Fact checking is all the craze these days. This American Life ran an episode-length retraction of Mike Daisey’s Apple story. Sites like Politifact regularly check politicians on their Truth-o-Meter. Magazines like the New Yorker are proud of their fact checkers, but academic journals rarely bother to check facts. Sure, academics have peer-review, but peer-review is not the same thing as fact checking. An expert on linguistic anthropology who does work in Latin America might be asked to review an article on indexicals in Chinese speech. As peer review goes, there is nothing wrong with this. Said expert will be able to do a good job of evaluating the argument and the relationship of the argument to the data presented in the paper. What they won’t be able to do is to check whether that data is accurate.
With the exception of a few big controversies, such as Margaret Mead or Jared Diamond (who isn’t actually an anthropologist), it is very rare for anyone to go and talk to an informant and ask them if they really said the words attributed to them by the anthropologist. For this reason the American Ethnologist’s recent announcement that they will fact check all articles is truly groundbreaking.
And it raises a number of questions: how will they pay for it? Fact checking anthropology articles is a lot more difficult that fact checking your ordinary piece of journalism. Especially for fieldwork conducted in some of the more remote corners of the earth. Of course, more and more people have internet access these days, and English skills are more widespread so maybe it won’t be as difficult as all that.
Even then, there is still the question of what constitutes a factual claim in anthropology. Will they just be confirming the most obvious statements of fact, or will they ask informants about the interpretation of their words in the text?
And what about privacy? While I trust American Ethnologist not to divulge names, there are serious risks related to divulging name and contact information to anyone, especially those living in countries that might monitor phone calls or email.
Still, I have seen enough questionable research in print that I applaud AE’s efforts to raise the bar beyond mere peer-review. But the details matter and I worry about how the AE fact-checkers will interpret their mandate. It will be interesting to hear reports from the first round of scholars who submit articles under the new regime. If you are one of them, please let us know and we will be happy to publish your account here.
UPDATE: Please note the date of this post.