Over at Slate, Daniel Engber had an interesting and instructive article a while back entitled “Bad Footnotes Can Be Deadly” on how the current opioid crisis has been aggravated by the misunderstanding of a letter to the editor of a medical journal and its misquotation over decades in the medical literature, with the error propagated and compounded by researchers who failed to check the original source.
Engber’s article on the error’s persistence and influence documents a process not unlike the formation of urban legends and faith-promoting rumor. But if you’ve ever done scholarly research, you should also be nodding your head in recognition (and if you aren’t, you’ve never done scholarly research, or not enough of it yet, or at least not the right kind of research). You come across careless footnoting almost inevitably whenever you study the secondary literature of a narrow field deeply enough. Eventually you develop a sense for it. Indirect citation is sometimes necessary but always suspect, and if two different authors use the same indirect citation, I assume there’s something fishy about the original.
Mormon belief is intertwined with history, giving the field of Mormon Studies a rare and enviable intensity and an informed non-scholarly audience, but it also gives church members a stake in scholarship and a need for a basic understanding of how scholarship works. Part of the formation of scholarly instincts involves learning to balance respect for scholarship with appropriate caution, holding things that cannot be personally verified in suspension to a certain extent.
When I’m digging into the literature for my own research or reviewing a book or manuscript, some of the basic questions I have are: can I follow a statement back to secondary literature through those references? can I follow the secondary literature back to a primary source? are there any references at all? A slightly trickier version of this question is: are the things that look like references actually references? And are the things that look like references in the cited secondary literature actually references themselves? Sad experience teaches us that not every superscript numeral actually points to a primary or secondary source that documents an author’s assertion. Some authors regularly use their footnotes or endnotes for many things besides providing sources that can be accessed for verification by any normal human being.
Even if complete scholarly transparency is impossible, it remains a goal worth pursuing. Making secondary literature more easily available remains an important but elusive goal: proprietary research databases are often inaccessible outside of the research universities that can afford them, and open access turns out to be expensive. Digitizing archival sources is even more important.
Bad footnotes are usually not a sign of deception, just of human limitations. In most cases no one is hiding anything, except maybe laziness. Sometimes the requotation sounds sexier than the mundane original, and sometimes the original is in an obscure language or inaccessible in a distant repository. Being cut off from full-text databases or interlibrary loan or just the old issues in the stacks can be a huge problem. So when you’re reading, in Mormon Studies or anything else, keep one eye open for human frailty.