Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Internet is right ... except when it is wrong.

I made a significant error when writing Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic. I attributed a quote to James Monroe that was actually written by James Madison. When it was pointed out, I couldn't believe it. I had a solid source, the manuscript had been fact checked, footnoted, edited, and proofread. Through Google Books I discovered a James Madison paper that was the true source of the quote. About a third of the references in a Google search attributed the quote to Monroe. (You're right, that means two thirds of the references said it was Madison. Alarm bells should have gone off.)

An eBook can be corrected fast.
Darn. How does that happen? Through some additional research, I found the source of the error. Around 1900, a historian had written a serious academic book and mistakenly attributed the quote to Monroe. An easy error. The two neighbors share the same first name and the last names have similarities. The historian probably had a momentary lapse in memory and his editors missed the mistake. From that point forward, anyone who didn't go back to the original source document had a high likelihood of propagating the error.

I'm bring this up because I did the presentation on the hazards of internet research.
(This link will take you to some fun wisdom on the Internet.) 

The Internet may have accuracy issues, but relying on nonfiction books can lead a writer up the garden path as well. I guess if there is a moral to the story, it's that a careful writer should not rely on secondary sources unless absolutely necessary.

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