Writing and Publication in Graduate School
History Honors Banquet, Wilkinson Center, 12 May 1965
Dr. Hugh Nibley, Ph. D.
Writing and publication vs. teaching. Writing and publication are as important as teaching because
they are one and indivisible. Recently the University of California made a year-long study of the
research function of the university and came to the not-surprising conclusion that the best teachers
always do some research and the best researchers always do some teaching:
| ||A man who brings only talent and enthusiasm for teaching with him from graduate school
may well be seen as a second-rate member of the local academic community
decade of his promotion to tenure, he will prove to be a very routine teacher indeed
the individual faculty member, the balance between teaching and research must be preserved
It is in post-graduate education that a research-oriented faculty is essential
. Our own
requires a man to start showing a sizable volume of productive results within at
least two years of arrival if he is to be ensured an orderly progress up our promotion ladder.|
Research and publication are the same. What is meant by productive results is not a mere
collection of notes but actual publication. A dancer dances, a painter paints, a composer composes,
a builder builds, and a scholar publishes. All the costly gimmicks, the laborious jargon, the worlds-fair architecture, the intellectual posturing, the enormous staff, top-heavy administration, and swarming
student body of the big modern university are but window dressing unless we can show that we are
able to produce something.
Church university is not exceptional. In this regard the Churchs university is no different. In fact
publication is especially important here: for where the severe standards imposed by professional
journals are not applied, scholars inevitably succumb to the occupational hazards of the religious
teacher, easily lapsing into superficial pseudo-scholarship, irresponsible speculation, ill-informed
controversy and authoritarian pomposity.
Publication and integrity. There is no better way to preserve integrity than publication. As long as
a professor can go to bed at night and rise up in the morning in the sublime assurance that he will never
be called upon to produce solid support for his exalted station; as long as he can fulfill the measure of
his existence by pontificating before a room full of adolescents, warming chairs in committee rooms
and dozing at meetings without ever having to pass muster before a competent board of editors, a man
is bound to abuse his security by the relaxing of scholarly standards. The trouble with not publishing
is that it is just too easy nothing is easier, in fact than not to publish. Anyone can be a teacher, a
very bad teacher, if you will, but still anyone can teach. On the other hand, consistent publication
requires a high level of excellence journals simply cannot afford to publish trash. Publication and
not teaching is the one way to keep a scholar on his toes.
Not enough to study hard and be well-informed. Scholarship is an open-ended discussion in which
things are never settled. The important thing, therefore, is not to be right on a particular point but to
be able to enter into the discussion. It is for this purpose that scholarly journals exist. Until one gets
onto the playing-field, one is not in the game he is merely a spectator, who may cheer for this or
that player or shout advice from his classroom bleachers, but never knows what it really is like in the
Minimal course work before attempts to publish. The first paper a student writes should be aimed
at publication. The student who has read enough and thought enough and knows enough to have
something to say is ready to write; and if he is ready to write, he is ready to publish. This is true even
if the student is very young. Age has nothing to do with it. There is no point to spending long years
learning how to give form and expression to thoughts you are never going to have, or learning how to
write up discoveries you will never make. Dont bother to spend time, money, and energy learning how
to hunt buffaloes unless you are sure that there will be buffaloes to hunt. You should be sure of that
by the time you are ten years old. If you dont find any game in one area, move to another and move
quickly; avoid becoming shackled to another mans career. In hundreds of graduate schools, the eager
youth are being ostensibly prepared for venturing forth into new and wonderful worlds of intellectual
exploration; yet I have known many professors in those schools who would gladly give a thousand
dollars to anyone who could suggest to them some really good topic in their field to write about. Dont
waste your time in played-out fields there are plenty of others. How can the graduate faculty prepare
others to hunt the buffaloes they have never seen?
A student does not need mature judgement to consider a study worthy of publication. He can get
all the mature judgement he wants, free of charge. from the editors. When they consider a study
acceptable then he can. You see how important it is not to be left to our own opinions regarding our
own work. Vanity often tells a man a work of his is a masterpiece, when it may not even be mediocre
by general standards.
There are three minimum prerequisites that every paper worthy of publication
must have, however. Every study should be 1) authentic, 2) original, and 3) significant. Without all
three of these characteristics no study should be published; with all three any study is certain to find
publication without difficulty.
