I’m engaging in a little introspection today; thinking more about how I write than what I write. This comes about from the email correspondence I’ve had, in recent days with Professor Arthur Grollman, lead author of the research into Aristolochia that I’ve blogged about twice this week.
Without intentionally setting out to do so, Arthur has become something of a mentor for me in the way I write this blog and the rest of this website. I’m very grateful to him for the time he has spent politely steering me to telling my stories more precisely and, I hope, more clearly.
When I started this website, in 2008, my intention was to offer a general audience a little bit more information about poisonous plants than could be found elsewhere. Though that came from the number of visitors to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden who said that the short tours left their curiosity unsatisfied and though I, initially at least, focussed on plants grown at Alnwick, my intention was always to try and have more universal appeal.
From the start, I had to think about how much additional information to make available by means of hyperlinks. I wanted to give people the chance to read further if they wished but I didn’t want to deter them by offering so many links and in such a formal style that they might be put off by the items appearing to ‘proper science’.
Also, and there is no false modesty in this, I didn’t want to appear more knowledgeable than I am by giving references just like a ‘real’ scientist. I thought that would be misleading. So, I opted for simple inline hyperlinking with a ‘ScreenTip’ to explain what clicking the link would achieve.
But, thanks to a subtle comment Arthur Grollman made when forwarding an interesting item to me1, I’ve realised that my attitude to hyperlinking may be out-dated. Anyone who has ever read an item on Wikipedia will be used to the way references are notated in the body of the text and listed at the end.
It’s worth saying that I am not a whole-hearted devotee of Wikipedia. I do, sometimes, look at articles there but I will always try and find other sources and those not just sites that have lifted Wikipedia text for their own use. In fairness, my attitude to Wikipedia may be as out-dated as my thoughts about hyperlinking because I have noticed an increasing number of articles carrying warnings about incomplete references, one sided arguments and other problems so it is clear that the organisation itself is aware of its limitations.
Still, I think I will try using a different means of linking to and citing references and see if I feel comfortable with it. I'll still give inline hyperlinks to pieces I think are directly relevant but I'll also add the full citation at the end as this makes it easier for authors to identify references to their work. Where I just want to acknowledge another piece, I'll just give a citation at the end.
Just to finish, since I mentioned Wikipedia though this time it is not at fault, I came across a piece of wrong information when writing my recent blog about Michelle Brooks’ call for Catha edulis, khat, to be banned. The Wikipedia page on khat says;
‘During a debate on the legality on the 11 January 2012, UK Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes Mark Lancaster, Conservative, stated importation of Khat into the UK stands at 10 tonnes every week.’
With reference  being ‘Hansard 11 Jan 2012. Hansard. 11 jan 2012. Retrieved 12 Jan 2012.’
As I blogged at the time, what Mr Lancaster said during the debate was that imports of khat amounted to 10 million tonnes a week. No-one in the chamber for the debate questioned this ridiculous number and it was only when I and others drew attention to it that Mr Lancaster asked the Hansard clerks to make the correction in the official version.
My understanding is that they should only do this if an MP can justify that the wrong comment was a slip of the tongue but, given that the same statement appeared on Mr Lancaster’s website, at the time, this was an error not a slip. Unfortunately, as the official record of what was said in Parliament, Hansard’s version of events may, in time, become the truth.
1Deadly Herbs. Fanatic Cook, April 2012