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Some thoughts on research credibility and the fog of doubt.

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The other day, a correspondent asked for ways to improve the credibility of an article they were writing. There are several posters here who are writing or are planning to write numismatic articles or books on their favorite aspects of US and foreign coinage. I’m posting my short reply in hopes it will be helpful to others. These are just my thoughts/approaches and everyone will likely have other methods that work well for them.


In numismatic writing, “credibility” seems to come with time and attention to detail. Part of it is slogging through your subject and the other is getting your work into the hands of those who can appreciate it, and refer to it in their publications. The whole thing might be summarized:


1. Limit scope

2. Find sources

3. Document all sources

4. Analyze materials

5. Report results

6. Distribute results


My experience is that both are difficult, but that the grunt-work might be the hardest. The first thing to do is limit your subject to fit the time you have, and scout potential resources. Better to start with a short time period or specific date/denomination where you can focus. Once the subject is under control, you have to look for everything that might be relevant to it. As you look, record every book, article, newspaper, on-line comment you find. This is a lot of work, and the reality is that much of what you examine will be extraneous or useless or repetitive. But – that is OK. This list – your research bibliography – helps you avoid duplication and identify “borrowed” material. (If you annotate your list, it becomes a working index for your draft.) Later, it adds to your credibility by showing you have done the difficult work of looking for and reading what others have said about your subject. Also, use footnotes or end notes in your draft to link direct to sources. This will allow you to refer to exact sources while working in your manuscript. (One published comment along the lines of, "But the author did not consult Flintstone's standard treatise of 1908," can smother all your good work in a fog of doubt.)


Key word searches on the internet, and especially things like Google books, can help locate sources of information. The Harry Bass NIP (managed by ANA) has an extensive index to hobby periodicals. The future Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis will be a huge resource once it is operating as planned. An important point is to never reject a source because of a negative first impression – sometimes, the real value will occur to you only after you’ve seen other materials, and asked yourself the tough questions…especially “Why?”


Prove your points. Develop your ideas and opinions, then assemble facts and opinions to support them. Some things can be established by documentation, others require analysis, and yet others are “educated guesses.” A good article with high credibility is built on the first two with only a little of the last to fill gaps. Sometimes, your analysis will show you were wrong – that’s OK…your article might be the first to refute a popular traditional idea.


As for taking your hard-earned numismatic truth to the public, the reality is that your audience are specialists. The general collector might not care a “rat’s anatomy” for your subject – but there are people and organizations that could be very interested. Consider distribution to major hobby publications, auction companies, coin dealers (specialists if you can find them), and even a few copies given away at major shows.


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It also allows anyone to check and possibly expand what was done. Taxay and Breen did a lot of research - but published almost no sources. Thus, one can only verify their work by chance or extraordinary effort. (When working on the Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 book, I found a transcription error in one of Taxay's quotes. The error changed much of the meaning of the letter, but it was never checked and had been copied hundreds of times. I happened to find the original document -- and corrected the error in my book.)

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I had a teacher in high school that brought up some of the same points, he scored students on quantity and quality of their papers. He would say that narrowing the topic and honing and focusing in on the topic were imperative for successful foot-noted research papers, so instead of writing about Byron, you narrow the topic to his "left foot"; or at least that is how he put it. One year I was the top scorer on volume, etc. in one of his classes, but he found a way to not honor his promise that his top students would be dined with escargot, etc. in NYC. I probably would have passed anyway, though he was a Mensa "genius" he was also a leading atheist (authored "Who's Who in Hell") and gay activist.


And the narrowing of topic with the best research is what every competent teacher advocates, probably one reason they don't like encyclopedias as the lazy way out.

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