The Provenance Problem: Research Methods and Ethics in the Age of WikiLeaks

The Provenance Problem: Research Methods and Ethics in the Age of WikiLeaks

By Christopher Darnton, Naval Postgraduate School

How should political scientists navigate the ethical and methodological quandaries associated with analyzing leaked classified documents and other nonconsensually acquired sources? Massive unauthorized disclosures may excite qualitative scholars with policy revelations and quantitative researchers with big-data suitability, but they are fraught with dilemmas that the discipline has yet to resolve. This paper critiques underspecified research designs and opaque references in the proliferation of scholarship with leaked materials, as well as incomplete and inconsistent guidance from leading journals. It identifies provenance as the primary concept for improved standards and reviews other disciplines’ approaches to this problem. It elaborates eight normative and evidentiary criteria for scholars by which to assess source legitimacy and four recommendations for balancing their trade-offs. Fundamentally, it contends that scholars need deeper reflection on source provenance and its consequences, more humility about whether to access new materials and what inferences to draw, and more transparency in citation and research strategies.

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