Peer colleagues slam history professor’s book for ‘systemically’ misrepresenting sources
Multiple reviews accuse Maura Dykstra, an assistant professor of history, of misrepresenting and mistranslating key sources and documents in her first published book. In response, Dykstra defended her work and called the criticisms “patently false.”
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
Five peer reviews of Assistant Professor of History Maura Dykstra’s first book allege that the text misrepresents sources and mistranslates documents.
In “Uncertainty in the Empire of Routine,” which was published by the Harvard Asia Center on Aug. 16, 2022, Dykstra argues that the Qing dynasty underwent an “administrative revolution” in the 18th century — a revolution both targeted at and caused by the Qing emperors and ministers — and she alleges that the current understanding of Qing history by modern historians is misdirected.
On Aug. 31, George Qiao, assistant professor of history and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst College, published the book’s first review in the Cambridge Journal of Chinese History. Qiao argues that “the book systematically misrepresents the majority of its primary sources to support an untenable thesis,” and that the book “fails to meet academic standards.”
Since Qiao, three other scholars of Qing history have published reviews that make similar claims, in addition to a fifth unpublished review obtained by the News.
“All claims that I am guilty of academic misconduct, including the accusations that I have modified sources to fit my argument and that I have hallucinated historical materials, are patently false and will not stand up to scrutiny,” Dykstra wrote to the News on Oct. 2.
Dykstra added at the time that her response to the book’s reviews would appear in the January issue of the Journal of Chinese History and that she was “working through her own analysis” of Qiao’s review; she said she had asked two Qing historians to independently investigate the claims against her.
On Oct. 25, in a follow-up statement to the News, Dykstra said that she had completed her review.
“The accusations in George Qiao’s review of my book are extremely serious, potentially career-ending allegations of academic malfeasance,” she wrote in the new statement, explaining that she spent the previous six weeks working through Qiao’s claims with a team of scholars but had completed the review and was now willing to elaborate on her previous statement.
Dykstra stated that she was only able to confirm “roughly half a dozen mistakes on my part that led to several small errors in the book.” These kinds of mistakes, she said, do not obstruct any of her main arguments and commonly “slip into published writing” due to “handling large amounts of textual data from multiple sources and regrettable but all-too-human moments of inattention.”
Dykstra earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in History from UCLA in 2008 and 2014, respectively. Before arriving at Yale this fall, she spent six years as an assistant professor of history at the California Institute of Technology.
The “administrative revolution,” as Dykstra describes in the book, was marked by a new focus on standardized reporting and archive creation, aiming to discipline local officials and eradicate corruption. This heightened scrutiny, per Dykstra, led to an explosion in bureaucratic paperwork, giving historians the vast Qing archives available today and framing the Qing as an “empire of routine.”
However, she argues that this revolution was paradoxical; while it illuminated more corruption, it simultaneously overwhelmed the central court with information, fostering paranoia and administrative stagnation. As a result, the Qing emperors and ministers who “unknowingly authored” a successful revolution in information gathering became its victims.
Qiao, in his review, claims that Dykstra bases her arguments on “questionably chosen primary sources” and also that “there are at least a dozen places in the book” where Dykstra’s citation does not match the contents of her book.
Additionally, Qiao alleges that the book contains “hundreds of errors” throughout, including mistranslated, exaggerated and out-of-context Chinese texts, which are sometimes embellished with non-existent information and details in order to support the book’s thesis.
“We all make mistakes, and any single error in this book, in isolation, would be embarrassing but excusable,” his review states. “Yet the scale and seriousness of the problems here far exceed those of any other academic monograph that I have read, necessitating a close look at many cited sources.”
Dykstra, in her updated response, said that aside from the “roughly half a dozen” mistakes that she verified, she was unable to trace the rest of the “hundreds of errors” cited in Qiao’s review in the book.
She added that the other issues in the review, such as the claim that her book does not meet academic standards and critiques of sourcing, “fall more in the realm of historiography than disputations of fact” and would be addressed in a “later venue.”
