Told  /  Argument

What Do We Owe? Generosity, Attribution, and the Perilous Invisibility of Research Infrastructure

Attribution can make visible the vast infrastructure of research and display how much hard-won knowledge, including creative endeavor, it has faciliated.

Last month I read a comment from a fellow historian on social media wondering why a popular historical novelist in a prominent media interview hadn’t credited the scholar who is nearly synonymous with the topic she’d fictionalized. Because it’s right in my own research wheelhouse, I started reading and thinking more about this case and about questions of attribution and generosity, particularly as they pertain to the fragile humanities research infrastructure. As we experience unprecedented (in scale, not kind) attacks on historical research and teaching, it struck me as particularly important to open a more general conversation about the contexts and costs of the invisibility of humanities research. I am particularly concerned with the implications of leaving the vast infrastructure of research invisible to a public largely unaware or unconcerned with how much hard-won knowledge, including creative endeavor, that research has facilitated.

To be very clear, I am not accusing the novelist of anything more than a lack of generosity. I am an enthusiastic and regular reader of historical fiction; my favorite novels are by authors who work their fiction the way they work their history – layered, and deeply informed. I wrote, for example, in an early Scholarly Kitchen best book round-ups about my deep appreciation for Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink; only later did I discover this marvelous interview with JSTOR about her research for the book. I confess to be thoroughly biased about Deborah Harkness’s work because she is one of my favorite people as well as writers, though I’m obviously in good company as a fan of her hugely popular All Souls series; my favorite remains Shadow of Night in part because her incredible knowledge and skills as a historian of 17th century England and science are so apparent in every lush detail. I often learn more even about places I thought I knew well when I read a wonderful historical novel. Susan Scott Holloway’s book about Mary Emmons, the woman Aaron Burr enslaved and married, for example, blew me away despite my having read lots in the world of Hamilton-adjacency. I read Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie, a novel about the daughter of the real life Black doctor in late 19th century New York, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, twice in a row it was so evocative. I could go on, and on. So it’s not that I’m hostile to historical fiction – quite the contrary.

And I think it’s important to note, too, the obvious point that novelists are working to create something fresh and new, and often or mostly imagined, even if inspired from any number or types of other art, people, and places. And sometimes ideas are just in the air – no one has a commanding claim to ideas that many people come to seemingly at once; we are all breathing the same air and often we’re just coming to conclusions together. Still, it is also true that scholars can rightly feel abused by journalists and creatives who use their work without attribution and that this may happen more often to women and to people of color.