Dangers of Noncritical Use of Historical Plague Data
By Joris Roosen and Daniel R. Curtis
Emerging infectious diseases, Vol.1:20 (2018)
Abstract: Researchers have published several articles using historical data sets on plague epidemics using impressive digital databases that contain thousands of recorded outbreaks across Europe over the past several centuries. Through the digitization of preexisting data sets, scholars have unprecedented access to the historical record of plague occurrences.
However, although these databases offer new research opportunities, noncritical use and reproduction of preexisting data sets can also limit our understanding of how infectious diseases evolved. Many scholars have performed investigations using Jean-Noël Biraben’s data, which contains information on mentions of plague from various kinds of sources, many of which were not cited.
When scholars fail to apply source criticism or do not reflect on the content of the data they use, the reliability of their results becomes highly questionable. Researchers using these databases going forward need to verify and restrict content spatially and temporally, and historians should be encouraged to compile the work.
See also Joris Roosen’s blog post Dangerous misuse of historical data