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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Of Course the Errors Are Yours!

Not infrequently, law review articles contain a "*" footnote that acknowledges a list of people who gave useful feedback and then adds a disclaimer like, "Any remaining errors are my own."  Well, of course any errors are your own!  Does anyone see any value to such disclaimers (which appear frequently in academic books in other disciplines as well)?

I think I understand the motivation behind the admonition.  Prof. X reads your article and gives some useful feedback.  But Prof. X may not have read it carefully, the piece may have changed after Prof. X read it, you may have ignored Prof. X's advice, and so forth.  The disclaimer is meant to say, "Don't think badly of Prof. X because he didn't catch the glaring logical or factual errors in this paper.  Don't think Prof. X necessarily agrees with my position."  I think it is also meant to be a signal to Prof. X: "Thanks for giving me whatever feedback you did.  Don't feel like the flaws in this paper reflect badly on you." 

And, of course, aside from the extra line or so of text, there's little harm in the practice.  On the other hand, perhaps the admonition itself suggests that those who give feedback might possibly be just a wee bit to blame.  Doesn't the admonition at least reflect the sense that such an inference is plausible? If not, then why include it?  Perhaps we better reinforce the norm that those who give feedback should not be thought responsible for the ensuing errors by not mentioning the norm itself!

P.S. Dan Markel is not responsible for any flaws in this blog post.  They are solely my own.  Why would you even think that Dan Markel, who has not asked me to take down this blog post, might be just a little bit responsible?

Posted by Adam Kolber on August 20, 2008 at 06:02 AM | Permalink


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YES, YES, YES. "All errors are my own" is becoming widespread enough, it's starting to take on a life of it's own, with scholars (apparently) feeling they have some obligation to incant it, lest they be seen as scapegoating their acknowledgees. Enough already. I'll take the pledge right now never to write it.

You've saved me from having to do this post myself. Thanks, Adam.

Posted by: Eric E. Johnson | Aug 22, 2008 7:52:50 AM

Andy, do tell: what are the 1 percent that are as inflammatory as arguing that the Holocaust never happened? Give me some cites -- those are the articles I want to read!

Posted by: paul horwitz | Aug 21, 2008 9:23:57 PM

What about the frequent disclaimer that the views one expresses in the article are his/her own? This is standard fare (and I use it out of an abundance of caution), but I also think that it should be obvious that commenting on an article does not mean you agree with it. I could see why someone might not want his name to appear on an inflammatory article (e.g., one that argues that the Holocaust never happened), but 99%+ of law review articles are not nearly as controversial.

Posted by: andy | Aug 21, 2008 6:09:41 PM

It seems odd to be talking about this line on a law prof blog, because it seems like law papers are where the line is used *least* frequently. I can't remember the last paper or book in another discipline I've read that didn't include the line, but in law review articles, my rough estimate is that only around 20% include it.

Posted by: Jason W. | Aug 21, 2008 3:16:09 PM

I like Jim's catch! Which pro-formas you should include and which you shouldn't are always a challenge. I have trimmed my voice mail answer to: "This is Bart. Sorry I missed your call." but losing the redundant "please leave a message" was painful. Shouldn't everyone know to leave a message? But what if they don't? Is this communication darwinism? Who knows. And do I even need to say "Sorry I missed your call"? I'm not overjoyed I missed their call--except maybe I am in some cases.

Posted by: Bart | Aug 20, 2008 1:30:47 PM

James: Interesting! I just saw this happy little gem on Olin Shivers' webpage:

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Aug 20, 2008 1:30:41 PM

Olin Shivers wrote the best acknowledgments ever:

Who should I thank? My so-called ``colleagues,'' who laugh at me behind my back, all the while becoming famous on my work? My worthless graduate students, whose computer skills appear to be limited to downloading bitmaps off of netnews? My parents, who are still waiting for me to quit ``fooling around with computers,'' go to med school, and become a radiologist? My department chairman, a manager who gives one new insight into and sympathy for disgruntled postal workers? . . .

Oh, yes, the acknowledgements. I think not. I did it. I did it all, by myself.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Aug 20, 2008 12:43:42 PM

OK, I'll be the first to mention the paradox of the preface:


Inserting the footnote simply makes clear that you have inconsistent beliefs! Not something to advertise right at the start of a paper.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Aug 20, 2008 12:41:48 PM

Perhaps we can now appreciate the tongue in cheek humor of the late Victor Mollo, a British expert on the game of contract bridge, who, in the introduction to one of his books said the following after expressing his thanks to a number of British bridge luminaries "Now the reader will know exactly whom to blame if they find any errors in this book."

Posted by: Harry Gerla | Aug 20, 2008 12:15:17 PM

On the reason why the norm exists to include this line, I would guess the answer is that the norm of thanking people who commented on drafts is rather new. If you look at articles from 50 years ago, it was relatively uncommon to thank people who commented on drafts, provided research assistance, moral support, editorial help, etc. In that world, it must have seemed odd to begin mentioning people in the footnote who were not actually responsible for the content of the article. I wonder if the standard line about "all errors are my own" made more sense at that time. It could have come across as a needed disclaimer at the time, not one that (by now) is completely useless.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 20, 2008 11:01:49 AM

Jules Coleman has had "acknowledgments" of a sort similar to Murphy's, at least in papers presented to discussion groups. (Not quite as extensive as Murphy's but also funny in a small way.) Perhaps he takes them out for the published versions. I'm pretty sure that Murphy and Coleman were colleagues at Arizona for a while so maybe Coleman got the idea from him there.

Posted by: matt | Aug 20, 2008 10:34:14 AM

If memory serves me correct, it's Jeffrie G. Murphy, Retribution Justice & Therapy (1973).

Posted by: Jim Rossi | Aug 20, 2008 9:54:00 AM

Jim: Good find! It's certainly not boilerplate! Maybe someone will know the precise reference....

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Aug 20, 2008 9:50:18 AM

But maybe Dan *is* responsible. One of my favorite acknowledgements in print comes from a classic in Dan's field and goes something like this (I don't have the book in front of my so my apologies for any mistakes in my memory....):

"Professor X read drafts of my manuscript and had a number of suggestions and criticisms, some of which I responded to. However, even that does not free him from responsibility for any remaining errors or other things I may have said. He could have destroyed my office and manuscripts, burned my home, or even had me killed. That he did none of these things indicates that he is not committed to the total pursuit of the truth."

But I agree the aknowledgement in most articles has become so boilerplate it should be dispensed with, except in those cases we wish to acknowledge particular colleagues whose advice we have sought and not followed -- for reasons both good and bad (although often this is best highlighted in the particular part of the article in which there is disagreement).

Posted by: Jim Rossi | Aug 20, 2008 9:38:54 AM

Personally, I never put that statement in my footnote because I hold *everyone* responsible for my errors. Oh, and Adam, I'm taking this blog post down by the end of the day if it turns out you're wrong!

Posted by: Dan | Aug 20, 2008 9:31:45 AM

I always thought it was supposed to be kind of a cutesy and self-deprecating compliment rather than anything conveying actual information. Like a little nod to "They're brilliant; I'm the screw-up."

Posted by: Katie | Aug 20, 2008 9:26:25 AM

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