In response to Dykstra’s Oct. 25 statement, Qiao told the News he “stand[s] by” his review in full.
“Two other independent reviews of the book now circulating both confirm my reading and bring up other equally serious errors,” Qiao wrote. “I encourage interested readers to read the book and the reviews and judge for themselves.”
The review, which was picked up by the blog “Retraction Watch,” became a subject of discussion on X — the social media platform formerly known as Twitter — earlier this month.
Cole Bunzel, a Hoover fellow and scholar of Middle East history at Stanford University, wrote in an X post that “this might be the most brutal academic book review I’ve ever seen” the day Qiao’s review was published.
“The review is extremely harsh and amounts to an indictment not only of the author’s scholarship but also of the publisher and the entire process whereby the book was reviewed and approved,” Bunzel wrote to the News.
Bradley Reed, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, published a review of the book on H-Net in September, in which he called the thesis “bold” but “deeply flawed in its conceptual, evidentiary, and methodological bases.”
Central to Dykstra’s argument is the notion of a “paper ghost” — a decline in the Qing dynasty falsely perceived by historians, thought to be due to the overwhelming influx of bureaucratic information. This ghost, she contends, has misled Qing historians for years in perpetuating the very misconceptions formed during the Qing’s information-heavy era. Dykstra thus advises historians to differentiate between genuine issues and mere data about them.
“The problems run so deep that it is not possible to enumerate them all in a short review,” Reed wrote in his review. “Ultimately, the most serious shortcoming of the book is the overambitious posing of grand theoretical constructs without adequate grounding in evidence, historical context, or conversation with previous scholarship.”
Reed declined to comment on his review, citing the amount of “noise” his and Qiao’s reviews have created in the community of Chinese historians, and that Dykstra would soon be considered for tenure.
Dykstra stated that she has not “had the chance” to read Reed’s review but that its claims seem similar to those in the Qiao review and that she is working under the assumption that her response to Qiao will also settle the claims raised by other scholars.
Two other reviews of the book have been published. One was published in the Chinese online database Douban on Sept.14 and was written by Zhou Lin, a former Professor at Sichuan University and one of the world’s leading experts in the Ba County Archives – the most complete set of Qing dynasty magisterial archives that exists and one of the key sources used by Dykstra. The other is a shorter review written by Yuanchong Wang, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Delaware.
Both reviews make similar claims to those made by Qiao and Reed, with Wang adding that he applauds Qiao’s review and hopes that it can help Dykstra improve her work.
Macabe Keliher, an associate professor of modern China at Southern Methodist University, provided the News with his own review of Dykstra’s book, not yet published but forthcoming in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
His review, which is critical of the major claims in Dykstra’s book, also raises questions about Dykstra’s sourcing and misreading of evidence, at one point noting where Dykstra changes a quotation from a primary text from the Qing dynasty.
Kenneth Pomeranz, professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Chicago, said that while he has not done a thorough, side-by-side analysis of Dykstra’s book and Qiao’s review, he did check the parts of the book where Qiao argues Dykstra mistranslated passages in classical Chinese.
He called Dykstra “one of the sharpest young scholars in the field” and said that she “certainly knows her Chinese,” saying that he is not sure how the mistranslations could have happened.
Offering his “best guess” as to how it could have happened, Pomeranz said that Dykstra might have translated shorter quotes from longer passages out of context. He also suggested that Dykstra might have been “rushing” the process, pointing out that most people in the field make their first book an expansion of their dissertation but that Dykstra did not.
He added that he is looking forward to Dykstra’s January response.
“This field runs on trust. It all comes back in the end to showing that you know what you’re doing, and that you are level with people when there’s doubt,” Pomeranz said. “Maybe, come January, Maura will convince us all.”
Pomeranz did not respond to immediate request for comment after Dykstra’s Oct. 25 response.
The Qing dynasty fell in the early 20th century.