Dozens of mistakes identified in Naomi Wolf’s University of Oxford doctoral thesis raise challenging questions for British graduate education and its examinations process, according to a historian.
The American feminist’s D.Phil. dissertation has attracted interest in recent years because it was the basis for her 2019 book, Outrages: Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, which was pulped by her U.S. publisher after she wrongly claimed that Britain had in the Victorian era executed several men for being gay.
Other factual errors were also spotted in a reissued edition, with several of the men cited as examples of antigay injustice actually having been convicted for sexual offenses against children and animals.
The mistakes led to questions about how they were missed by Wolf’s supervisor and examiners, but her dissertation remained under embargo for six years after being examined in April 2015.
It was finally published this month on Oxford’s online research archive, alongside nine pages of corrections that address Wolf’s misreading of criminal records and cite several texts that contradict claims that the mid- to late Victorian period saw an escalation of Britain’s persecution of gay men. But the release does not reveal who examined the thesis.
Tim Hitchcock, professor of digital history at the University of Sussex, whose digital archive the Old Bailey Online contained the records misunderstood by Wolf, said the episode represented a “failure of supervision and examining.” He suggested that the unnamed examiners may have had backgrounds in English literature rather than legal history.
“It shows that the British doctoral examining system is not as transparent or rigorous as it should be compared with other countries,” Hitchcock told Times Higher Education. “At some level, a doctorate should require a public examination, but that is not really the case here — I’m not sure U.K. higher education has got this one right.”
Hitchcock said he was surprised to see the mistakes framed as “minor” corrections. “This looks like tinkering when what was clearly needed was a rethink of how the argument plays out — if your major data source is ill used in this way, the whole argument needs to be rethought,” he said.
Problems about relying solely on his archive — where descriptions of crimes are often only eight words long — were well-known by historians, who would generally cross-check cases with more extensive parliamentary records, Hitchcock explained.
But Harry Cocks, an associate professor of history at the University of Nottingham whose work on sexuality in Victorian England is referenced in Wolf’s corrections, told Times Higher Education that the wording of these records was “easy to misinterpret, and many historians have done so.”
An Oxford spokesman said a thesis is “a product of its time, and factual matters arising after its publication can be addressed separately by its author attaching clarifications or in further works.”
“The university does not have a procedure for editing a thesis once it has been independently examined and deposited with the Bodleian Libraries, unless there is a finding of academic misconduct. Errors of fact do not in themselves amount to academic misconduct,” he said.