Being very high in one or two of the essential characteristics is not enough. I could prepare a very
full and accurate account of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, but since the story has
already been told a dozen times no editor would be interested in it it is not original. I could on the
other hand supply a highly original account of how in my opinion the Scrolls were discovered
original, even sensational stuff but unless it was also authentic and not merely speculative, it would
not justify publication. Or I could make a full and accurate listing of all the appearances of the letter
y in the writings of Washington Irving, an original project never before undertaken but also totally
Other qualifications are superfluous. The need to meet the three prerequisites means that no one can
become a scholar merely by taking courses and serving time. It is high time we realized this before
spending more millions in hopeless causes. Countless students have come to grief because they have
believed, and even been encouraged to believe, that scholarship is a rank to which one can rise by
process of promotion. It is nothing of the sort. Good grades, a neat appearance, and a pleasing
personality are good enough in themselves but they have nothing to do with a students capacity to
produce. That is something else. One can become a dean, a professor, a department head, a president,
or a regent by appointment (often achieved by obtaining the favor of just one key person of influence),
but since the beginning of time nobody ever became an artist, a scientist, or a scholar by appointment.
If your work has the three qualifications of authenticity, originality, and significance, you are in
business; if it does not, you are not, no matter how many people you may impress.
Importance of study. We bother to study because even the greatest talent must be improved by
technical know-how, and even a very limited talent can be made productive by the proper training.
First, you must load up on the information already available. Since there is lots of it, your appetite must
be enormous and your interest reach the point of high excitement. That, for scholarship, is talent. There
is a vast amount of stuff to be got through before you begin to approach the frontiers of your field
where the information begins to peter out and where you can find yourself at last looking out over
unexplored territory. Before you can stand on the borderline you must first traverse the wide terrain
through which generations of researchers have hewn their way before you.. Much of this land is
through long neglect now covered with a dense second-growth, often thicker than the first. The
classical scholar, for example, must read all his ancient authors as if nobody had ever read them before,
and added to that he must familiarize him self with the wonderful and bedizening work of the
Renaissance scholars who often possessed astonishing knowledge and insight into the ancients. This
takes years and years, but it is great fun, and in the process, if the student has any perceptivity ,at all,
new and original ideas are bound to pop up everywhere as he steadily and systematical reads his way
forward: on all sides slips, gaps, anomalies and contradiction will appear; he will soon learn that in the
light of new discoveries all the old sources have to be re-read again, this time with a new meaning;
everywhere are things waiting to be interpreted or re-interpreted, explored or re-explored. Just as
thousands of hints, cues, and signals are pouring into our receptive senses from the surrounding
physical world, the scope and nature of whose message is determined only by our ability to receive and
respond to the cues, so the documents of the past have an infinite number of messages for us it we can
only read them.
Reading and study imply a long unproductive period. It is the business of the school to take care of
this process. The word school (schole, ludus) means a place where one will not be pressed by
immediate practical affairs but can find time to play with types and models and engage in what
Aristotle called theoria sizing things up. That is the meaning of a liberal education as against a
trade-school Or strictly bread-and-butter education, though the liberal education always pay off best
in the long run. By graduate school the long period of preparation should begin to pay off in actual
production. Since we do very little real preparation in our high schools and colleges, our graduates are,
for the most part, unable to produce except in artificial classroom situations.
Every graduate student should publish. What else is he being trained for? Read what it says on an
MA, or PhD diploma. This is what it says on mine: The regents of the U. of So-and-so have
conferred upon So-and-so who has proved his ability by original research in Such-and-such a subject
the degree of Such-and-such. The operational words here are ability and original. There is no
mention whatever of administrative experience, hard work, ability to get along with people, teaching
skill, dedicated loyalty, a pleasing appearance, etc., by which we place such store in our educational
politics. Here they have nothing to do with the case. The degree is awarded entirely as an earnest of
things to come, the recognition of promise in terms of ability of years of original research that lie
ahead. What the graduate school is doing, if this all-important certificate means anything at all, is
getting the student ready for a lifetime of original research.
Authenticity means two things but they are really the same: it must be accurate and
it must be complete. Without the highest standards of accuracy, even the most ingenious and learned
study may be not only useless since the work will have to be done all over again but actually
pernicious, since it will lead the unwary astray.
