[PW] Importance of good research - cautionary tales?

Donna Halper dlh at donnahalper.com
Wed Jul 18 09:55:33 PDT 2018

On 7/18/2018 7:54 AM, Caroline Barratt wrote:
> Hello everyone,
> I am trying to compile some real-life “cautionary tales” about why doing a
> thorough literature review is so important to good research.

My cautionary tale may not be exactly what you are asking-- it's not 
about a matter of life and death.  But then again, it may still make a 
relevant point.  It's about reevaluating the sources you are using in 
your lit review:  considering whether perceptions about them have 
changed over the years. I often see inexperienced researchers quoting 
from a famous source, but seeming to take the source at face value, 
rather than exploring whether what the source says is accurate (or where 
the author of that book or article got the information).  The problem is 
then compounded when other researchers quote from that first researcher 
(we see that on Wikipedia), and it becomes an endless loop-- with none 
of them considering whether that original famous source was flawed or 
incomplete or even biased.

Here's an example:  in the history of broadcasting, there is a durable 
myth that KDKA in Pittsburgh was "the first radio station in the US" (or 
in some of their publicity, "in the world"). This is not true, and for 
readers from Pittsburgh, I am not trying to be rude about your 
pioneering station, which did indeed have some amazing achievements in 
early radio.  But the KDKA story is a triumph of publicity over fact-- 
the then-owners (Westinghouse) had a massive publicity department and 
they put it to work promoting the primacy of KDKA, while conveniently 
ignoring other early stations that may indeed have been on the air 
before or at the same time as KDKA.  For many years, there was one book 
that every educator used when teaching the history of broadcasting:  
Gleason Archer's "The History of Radio to 1926." It was repeatedly cited 
in a multitude of textbooks as the authoritative history of early radio, 
and well into the 1990s, it was widely quoted.  The problem, as I and 
several other researchers discovered, was that Mr. Archer was not 
exactly an expert.  He was a lawyer and cleric (not that there's 
anything wrong with that), but other than hosting his own weekly radio 
program for about five years, he was not a media historian nor an expert 
in broadcasting. Further, he wrote his book in 1938, many years after 
the events he describes; there is not much evidence he was ever 
particularly interested in the history of radio; and when he decided to 
write about it, he mainly used corporate archives from companies like 
Westinghouse and RCA and General Electric, rather than thoroughly 
exploring smaller & independently operated stations that may have been 
on the air but lacked the big budgets to publicize themselves nationally.

Today, there are many far better and far more inclusive histories of 
broadcasting that are in fact /histories/.  I am not in any way trashing 
Mr. Archer, who had a number of very real achievements during his life 
(including founding Suffolk University here in Boston). I am simply 
suggesting that just because a book or article was well-received doesn't 
mean the information it contained was accurate.  And researchers who are 
not experts in a field of study may cite the famous books from that 
field, without evaluating whether the material those books contain has 
been disproved, or is incomplete (or even biased). Further, the state of 
the art may have changed-- what was applauded as useful and positive in 
1938 might not be received the same way in 2018.  Thoroughly evaluating 
the sources, rather than just listing them as if all are equally valid, 
is important to writing a paper that is both thorough and factual. I 
hope this overly long post makes sense, and thanks for reading it.

Donna L. Halper, PhD
Associate Professor of Communication & Media Studies
Lesley University, Cambridge MA

More information about the Project-Wombat-Open mailing list