(This post is the result of a facebook debate started by Eric Schliesser)
Given that what we are doing in philosophy might be footnotes to Plato all the way down, citation practices might not seem worth further discussion (that would be footnotes on footnotes in footnotes on Plato). But Kieran Healy’s data recently revealed the degree to which citation numbers cluster around certain big names. Citation practices seem to depend significantly on informal norms and expectations within the academic community. It is worth bringing these up for debate: more awareness of who is quoted, and why, could not only improve scholarship, but also help to make the hierarchies between the (perceived) centre and the (perceived) periphery of the academic community flatter.
When writing a scholarly text, one faces a combination of two constraints:
1) usually, you cannot quote everything that has been written on a topic. Some journals explicitly state that fewer references are more welcome
2) there are some authors that you simply have to quote, otherwise it will seem as if you have not engaged with the literature at all
So the rational thing to do is to quote the big names, and to leave out authors who seem to be minor figures in their fields. But by not citing an author, you deny your own readers a chance to get to know his or her thought; not to mention the issue of citation numbers being used in promotion dossiers etc. To cite or not to cite is a form of exercising power. And the combination of the two constraints means that this power is often exercise to the benefit of those who are (considered to be) in the centre of the academic community to the detriment of those who are (considered to be) at its periphery, not only in terms of gender and race, but also in terms of institutions and countries.
Much of this is likely to happen on an unconscious level. But this does not make things better. It shapes the expectations of what one should read and what one is justified in dropping. Such expectations are social facts, created by formal and informal norms in the academic community. So when writing a text, most authors will be influenced by what they expect their colleagues/readers/referees to know. The unconscious version seems to be something like: Do I expect my colleagues/readers/referees to blame me for not having read or cited a certain author? The cynical version goes: can anything happen to me if I disregard a certain person’s work? Does he or she have powerful buddies? Am I going to run into them at conferences, or are they from countries or institutions where they don’t have travel money anyway? And then it’s easy to jump to a quick conclusion: if I won’t reference them, why should I bother reading them, if I have so little time for reading anyway!
This might be just another instance of the Matthew effect in academia. It is likely to be more accentuated than for conferences, however, because of the sheer physical impossibility of being at several conferences at the same time, even if you are the most sought-after philosopher in your field. There are no physical constraints on how many times your name appears as a reference in a paper.
But what is at stake here is not only justice. It’s also good scholarship. Authors at the periphery might have important objections to one’s claims, or they might have suggested ways of reconceptualising the problem in a better way. They might have drawn attention to historical debates that run in parallel, or they might have explored the problem at hand from an interdisciplinary perspective. Therefore, there needs to be space for including references to people from the periphery. The norm for who needs to be cited should be “what is relevant?”, not “whom do I have to quote in order to meet everyone else’s expectations?”
As Eric Schliesser put it in the facebook discussion that triggered this post: “we constantly instantiate, extend, recreate, etc. the norms involved [in citation practices]. These are up for discussion and also available for subtle and more dramatic changes.“ One way to do this is to remind others of what seem obvious biases, e.g. the complete absence of women, as has been suggested at “Feminist philosophers”. For other groups, its more difficult to be aware of biases because there isn’t an equivalent to the information about gender contained in first names. Obviously, we can try to raise awareness, and emphasize the importance of thorough citation practices, e.g. through the use of databases and by asking around for information on who has written on a topic. Journals and presses might consider being more generous with how much space they allow for references. Eric also suggested review articles, in dissertations and later, and he emphasised the importance of good book reviews, and of keeping reading. What other practical changes could make a difference?