Perfect accuracy is impossible. Slips can be detected in the most careful work, but they are not
characteristic of such work they are recognizably slips. It is when inaccuracy is due to lack of
familiarity with ones subject, usually when one has bitten off more than he can chew, sliding over into
related areas with which he has only limited acquaintance, that inaccuracy becomes disastrous.
Accuracy is actually a much rarer quality than we think. It requires patient and meticulous covering
of all the ground. That is the sort of drudgery with which the grand old man or the authority in his
field is liable to have diminishing patience with the years, and with which the young student eager for
success and recognition may have no patience at all. The temptation to cheat is very great who is
going to go to all the trouble of looking up ones footnotes? Not even the reviewers. Inaccurate
documentation may go undiscovered for years. Being accurate requires doing a thoroughly thorough
job. That is why we say that accuracy and completeness are really the same thing in research.
Complete is completer than you think. Where any information at all is lacking, no conclusions can
ever be trusted; how often has just one bit of evidence changed the whole picture? No stone can be
left unturned; since there is no way of knowing what an unexamined source might contain, to leave
any source unexamined is to ignore material that may, and often does, refute ones entire thesis.
The ordinary student must examine every piece of evidence on his subject.
Not to use all available evidence is to defeat the whole purpose of research, which is to add to the fund of existing knowledge.
How can you add to it if you dont know what is already there and what is missing? No future progress
is possible where past progress is ignored. What is the advantage of centuries of writing and research
that others have put into my subject if I intend to consider only ten percent of it? By what right do I
presume to ask others to give my work the respectful attention which I deny to theirs? We cannot
honestly add a word to historical writing until we know what needs to be added.
The ordinary student must examine every source in every library in the world before he considers
his work done. I grant you it isnt easy (there is no such thing as an ordinary student, by the way); in
the past, it has been all but impossible and for that reason real scholars were few and far between. But
today the whole structure of university research activity is based on the assumption that complete
research is possible. Hence the enormous and costly libraries, where a few good encyclopedias and
reference works would suffice the undergraduate; hence the vast machinery of classification,
reproduction, indexing, cross-referencing, exchange and communication; hence the big grants and
fellowships, the incessant traveling of scholars, the ceaseless consultations, conventions and huge
outpouring of professional journals, digest. newsletters, and reviews in every field. All is dedicated
to the single proposition that every scholar can and must be properly informed of every significant
development in his field as quickly as possible, the purpose of it all being to assure completeness in
Handling large masses of material. Attempts to have computers share in the work have not been
satisfactory. Accordingly, the solution remains today the same as it has always been. It is for the sake
of completeness in research that scholars necessarily become narrow specialists. If one cannot cover
the ground completely in a given area, there is nothing for it but to narrow down the area until one can
do a complete job. That is why intense specialization has long been the hallmark of advanced research.
Narrowness does not defeat the purpose of historical and other humanistic study in general, which
is to broaden knowledge. Paradoxically, the defects of intense specialization are self-correcting if one
is consistent and conscientious. One inevitably reaches a point where specialized research cannot go
forward without a broadeng of information. The more one specializes in a particular Biblical problem,
for example, the more languages and related matters one will need to know; one can specialize to the
point of studying a single star, but really to understand that star requires an immense broadening of
physical, chemical, and mathematical knowledge.
It is not always necessary for a student to deal with original sources.
Sometimes he cannot have access to first-hand materials, but he is only a scholar to the degree in which he deals in such. For
example, if I must depend on a translation, accepting uncritically the opinion of someone else (for a
translation is only an opinion), I automatically forfeit my own right to an opinion on the matter. It is
true that ones own interpretation of a text is apt to be less correct than that of an expert and specialist
in the language, but one is still not free to accept anothers translation, for it often happens in ancient
texts that a novice will notice things that have escaped the attention of generations of students; one
cannot accept any translation as definitive because there is no such thing as a correct translation.
There is no such thing as a correct translation.
A correct translation would be a perfect translation.
