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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

All Errors are My Own

The notes to most articles begin with an acknowledgment note thanking others for helping with the paper.  Some such notes close with an odd disclaimer wherein the author clarifies that all errors, mistakes etc. in the article are exclusively her own.  Why are such disclaimers needed?  After all, isn’t it obvious that the author’s errors are not attributable to the people who were kind enough to look over the manuscript and offer their thoughts?  And if so, why do some authors feel compelled to add such a disclaimer? 

The answer is found in the double role of acknowledgment notes.  To an extent, such notes are what they purport to be: expressions of genuine gratitude that recognize the efforts and contribution of other’s to the work.  Yet, acknowledgments have, of course, another role.  They bestow credibility and importance on authors through the peculiar phenomenon of reflected glory.  Moreover, they appear to give readers a quasi warranty of quality: signaling the author’s standing, connections, and communal relevancy as well as that the paper went through some process of quality control.  Now of course an acknowledgment is a poor proxy for quality: the fact that John Rawls, for example, happened to attend your talk and was nice enough to say something means little more than that one was invited to speak at Harvard.  The social function of acknowledgment notes is more a creature of gossip, stardust collecting, status signaling, and social networking than anything else.  It is this less admirable reason for the acknowledgment note that is the cause of the inflation in “Thank Yous” found in some articles, which list people not only for their contribution or desert but also for their relative fame. 

It is this second role of the acknowledgment note that compels some authors to clear those mentioned in the acknowledgment from any responsibility for the work’s shortcomings.  Because some people view the list of acknowledgments as a stamp of approval by association, some authors feel understandably compelled to protect those who were kind enough to help from unintended and unwarranted association with the author’s mistakes.  The “all errors are my own” disclaimer attempts to preempt any harm those mentioned in the acknowledgments may suffer due to being associated with a poor paper.  Responsible authors understand the double edged nature of the acknowledgment note: status signaling through association runs both ways and may deflate as well as raise status.  While admirable, I am not a fan of “all errors are me own” disclaimers.  Better perhaps is to keep things simple and honest, ignoring the irrational and gossipy tendencies of the market rather than trying to defend against them, and thereby playing along.  Thank only those who actually deserve it, either due to an actual contribution or for at least making the effort to help.  If others want to read more into it, it’s their problem.  Why make it yours?   

Posted by Ori Herstein on June 1, 2011 at 02:37 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Ori,

Great post. I have always wondered about the prevalence of this meaningless platitude.

Posted by: Michael J.Z. Mannheimer | Jun 4, 2011 11:26:28 PM

That I can believe, Orin. Were any of the jokes any good? Few, I'd guess.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 2, 2011 11:25:33 PM

One thing I found in my research that there were hundreds of articles in which the authors tried to make jokes based on the "all errors remain my own" line; it was amazing how many articles jokingly blamed the people who helped on the paper, or who tried to make jokes about the subject matter of the paper.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 2, 2011 6:36:25 PM

"even if the foregoing problems did not exist with a particular article, I would think editors have enough to do without researching the various names the note might acknowledge. I do not rule out that an acknowledgment might play some role in the limited circumstances where the person acknowledged is of extreme notoriety or when the decision on an article is a close one, but as a general matter I would think it is irrelevant. Does anyone have experience that suggests otherwise?"

Many years ago I was one of the articles editors at the law review of a prominent school. Probably of any LR position, articles editor is most likely to attract those interested in academia. Also, simply by reading lots of articles an articles editors quickly becomes familiar with what professors are cited a lot and thus considered prominent. Thus, those who become articles editors likely have made an effort to become familiar with prominent legal academics and read their work, and so have a decent ability to recognize prominent names. (Today, this would be made even easier by Brian Leiter's work) Thus, I don't think your implicit claim that articles editors do not know the people being acknowledged is correct.

In the case of myself and my colleagues, the names of the people in the acknowledgements did perform a valuable signalling function for authors from less known schools. Either rightly or wrongly, if prominent academics had read and commented on the paper we tended to give it a more serious read than would otherwise be the case. (If the author already was at a higher ranked school, then that fact itself would cause us to give the paper a serious read and the acknowledgements were irrelevant; same thing if the author was themselves prominent, regardless of their school).

Posted by: Former Articles Editor | Jun 2, 2011 3:07:36 PM

One of my former professors, Joseph Isenbergh, concluded his list of persons acknowledged (if memory serves, in the first edition of his treatise on International Taxation) with the remark that "They alone are responsible for any errors they may have induced." It was a wonderful twist on the common disclaimer.

Posted by: Tom Gallanis | Jun 2, 2011 1:50:29 PM

Hey Matt,

I did not realize I had an actual "theory"!
In nay case, is my view insular to legal publications? That is not what I had in mind.

Posted by: Ori | Jun 2, 2011 11:40:10 AM

Matt,

I suspect that's right.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 2, 2011 11:17:59 AM

One question I would have about Orin's theory is whether the practice was already common in other fields before the fist use he found in a law review. I'd guess yes. It's at least not unusual in philosophy journals and some others I look at regularly (some poli sci journals, for example), so if I had to guess, I'd guess that it came into law reviews from outside, where it was already common, and has likely come into law reviews many times from different sources. It actually doesn't seem unreasonable to me to indicate that the people you thank have read the thing, but that you're making no claims that they agree with all of it.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 2, 2011 5:59:40 AM

Path dependence is not a terribly illuminating explanation, nor is it good at explaining changes in popularity. So one theory is that it permits thanking by absolving those contributing. Another is that because it permits thanking by absolving, it liberates a signaling function about the author's connections.

