An Argument for Improved Citation Practices in Philosophy*
Here are two claims concerning scholarship practices in philosophy:
- In academic philosophical contexts, we ought to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand.
- In academic philosophical contexts, we ought to engage with work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand.
In this post, we provide moral and philosophical reasons for thinking that claim 1 is true. Since claim 1 is widely violated, members of the profession should aim to improve citation practices in philosophy; we offer some potential ways of achieving this end, and address some potential barriers to doing so. We also think that there are moral and philosophical reasons for thinking that claim 2 is true; however, since claim 2 imposes a greater burden, we start with the less onerous, but still widely violated, claim 1. We focus on academic philosophical contexts (henceforth, just ‘philosophical contexts’, or ‘philosophy’) to fix ideas, because we are most familiar with these contexts, and because it is our impression that scholarship practices in philosophy are lax as compared to those in many other disciplines (e.g., linguistics, history, and the sciences).
In what follows, we assume that the works at issue have all been published in peer-reviewed venues and are readily available to members of the profession.
1. Three varieties of citation failure
We start by observing three sorts of (sometimes overlapping) cases in which citation failure manifests in philosophy.
First are cases where an individual (or individuals) fail to be properly credited for a specific argument, approach, or account, as when, e.g., philosopher X has a claim equal to or better than that had by philosopher Y to be considered an originator of account A, but A is typically attributed only to Y.
Second are cases where the presentation of a given dialectic ignores a large existing literature, as when, e.g., philosopher Z claims that approach A has been ignored or rejected in past decades, even though dozens of philosophers have been working on and developing A in past decades.
Third are cases where a philosophical wheel is reinvented, as when, e.g., philosopher Z proposes ‘new’ account A as the best way to accommodate phenomenon P, even though most or all existing accounts of P take A as their starting point.
2. Moral and philosophical problems with citation failure
There are at least two broad categories of reasons to think that citation failure is problematic—problematic enough that, it seems clear, members of the profession should individually and jointly strive to improve citation practices in philosophy.
2.1 Broadly moral problems with citation failure
Two broadly moral concerns are salient. First, citations of an individual’s work have concrete positive bearing on a variety of professional outcomes, and failures of an individual’s work to be cited, even when it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal or other venue, have a concrete negative bearing on these outcomes. As such, failure to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand is concretely injurious to the individual authors of that work.
Second, citation failure is most clearly a problem for members of groups that are subject to implicit bias, including women, persons of color, those at non-elite (especially ‘foreign’ non-elite) institutions (think ‘prestige’ bias), and/or members of other disadvantaged categories. The standard biases are moreover exacerbated in cases where the disadvantaged individual is comparatively junior or is not a member of the ‘in-crowd’ working on a given topic (membership in which strongly tracks advantageous demographic categories) whose work must be cited by anyone working on the topic at hand. Relatedly, each of the varieties of citation failure mentioned above is commonly associated with and exacerbated by what is reasonably seen as implicit bias. For example, in cases where philosopher X has a claim equal to or better than that had by philosopher Y to be considered an originator of account A, but A is typically attributed only to Y, it is common that X is bias-disadvantaged as compared to Y. And it is common that those misrepresenting a given dialectic are members of advantaged categories or associated ‘in-crowds’, who appear to read and cite mainly each other. Bias (especially prestige bias) is also operative in allowing inaccurate presentations to be published and encouraging them to be propagated; it is an underappreciated fact that implicit bias not only unfairly disadvantages members of disadvantaged categories, but also unfairly advantages members of advantaged categories. Citation failure is both a manifestation of and perpetuates implicit bias, and so is concretely injurious to those subject to such bias, both as individuals and as members of disadvantaged groups.
2.2 Broadly philosophical reasons
Two broadly philosophical concerns are salient. First, if a given author fails to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand, it is likely that said author has not read this clearly relevant work. This can lead to any number of philosophical wrong turns, even putting aside whether one should (as per claim 2 at the head of this post) engage with any work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand. For example, suppose that philosopher Z’s topic is account A, but that Z only reads and cites Y’s presentation and defence of A, notwithstanding that X has extensively developed their own version of A. Z may conclude that A should be rejected on grounds of facing a significant objection, even though X’s version has the means of responding to that objection. For another example, failure to be familiar with work relevant to the topic at hand may lead to enthymematic argumentation (as with an argument-by-cases that neglects an existing case).
Second, failure to properly cite individuals or groups of individuals whose work is relevant to the topic at hand can lead, as above, to distorted presentation of a given dialectic and/or to the reinventing of existing wheels. In turn, these dialectical failures—especially when disseminated by influential individuals—can lead to the generation of literatures founded on false presuppositions, and the propagation of ignorance by those (in particular, graduate students, who may falsely assume that they can rely on dialectical claims made by those in positions of comparative prominence) working within the parameters of the ill-founded debates.