The electronics experts have discovered what has been known to linguists for a long time that there
is no such thing as a perfect translation. If there were, a translation machine could be devised without
difficulty; but the worlds foremost authority on translation machines points out why perfect translation
is impossible, namely because the human translator
is often obliged to make use of extralinguistic
knowledge which sometimes has to be of considerable breadth and depth. It is precisely this extra-linguistic knowledge which is the field of literary and historical scholarship, where mere language
study is only the first if most important step. A document studied carefully in the original always
conveys more information than any translation, and it is usually information of a vital and significant
By originality we mean doing something that nobody else has ever done. Merely to
duplicate what others have done is a criminal waste of valuable time and energy, both the writers and
the readers. The first duty of the scholar before undertaking to add to the sum total of knowledge is
to make very sure that his contribution will do just that. If somebody has already done the work in an
area, he should be grateful instead of resentful to find it done. It can be distressing to find that a field
has already been plowed. But only if one insists on staying in that field. There are always fields
beyond, even though they become increasingly far away and difficult to reach. The end is always in
sight for those without originality; for such, the field has always been worked out. The original person
is one who can do something now after everything has been done. There are such people. If you are
not one of them, do not aspire to the heights.
Beware of the scholarly opinion which is only an ersatz for originality. An opinion no matter how
learned is not an original contribution. An opinion merely assigns a given object to a given category;
for example, object onions; category good/bad. With both the object and the category given,
even a cretin is capable of reacting with an opinion. For anyone to write, I have examined all the
evidence, and my considered opinion is
is worse than worthless. What makes one an authority
is the ability to provide evidence, not dispense with it, and the better the authority is, the more clearly,
fully and fairly he can present the evidence.
A contribution cannot be valuable, even for a particular group of people, without being original.
To repeat what others have said and report what they have done for the benefit of people who might
not have access to specialized writings may be commendable public service, but it is NOT scholarship,
even if you throw in your own opinion as you go. The compilation of a newsletter or the writing of
popular articles may be a useful and indispensable activity, but it is strictly office-work and no more.
To qualify as scholarship, a writing must present information hitherto unknown. Such a feat is entirely
beyond the scope of some departments at the BYU, even though they award academic degrees. An
opinion is not information, and an interpretation is NOT a discovery. Schliemann discovered
important tombs, but he did NOT discover the tomb of Atreus that was merely his interpretation
of what he had discovered. The scholar does not stand or fall by the judgement of the general public,
who are not in a position to criticize his work, but of his peers in his field. For a university to try to
build up prestige by advertizing in popular journals or cultivating an image through the arts of public
relations is not only futile but dishonest.
Significance is a relative value, measured by the interest of a writing to a reader. There
are three types of interest that make a study significant: human interest, scientific interest, and vested
Human interest. Human interest is the fun one gets from writing and reading the stuff. Writing that
amuses and edifies needs no apology. Scholarly writing should always be a pleasure to read. It if is,
it needs no more justification than a good mystery story or play. Over and above the normal appeal of
good literature to the imagination, scholarly writing has the added appeal of telling the truth. There
have always been people who pursued scholarly study for the pure joy of it; there always will be people
who simply cannot leave the stuff alone. Humanity as such has the incurable taste for humanity, which
combined with an equally incurable curiosity to know what really happened will always keep historical
scholarship in business.
Scientific interest. As any scientist will tell you, scientific interest is the desire to know how things
really are. All the human race has to show for its existence is the records of its past: the really
important clues to the nature of the beast must come from them. The documents are just as real,
objective, tangible and scientific as fossils and star spectra, and they cry for an explanation and
understanding just as insistently. The documents which scholarship presumes to examine are the
worlds great depository of human experience, the actual field-notes and lab-notes from which alone
mans behavior can be studied in any depth. The biological and archaeological records are very feeble
and unsure by comparison.
Vested interest. Aside from the sheer delight of knowing one is fellows and the pure and insatiable
appetite for knowledge, it is sometimes decidedly to ones advantage to know what happened in distant
times and places it may even be of vital importance. There is an enormous vested interest in
scholarship political, economic, religious; it is the image of the past that controls the present. One
would normally deplore an ulterior motive in scholarship. But we dont if the field remains open for
discussion. Jacoby, one of the great historiographers of our century, said that no significant historical
work was ever written sine ira et studio there must be passion behind it, and nothing stirs passion
like a personal stake in things. Ranke wrote without passion and without ever taking sides, for which
reason, says Jacoby, nobody ever reads Ranke.
Partisanship is not death to true scholarship. It is unavoidable, not only in scholarship but ln the
physical sciences; everyone necessarily views the world from his own point of view one simply
cant help it. The corrective for that is not to deny it but to learn other points of view. Vested interest
is the one thing that assures a scholar that his writing will be both read and criticized. Where much is
at stake even footnotes may be carefully scrutinized. This is a healthy thing. When I know that every
sentence I write is going to be challenged, I must proceed with care and play the game with scrupulous
honesty; otherwise, if I am caught in a trick, I will only damage my own case.