A third theory would be that it appeals to editors because it suggest that they too will be absolved for their sins in helping bring the article to the rest of the world.

Posted by: Ani | Jun 2, 2011 12:03:15 AM

I've used it. I had really substantial, generous help from someone who disagreed with some of my policy arguments. I couldn't not thank him (he was so helpful!), but I also didn't want to offend him by implying that he might approve of or endorse my work. Thus my use of the disclaimer.

If he had been someone I knew a bit better, I would have just asked if he'd be comfortable being acknowledged. But, under the circumstances, I think I made the right call.

I've seen the standard disclaimer often in non- law review articles; I think it might be appearing more and more in legal work partially because more multi-disciplinary scholars are publishing in law reviews.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 1, 2011 11:26:26 PM

I'm with Kerr. Path dependence & fear of appearing different explain almost all of the world's oddities.

Posted by: dave hoffman | Jun 1, 2011 10:10:28 PM

I once read a paper by Jules Coleman (not the published version- it was for a workshop, so maybe he took this out) that had a disclaimer something like the one Alex notes, but I remember it saying that the errors probably belong to the other people. But I might be miss-remembering.

But just today I read a paper by a famous person whom I won't name, who I thought was making some real and quite serious blunders in interpreting and presenting (and so in critiquing as well) the views of some other famous people. The acknowledgment note thanked some people that I think surely would have noted these errors, or at least should have. There was no "all errors are my own" bit, though to my mind the thanked people should have wished there were, so that they could more easily disclaim having approved of the interpretation in the paper.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 1, 2011 8:07:35 PM

Some of us aren't as generous. In my article, The Gettysburg Address as Written by Law Students Taking an Exam, the author's note blames my parents for the content of the article. And the preface to the first edition of my book Basic Accounting Principles for Lawyers concludes with this: "Finally, this has been a cooperative effort. Each author would like to stress that any faults in this book are solely the responsibility of the other."

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Jun 1, 2011 4:45:19 PM

That's fascinating! It never occurred to me to look into the historical evolution. I would love to read this paper if you ever go back to it. Perhaps my speculations are indeed entirely off (as Steve suggests). But don't confuse me with facts.

Posted by: Ori | Jun 1, 2011 4:45:10 PM

I actually once spent a few hours looking into the history of this. As best I can recall, the first person to use the phrase in a law review article was thanking other researchers who had helped with some empirical work; the phrase was used because the other researchers actually added substantially to the empirical work, which could of course have errors. Its use then grew really slowly, over the years, until it became common -- presumably with authors being overly cautious about violating some perceived social norm, and including the phrase just in case. I actually started a short paper on the topic just for fun but never finished it; maybe I'll go back to it this summer.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 1, 2011 4:21:10 PM

I think you are over-analyzing this phenomenon. Somebody once said "all errors are my own" because it was cute -- and it was, once. Other people picked it up, also thinking it was cute -- which it wasn't any longer. Now it has become standard and meaningless. This is a pretty common development in legal scholarship, where an original phrase or metaphor eventually gets beaten into the ground.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Jun 1, 2011 4:04:01 PM

Alex,

I do not recognize the source. But clever nonetheless. Thanks.


Derek,

The thought process of student editors is beyond my comprehension. I would guess you are right, considering that they are less aware of who's who, so most acknowledgments probably have little effect on them. (Generally I think that legal academia should shift more towards blind peer reviewed publications). Thanks.

Posted by: Ori | Jun 1, 2011 3:25:08 PM

I have had colleagues who suggest that the acknowledgment note also serves a signaling function to law review editors during the submissions process. As discussed in the "Law Review Review," editors can be quite sensitive to the signaling function that flows from awards or other outside recognition a paper might have previously earned. Given this, it is plausible that the acknowledgment note could do the same, but I am far less confident that an acknowledgment note has much, if any, effect because: 1) many articles probably lack an acknowledgment at the submission stage and basing decisions on them would be unreliable; 2) the acknowledgement is ambiguous as noted by Ori; and 3) even if the foregoing problems did not exist with a particular article, I would think editors have enough to do without researching the various names the note might acknowledge. I do not rule out that an acknowledgment might play some role in the limited circumstances where the person acknowledged is of extreme notoriety or when the decision on an article is a close one, but as a general matter I would think it is irrelevant. Does anyone have experience that suggests otherwise?

Posted by: Derek Black | Jun 1, 2011 3:15:18 PM

I am reminded of the remark of some philosopher (I think, although I can't remember which), to the effect of:

I can't say whether all the errors are my own. I am not aware of any errors--if I were I would correct them. Accordingly, I don't know whether the errors (of which I am, ex hypothesi, unaware) are mine or someone else's. Perhaps they were originally someone else's, and I have now made them mine. But either way, it is probably fair to hold me accountable for them.

That always seemed right to me. Anyone know where this comes from? Maybe I am adding the bit about responsibility.

Posted by: Alex Guerrero | Jun 1, 2011 2:54:47 PM

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