Is it acceptable to use this as a source in a book I am writing?
April 15, 2019 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I am writing a book, and there is a source I really, really, really want to use, but it seems to be impossible to verify its authenticity.

The source is an 18th-century memoir that makes some shocking revelations about British colonial policies.

Personally, having read through it, I don't see anything that is objectionable. I have read a lot about British colonial policies, and what is written in this book seems to correspond with British colonial policies in other regions of the world. Neither have I found anything that has seriously refuted the information this memoir contains, other than to call it 'conspiratorial' without any further elaboration.

That's the conundrum I am in: the credibility of the information in the memoir is questionable (although not in my personal opinion), since I haven't found any other independent source to support its claims, but then neither have I found a source that has demonstratively proven this memoir to be fake.
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Education (9 answers total)
Is it a scholarly book published with an academic press? Then talk to your editor.

If it’s not a work of scholarly research then just use it and move on. No harm in saying “This stuff happened, according to this memoir (citation)”, but I suppose you could still ask your editor if you want more assurance.

The whole point of citing sources is so that readers can look into the matter themselves if they choose, and let them decide their veracity/reliability/authority etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:19 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Are you writing fiction or non-fiction?
posted by praemunire at 10:20 AM on April 15

Context matters: is this a major thesis, or a short essay for a class? *squints* Waitaminnit, is it for your final?!

But seriously, would this one cite be used as the fulcrum for a huge table-flipping reappraisal, or just as an aside in a long piece?

I agree: check with your professor/editor/audience to see what the impact will be of a possibly-controversially-sourced voice in your work.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:24 AM on April 15

It's also going to depend on what conclusions you are drawing from that information. If it's just an aside, especially if it's among other similar cited sources, like, "Here's another, slightly more controversial example," it may be less of an issue than if it's being used as the only citation for a major argument in the book, like, "Because of what this one, poorly authenticated source says, I am arguing that all colonialist empires engaged in this practice that's not cited by any other sources."
posted by lazuli at 10:29 AM on April 15 [12 favorites]

One thing about British colonial policies is that they tend to be VERY well documented. I have trouble imagining a policy existing that isn't written down in official records somewhere, unless it's a very very informal policy (in which case, it's a thing that some people were doing, not a policy).

You can still cite the book, just as "X even claimed that Y happened, though there is no other documentation of this" not as "Y happened."
posted by EmilyFlew at 11:03 AM on April 15 [11 favorites]

Depends on the purpose, but you likely could state this memoir described impacts of whatever policy in x region. Colonial British implemented similar policies in x, y and z area (cite sources) with reported impacts of (list impacts).

Though policy is fairly well documented, implementation not so much. You should be able to find the exact law, but it's consequences and actual implementation can vary dramatically (on preview what EmilyFlew said) between locations.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:09 AM on April 15

you can cite it without verifying the information in it, although you have to do so transparently as outlined above - describe the source and give some indication of why you do or don't find it credible and why it is difficult to verify. you don't have to know for sure that it's accurate as long as you don't pretend to know.

but you do need to verify that it really is an 18th century memoir, not a later text misrepresenting itself (with or without the expectation of being believed). I'm not sure from your question whether this part of it is in any doubt -- is the issue whether the memoir as a whole is legitimately of the period or a later fake, or is the question just whether a real 18th. c. memoirist said things that may be false?
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:54 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]

Standards will vary wildly depending on what kind of book you're writing for what kind of press. But a good general rule is that, of course, you can cite any source that exists. There is no sense in pretending that a source doesn't exist just because there are concerns about its credibility. All that is important is that, in using it, you are honest and transparent about the details of the source and any concerns about its accuracy.

If you think that couching the information in the volume of caveats that would be required to do that would render using the source pointless, then it's not worth using. But there's a big difference between not acceptable to use and not worth using.
posted by 256 at 12:50 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

You can confront the issue head-on. Admit that it's controversial, explain why you think as you do, cite the leading critics and say why you think their arguments aren't persuasive. This could be "in-line" or relegated to a footnote.

If you are writing fiction, if you are deft enough, you can have "what's going on at place x"
mentioned between characters is a way that mirrors what the academic argument would be.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:19 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

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