Avoidance of religious polemic. I defy anyone not to take some position regarding Mormonism if he
is going to write about it; this does not mean that one must engage in polemic, but it does mean that
we must regard the inclinations and prejudices of all scholars as one of the facts of life. We are under
obligation not to become the helpless victims of scholarly attack on the Church or lose by default
whatever advantages are presented in new discoveries. If a new find seems to support or refute a
position or claim of the Church, it is sheer imbecility not to point out the connection and discuss its
significance. As an open-ended discussion, historical scholarship cannot withhold comment until all
issues are settled and agreed on, since things are never settled. The student does not gather information
with the mechanical impartiality of a vacuum cleaner, but sees every bit of information as fitting into
some pattern or other. Frankly taking a position as his frame of reference, the student unblushingly
tries to prove of disprove things; dont avoid taking a position, but dont resent it if all the world takes
an opposite position. Remember, in order to be original, your contribution should contain something
which has never bee accepted before.
How many references should be required for a term paper?
I have heard this question before at the BYU and hardly believed my ears. On the old Library Committee we used to discuss by the hour how
many titles would be necessary for the library of a college with five thousand, ten thousand or fifteen
thousand students. It would make as much sense to ask how many volumes of an encyclopedia are
needed by a small school, a middle-sized school, or a large school, or how many ingredients, should
go into a one-pound. a two-pound, or a three-pound pudding or cake. The answer is always the same:
no matter how MUCH of a thing you want to make, you must always put into it all the ingredients its
nature requires. For a given paper one must have all the references necessary for an honest
presentation whether that means two or two hundred is entirely beside the point.
The main weakness of our students (and professors). Undoubtedly the desire for recognition rather
than interest in what the y are doing. They are decidedly degree-seeking rather than knowledge-seeking. Eager to be successful, they want to rush into production without any foundation. The Gospel
is only for the honest in heart, we are told; to others it shows an infinitely exalted but also remotely
distant goal for which they have not the diligence to work or the patience to wait, but whose allure they
cannot resist. So they anticipate the goal sometimes in. forms and ceremonies (we take our academic
ritual in deadly earnest), sometimes by cultivating an invincibly cocky self-confidence, and sometimes
in mental and emotional crackups. We want to be rewarded and recognized for our study. and that is
not a proper motive for learning.
Proper motive. Brigham Young said, Again, what do you love truth for? Is it because you can
discover a beauty in it, because it is congenial to you, or because you think it will make you a ruler,
or a. Lord? If you conceive that you will attain to power upon such a motive, you are much mistaken.
It is a trick of the unseen power that is abroad among the inhabitants of the earth that leads them astray
. And it is nowhere more at home than in our universities. Our institutions exploit this improper
motive to the fullest. The history of universities shows that they have consistently been the enemies
of that search for knowledge to which they pay lip service. They give prioritv to their own image,
cultivating the fiction that merely to be connected with an important institution is in itself an
achievement. It is nothing of the sort. All productive work is individual work. A great institution is
largely a show; we are much too prone to expend our time and energies cultivating appearances instead
of doing an honest job and letting the image take care of itself; it is time we were taking the message
of Matthew 23 to heart. It is easy to hold rneetings and ceremonies, form committees, give courses,
and talk everlastingly; it is not only easy and pleasant to discourse on the education of the race; it is
actually a temptation which few can resist. The urge ,to improve other peoples minds is, as Brigham
Young observed, not a rare virtue but the commonest of vices It should be avoided rather than
rewarded. Talking about education is like beer-drinking (and the two often go together); it is
pleasantly intoxicating, enormously time-consuming idiotically exalting, and subtly ennervating; while
imparting a befuddled sense of power and glory, it effectively paralyzes activity of the mind and body.
It isnt really either exhausting or discouraging to try to buck the fierce competition in the scholarly
journals, because there is no competition. The press is large and hungry over-expanded, in fact,
and the constant complaint of editors is that they almost never get anything that is informed, original,
and significant. The editors are pathetically eager to welcome any good material from any source. If
you want access or introduction to the editors of journals, be aware that the only go-between you will
ever need is the nearest post office.