Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ms. Peppercorn Considers: Best Practices for Acknowledging Others' Work

Dear readers, it is my pleasure to bring you our latest installment of MS PEPPERCORN CONSIDERS! An occasional advice column for legal historians facing knotty problems (by regular guest blogger Sarah Barringer Gordon)*
Credit: Bitmoji
Dear LHB readers: Ms Peppercorn received the following questions from an author who just published a book, and is dealing with a stomach churning issue that we all face:
It seems inevitable that I've left someone out of the acknowledgments, or failed to mention someone's work in my footnotes, even though I surely benefited from that person's wisdom and hard work. How can I get over feeling anxious about this? And what should I do if I learn that someone is actually upset with me?
Going forward, what should I consider best practices for footnotes in which I am not citing someone for a particular argument or factual finding, but want to show recognition of their scholarship? Phrased differently, how do I honor the hard work of other scholars without overwhelming my own readers (and pushing my luck with the publisher)?
The issue seems both timely and important, so your columnist searched her own bookshelf for an exemplar whose work consistently achieves both generosity in citation and manageability of note length. Brian Balogh of the University of Virginia (and co-host of Backstory with the American History Guys – super cool) and author of highly acclaimed books, including Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge UP 2009) and The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (Penn UP 2015), is our choice, and you will see why when you read his response. Here goes:
“One of the features that distinguishes scholarship, from many other genres of writing, is that it is a collective endeavor. No matter how much primary research we do as scholars, the vast majority of the words that we write ultimately rely upon the research and interpretation of others. This is why your question is such a good one and why it is difficult to answer. Because acknowledgments and substantive footnotes come at the end of the publication process, writing them is usually a pleasurable way to remember and review the journey – kind of like looking through photographs upon arriving home from a long trip. So my first advice to you is to do your best to enjoy the process! Second, to extend the travelogue metaphor, in the digital age, it is relatively easy to review your business expenses from the trip. I know that nobody likes organizing that pile of receipts that our paymasters demand, but in the case of the intellectual debts we incur, going through e-mail correspondence, journal entries, long-since discarded drafts, can be great reminders of the day-to-day discoveries and detours we maneuvered through, some of which turned out to be more rewarding than the five minutes we spent in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta`.”
“Even with best of intentions and despite the fond memories, we are all bound to leave something out. Indeed, one of the first things that occurs after I approve a final draft is that I remember somebody, or many people, I forgot to thank in the acknowledgements or acknowledge in the footnotes. A simple e-mail to those folks apologizing for the oversight, and if you have time, distilling the specific nature of that scholar’s contribution to your intellectual development is bound to be appreciated. As for discovering that somebody is upset with you, it really depends upon how well you know the person. If you know them well, you could easily write with an apology. If not, it is probably best to simply live with this, looking for the next opportunity to show your appreciation for their contributions should the occasion arise.”
Ms Peppercorn would only add that we would be interested to hear how others balance delicate issues of attribution and acknowledgment, especially when a critical dimension is present. Please let us know how legal historians navigate these shark-filled waters!

*note snappy new avatar -- Ms P, although no spring chicken, is so current with her bitmoji!