotes, and since he was talking to the scientists, for the most part, rather than referring to books or papers they'd published, footnotes would have been pointless.

Personally, I would contact the publisher and complain vigorously about a lack of foot/endnotes in a non-fiction book that doesn't otherwise cite its sources (as Parsons does)...

1:19 AM  
Blogger Bonny Becker said...

I don't mind if an author creates dialog and scenes to advance a story or to perhaps present a fresh way of looking at the history. But this should be acknowledged. It's not that hard to tell the reader that this is an interpretation of events based on such-and-such research and sources.

1:59 PM  

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