Research Musings: Evaluating Sources

During this very early stage of my research, I’ve been trying to think of myself as a kind of sponge, absorbing all the information that comes my way without too much discernment. After all, who knows what will actually be useful when it comes time to write this darn thing? And I’ve tried to have the attitude throughout my life that even negative experiences can teach me something. Today, however, I stumbled across a book that was just so awful, I’ve got to blog about it.

Evaluating sources is something that I’ve never been 100% confident about, but I’d like to think that I have a decent grasp of which sources are most appropriate for my research and a general sense of which sources are most likely to be reliable. I think there’s a lot to be said for the importance an intelligent-souding title, a strong bibliography, and a reputable publisher (not necessarily in that order). At the moment, I’m pulling sources from the library without doing much in the way of pre-screening in order to immerse myself in the available writings on Middleton, Rowley, and The Changeling. Thus, when I came across a book in the library this week entitled Thomas Middleton: Renaissance Dramatist that covered most of the major plays in intelligently categorised chapters and was published by Edinburgh University Press, I was feeling pretty okay about its chances of being worth reading. My hopes were very quickly shattered.

As an example of its poor editing and sloppy scholarship, let us examine the author’s version of The Changeling’s modern performance history: ‘It was revived once more in 1961, and was performed regularly until the 1980s in Britain–it returned to the stage in 2006’ (132). Aside from the completely unnecessary comma, the sentence completely misses out, for example, Michael Attenborough’s production for the RSC in 1992 (which continued to tour throughout 1993) and the 1993 BBC television version. In addition, the exclusion of the ’90s misses out on the very interested adaptation by KneeHigh Theatre Company in 1999. Not to mention the Tobacco Factory’s 2005 production. I think my point is obvious. This kind of omission would be enough on its own to make me question the credibility of this source, but the author takes it one step further.

After having asserted that the play was not performed from some unidentified year in ‘the 1980s’ until 2006, she actually brings up and discusses the very Michael Attenborough RSC production that I mention above (136). She might–might–get away with her nod to the 1993 BBC television version (133) because she specifies that the play ‘returned to the stage in 2006′. But completely leaving out an RSC production that she then referenced four pages later was one mistake too many for me, and it’s just a sampling of the kind of errors in editing that run rampant through this book.

The question now, of course, is what to do with this source. I know that a good scholar does not run away from unreliable or “bad” sources, but I’m not entirely sure what else to do. Should it show up in my literature review? Is it even worth that much attention? As a lowly MPhil/PhD, am I even qualified to call out a real professor’s shoddy work?  These and other vaguely philosophical questions will hopefully be answered in my next supervision….


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