3. The way forward: improving citation practices in philosophy
The moral and philosophical problems with failing to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand indicate that claim 1 is true: in academic philosophical contexts, we ought to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand. But claim 1 is regularly violated, as our experience and attention to citation data indicate (see in particular this post by Kieran Healy, in which he argues that few articles by women end up being frequently cited). We conclude that practicing philosophers should commit to improving citation practices in our field—first, by each of us aiming, in our own work, to cite any work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand, and second, by each of us taking steps to ensure (qua referee, for example) that others cite any work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand. In what follows we expand upon these suggestions, considering possible barriers to carrying them out along the way.
First, however, we pause to consider an objection, according to which notwithstanding the canvassed moral and philosophical considerations, we don’t have an obligation to cite all the relevant literature, since some of it might not be of sufficiently good quality; relatedly, we have heard some say that they only feel obliged to read and cite papers that appear in ‘top’ journals (more generally, presses) in the area at issue. Here we stand firm, maintaining that any clearly relevant work that has been published in a peer-reviewed press should be cited. As with so much else, evaluations of quality are subject to implicit biases that, both on the path to publication and afterwards, unfairly operate against individuals in disadvantaged groups and unfairly operate in favor of individuals in advantaged groups. If an author doesn’t like a paper, then they can downplay it or, better yet, briefly say why they don’t like it.
3.1 Improving citation practices: citing the clearly relevant work of others
Ultimately, improving citation practices in philosophy requires that individual philosophers do basic scholarly due diligence in order to identify work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand. Luckily, there are a number of readily available tools which greatly lessen the burden of engaging in literature surveys. To start, there are a number of sophisticated search engines, including PhilPapers, Philosophers’ Index, and Google Scholar: for each of these, one can input the topic at hand (often under different sorting mechanisms—e.g., by date, if one wants to check for recent contributions) and consider the results. (One can also sign up for PhilPapers updates in one’s areas of interest in order to be kept up-to-date on new contributions.) The bibliographies of papers that come up in such searches are rich sources of information about existing work on the topic at hand, as are encyclopedias (e.g., the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and ‘state of the art’ articles (as in, e.g., Philosophy Compass). It is increasingly common for philosophers to post requests for pointers to relevant literature on Facebook and Twitter. And finally, philosophers can continue doing what they have always done: talk with people and ask for suggestions.
One might object that there is no precise standard of ‘clearly relevant’, and relatedly, that search engines may turn up irrelevant work, or fail to turn up relevant work. To this objection we respond that of course, search engines, encyclopedia entries, and the like are indicators, not infallible algorithms; as per usual, one has to bring one’s brain to the procedure’s application. One has to input a topic that is narrower than, e.g., ‘Properties’ or ‘Quantum Mechanics’. And even for topics that are narrowly defined, not all listings may in fact be clearly relevant to the topic at hand.
That said, when using one’s brain, assisted by search engines, to figure out which texts are clearly relevant to the topic at hand, one needs to err on the side of inclusion. This is especially important given that citation-based searches will incorporate existing citation neglect of women and/or other disadvantaged demographics. Taking the fact of longstanding bias into account means that proper due diligence, citation-wise, does not consist in citing only works that are published in the very top journals, or which are written by prominent members of the elite ‘in-group’, or which—reflecting these dimensions of citation valence—show up at the top of ‘impact’ or ‘number of citations’ searches. Relatedly, proper due diligence doesn’t consist in an author’s antecedently judging which works on the topic at hand to read and cite, since such judgments are subject to significant skew by implicit bias. Indeed, given the impact of implicit bias on who and what gets cited, many papers that are not just clearly relevant but objectively philosophically important to the topic at hand may not come up near the top of searches—and relatedly, given that implicit bias also unfairly advantages members of advantaged groups, many less-than-stellar papers on a given topic may come up right at the top. When doing literature surveys we need to ‘go deep’ down the list if we aim to identify all work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand.
That we typically need to go deep in doing literature surveys gives rise to another concern—namely, that reading all of the work that is clearly relevant to one’s topic will be overly onerous. Here we have three responses. First, in many cases involving an appropriately fine-grained topic-at-hand, there is no reason to think that doing a thorough literature survey will be overly onerous. In many other disciplines (e.g., linguistics, history, physics and the other sciences), practitioners are expected to carry out, and do carry out, full literature reviews and to cite any clearly relevant literature accordingly. Philosophers do not appear to face any special burdens so far as literature that must be surveyed. If practitioners of other disciplines can carry out such surveys, then so can we. (Indeed, philosophers working in the history of philosophy are notably more conscientious about citation practices; if they can do it, so can other philosophers.) Second, in some cases doing a full literature survey may indeed involve a significant commitment of time. But this front-end commitment is small—less onerous, overall—when compared to the downstream waste of time, trees, and cognitive resources associated with problems (failure to register existing responses to objections, inaccurate presentation of dialectics, reinvention of wheels, etc.) commonly generated by failures to read and cite relevant literature. Third, in any case, part of what we are pushing for is a reconception of how much time philosophers devote to scholarship. Yes, given current practices whereby many do not engage in anything like full literature surveys, implementing our suggestion is going to involve some rearrangement in one’s work habits, whereby sufficient time is scheduled for and devoted to engaging in finding out the actual dialectical state of play as regards the topic at hand. The resulting paper and associated dialectical context will be better for it, however—as will our profession and its practitioners.
