Straw bibliography: A common error in student writing

This post describes a particular rhetorical technique that students often use in their essays that professional scholars never do: something I call the “straw bibliography.” If you learn to recognise these in your writing (and more importantly, learn how to handle them more professionally), the quality of your research will improve immensely.

What is a “straw bibliography”

“Straw bibliography” is the term I give to statements like the following, when they are unsupported by citations:

The question of the definition of medieval literature has long been a source of debate

Critics argue constantly about the role of women in literature

Ever since the Greeks, writers have debated the role of fate

I call these “straw bibliography” on analogy to “straw man” arguments: a straw man argument is an argument where you create non-existent opposing arguments that you can easily demolish in order to bolster your own case; a straw bibliography is a non-existent bibliographic claim that you make in order to bolster your own argument by suggesting it is widely studied.

Straw men arguments and straw bibliographies are both bad for the same reason: they prevent actual debate and discovery by substituting a false one instead. In a straw man argument, you create fake arguments that nobody would ever actually make in order to defeat them—ignoring actual counter arguments that it would be far more productive to engage with. In a straw man bibliography, you create a fake bibliographic record in order to support your argument—and ignore the almost certainly more interesting actual bibliography on a question that you could be dealing with.

How to avoid them

The solution to a straw bibliography is very simple: never make a bibliographic claim you cannot supply some examples for. I.e. if you say that critics have long discussed the lack of women in Huckleberry Finn, supply some examples in a citation immediately after you make the claim: since in this case I am claiming both that critics have discussed this and that they have done it for a long time, my list of references should include several works stretching back whatever you consider to represent a “a long time” (perhaps 50 years or so?).

This is in fact what professional scholars do. It is very common in professional research articles to have an early section that discusses previous bibliography on a question. Depending on the specific argument made, this will either include an actual discussion of the different views and positions or a lengthy footnote or parenthetical citation listing a number of people who have previously discussed this issue.

An example

By way of an example, here is a discussion of scholarly opinion about the errors in a famous manuscript of Bede’s Historia ecclesiatica from Notes and Queries 49.1 (2002), p. 4. The text in bold is the bibliographic claim; underlined text is the support that stops it being a straw bibliography:

IN the course of the last twenty years, a scholarly tradition has arisen concerning the remarkable accuracy with which the `St Petersburg Bede’ (St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Lat.Q.v.I.18 (referred to hereafter as P))1 reproduces the text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. While the precise context in which this accuracy is claimed varies from scholar to scholar, its extent is described in almost identical terms in each case. As Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe puts it, `[P] is a particularly careful copy of the text. Excepting errors in the sources quoted by Bede (and thus, probably, in the originals), editors have reported only six errors in the text of Bede’s Historia, and these errors are minor.’2 Similar language is used by R.D.Fulk (`there appear to be just six errors in the text, so …the work [i.e. P] must be very close to the author’s autograph copy’)3 and M.B.Parkes (`there are only six errors in the text written by Bede himself. The high quality of the text in this copy [i.e. P] suggests that it cannot be very far removed from the author’s draft’).4

….

1 This is the manuscript formerly known as the `Leningrad Bede’. The shelf-mark was Leningrad, M.E.Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library, Lat.Q.v.I.18. The manuscript is often referred to by the siglum L in secondary discussions.

2 K.O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990), 33.

3 R.D.Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia, 1992), 427.

4 M.B.Parkes, The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Jarrow Lecture 1982 (Jarrow, 1982), 5.

The text in bold is the piece that could easily be a straw bibliography, if I didn’t have the citations to back it up; the parts that stop it being a straw bibliography are underlined.

In this particular case, since the article is actually about what “accuracy” means, I go into detail about what some of these scholars say in particular, providing a sentence or two about each with an associated footnote. But if my article had been about something else this bibliographic tradition touches on, I could have done something like the following:

IN the course of the last twenty years, a scholarly tradition has arisen concerning the remarkable accuracy with which the `St Petersburg Bede’ (St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Lat.Q.v.I.18 (referred to hereafter as P))1 reproduces the text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica.”2

….

1 This is the manuscript formerly known as the `Leningrad Bede’. The shelf-mark was Leningrad, M.E.Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library, Lat.Q.v.I.18. The manuscript is often referred to by the siglum L in secondary discussions.

2 See for example, K.O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990), 33; R.D.Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia, 1992), 427; M.B.Parkes, The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Jarrow Lecture 1982 (Jarrow, 1982), 5.

(I’m using footnotes here, because that’s what Notes and Queries, the journal where this was published, requires. But most modern journals would prefer this in parenthetical form in the main text).

Why this isn’t pedantry

At first glance, this might seem like pedantry. Does it really matter that much that I can show specific examples of people talking about problems that I’m pretty sure have been discussed a lot?

The answer is that it really does matter. Especially in the Humanities, exactly who said what and exactly what they said are very often the source of extremely interesting analysis (this is why, in contrast to many other disciplines, humanists cite page numbers). Bibliographic patterns and histories, therefore, can reveal an awful lot about how people in the past understood things and about changes in this understanding through time.

Indeed, the article I am citing here is an example of that: I discovered this problem when I was collecting citations to avoid a straw bibliographic claim in a different article that scholars “have always recognised that the St. Petersburg Bede is among the more accurate of Bede manuscripts.” What I discovered when I checked the actual references I gathered to support this was that it had nowhere near “six” errors in it (that would be impossible in such a big manuscript)… and I ended up with this article explaining why people mistakenly thought it was.

So get in the habit of always supplying some examples when you make claims about how often some work or topic has been discussed. You’ll sometimes find that it actually hasn’t been discussed as much as you think it has, or that the debate goes off in a different direction than you suspect.

In my experience, the bibliography is never as straightforward as you think it is.

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