3.2 Improving citation practices: working to ensure that others cite clearly relevant work
Unless large numbers of philosophers commit to citing the clearly relevant work of others, citation practices in philosophy as a whole will continue to be problematic. Here we offer two ways in which individuals can act so as to ensure that the clearly relevant work of themselves and of others is cited.
Strategy 1. The first strategy concerns the actions of referees. We suggest that the quickest way to improve citation practices in philosophy as a whole would be for large numbers of individuals to commit, in their capacity as journal or other referees, to rejecting for publication papers or other submissions that fail to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand, on grounds of failing to meet basic standards of scholarship. The suggestion here is that it be generally considered a necessary condition on a submission’s getting a full review that the author engages in basic scholarly due diligence. The next quickest way to improve citation practices would be for large numbers of individuals to commit, in their capacity as referees, to not accepting any submissions that fail to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand. The suggestion here is that it be generally considered a necessary condition on a submission’s getting published that the author engages in basic scholarly due diligence.
Whether rejection or simply non-acceptance is at issue: if sufficient numbers of philosophers were to commit to the practice of rejecting/not accepting papers on these grounds, authors would, it may be reasonably anticipated, immediately work much harder at searching for and citing clearly relevant work sending their own work out.
One might object to Strategy 1 that papers that don’t do basic due diligence can still make good contributions. After all, some have said, many historically foundational philosophical texts hardly cite anyone at all—think of Descartes’ Meditations, or more recently, much of Quine’s work. As such, we shouldn’t be so draconian as to require that authors cite clearly relevant work in order to get published. To this call for ‘exceptionalism’ we have two responses. First, the contributions of authors who cogitate ex nihilo will be even better once they fulfill basic scholarly standards by reading and citing clearly relevant work. Second, the proposed brand of exceptionalism is just an invitation for implicit bias to enter in, and for those who falsely think they are introducing a dialectical shift or inventing a new wheel to justify their ignorance or ignoring of existing literature as in some grand historical tradition, to the disbenefit of the un-cited. In today’s professionalized climate, where citations are hugely important along every relevant dimension of career success, a fond remembrance of the citation-free historical figures of the past is not to the proper point.
Strategy 2. The second strategy is for individuals to be proactive on their own and others’ behalf, by contacting authors of papers, encyclopedia articles, etc., to let them know of citation failures. One convenient way to do this is to sign up to receive PhilPapers updates on one’s areas of interest in order to get a heads-up about recent work. If a piece of work shows up that is lacking appropriate citations, to oneself or to others with whom one is familiar, then one can take a few minutes to contact the author and nicely inform them of this. Often the work will be in draft form, in which case the author will have time to correct the citation failure; but even if the work is already published, it is worth contacting the author to request that the citation be included in future publications on the topic. In some cases (especially where priority for a given account is at issue) it might even be worth contacting the editor of the relevant publication to see if the citation failure can be corrected in an erratum. Similarly, one can read encyclopedia articles with an eye to seeing if clearly relevant literature has been cited, and if not, contacting the author of the entry. Engaging in these sorts of communications can be a bit of a pain, but over time can be quite efficacious.
One concern about Strategy 2 is that junior persons, in particular, may not feel comfortable contacting prominent persons in their area about failures of the senior person to cite the junior person’s clearly relevant work. In some cases, it may be possible for the information to be communicated by a friendly intermediary (or an editor, say); but in general our experience in implementing this strategy is that in nearly all cases authors are gracious and grateful when citation failures in their work are called to friendly attention. Here it can be useful to communicate, among other soothing facts, that citation failures are frequently a function of implicit bias, to which we are all subject. And the more people engage in the strategy, the less taxing it will be to contact others or be contacted in relation to citation failures, and the sooner people will work in ways ensuring that they don’t need to be so contacted.
5. Concluding remarks
We have here provided moral and philosophical reasons for thinking that academic philosophers ought to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand. We have also provided some practical suggestions about how members of the profession can better do this. We hope our remarks will not only stimulate further discussion, but also, and more importantly, inspire others to take action to bring about the desired change. To this end, it would be most effective if people committed publicly to aiming to implement one or more of the strategies that we have outlined. More minimally, we hope that individuals will in fact aim to implement some or all of these strategies, and encourage others to also do so—e.g., by sharing this post.
*For additional discussion of related issues, please see Marcus Arvan, “Philosophers Don’t Read and Cite Enough,” at Daily Nous: