Featured Philosopher: Marcia Baron

Me in Norway June, 2015.jpg

Marcia Baron is the James H. Rudy Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University. She also recently was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, and many moons ago taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Publications include Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology (Cornell, 1995), Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate, co-authored with Philip Pettit and Michael Slote (Blackwell, 1997), “Manipulativeness” (2003), “Gender Issues in the Criminal Law” (2011), “Self-Defense: The Imminence Requirement” (2011), “The Standard of the Reasonable Person in the Criminal Law” (2012), “The Ticking Bomb Hypothetical” (2013), “Rape, Seduction, Shame, and Culpability in Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (2013), “The Mens Rea and Moral Status of Manipulation” (2014), “A Kantian Take on the Supererogatory” (2016), and “Justification, Excuse, and the Exculpatory Power of Ignorance” (2016). 

Is More Better? Another Take on Citation Practices

Marcia Baron

I want to express my gratitude to Meena for creating and running this site, and for inviting me to contribute to it. Although the suggestion was to write about my research, another option was to offer a comment on the profession, and I’ve decided to go with the latter. The former is more fun, but there is an issue that’s been on my mind, particularly as a concern regarding younger scholars, and this seems the right place to address it (apart from the slight awkwardness that I am using Meena’s site to take issue with a proposal she put forward).

Recently I refereed a paper for a journal that sends each referee not only the verdict but also the other referee’s report. The paper received a revise-and-resubmit, which was fine with me; but I was concerned about the requests for revision from the other referee. I wanted this point clarified, that section expanded, wanted the author to either remove one section or make clearer how it fit into the overall paper. The other referee wanted more work on the topic cited and addressed. My reaction was “That’s one kind of paper, but not the only kind!” It was a really interesting piece, deep, complex, an engaging read, and I couldn’t see any way the author could comply with the referee’s request without lowering the quality of the paper.

Around the same time a friend drew my attention to a piece by Meena Krishnamurthy and Jessica Wilson proposing that “large numbers of individuals 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” or at least commit to not accepting any such articles (the idea, I take it, being that the author would be asked to revise and resubmit). It should be “generally considered a necessary condition on a submission’s getting a full review that the author engages in basic scholarly due diligence.” Although this is far less burdensome than a proposal to require not merely citing but engaging with all clearly relevant work, I am not in favor of it.

I don’t want to claim that there is nothing amiss in current citation practices. Routinely citing only articles in the most highly-regarded journals, or only the articles one thinks referees and journal editors are most likely to expect one to cite, or only the work of one’s friends, or the “in-group,” or the most famous people who have written on the topic, is clearly pernicious. Moreover, anyone who claims that approach A has been neglected in recent decades had better do her homework to be sure that is the case and should certainly cite any exceptions; ditto for anyone who claims her approach is novel.

But what if the author does not claim her approach is novel, or that approach A has been neglected? Is it critical that she do a thorough search to figure out who else has put forward a view similar to hers and then take care to cite all such work? I don’t think so. To be sure, a paper that betrays ignorance of relevant alternatives, i.e. that assumes that the only options are A and B when C should also be acknowledged, is ipso facto flawed and referees or editors should note the failing and ask that the paper be revised accordingly. Presumably editors and referees already are doing that. I take it that what is proposed here is something more than that, involving a more robust notion of ‘scholarly due diligence.’

The paper that cites extensively, noting various other approaches and arguing against them, or when in partial agreement, mentioning them in a footnote and explaining where one agrees and where one disagrees, is one kind of paper; I’m glad such papers exist (at least when they are done well, without misrepresenting others’ views; see below). But most of the papers I am inspired by, return to, assign in advanced courses–papers by Susan Wolf or Barbara Herman, for example–do not cite extensively. It never occurs to me to wonder whether the author adequately researched the possibility that someone else had already made a similar point.

Nonetheless, there is a problem–the work of some philosophers is unjustly ignored–and the question remains of how best to address it.

(1) I agree that we as authors should pay attention to whom we cite, and revise accordingly: are we citing mainly just those who are well known? (Or mainly just men? Or just our friends?)

(2) In refereeing, we should recommend that an author take into account the work of S (but I mean to contrast that with simply requiring much more extensive citing).

(3) In editing a book or guest editing an issue of a journal, we should make a point of inviting not only well-established authors but also junior scholars.

(4) Invitations to present papers to one’s department or at a conference should be issued with these concerns in mind. The APA has been doing this for quite some time; in my experience, often we consider an author-meets-critic session or an invited speaker but decide that although excellent and sure to draw a good crowd, his work is showcased often enough as is, and we should instead invite some people whose work, though also quite good, receives less attention, including especially people from marginalized groups.

(5) In refereeing proposals for anthologies and (especially!) textbooks, we should be bold about objecting if there is inadequate representation of women authors and non-white authors, and also encourage the editor to invite some less established authors to contribute.

(6) Although we need to assign the work of various famous philosophers in our courses, we should include as well work by the less famous. (I am assuming that we already all agree that we should not assign only the work of men.)

(7) Last but not least, and important for all of the above, we should read widely.

But why not also go with Wilson and Krishnamurthy’s proposal? I’ve already hinted at one reason: there is more than one way to write a good philosophy paper. Many very good papers do not cite all or most of the relevant philosophical literature and are by no means the worse for it. Relatedly, the requirement proposed would absorb a great deal of one’s time and attention, and (as I often see in papers I referee or in drafts that early career philosophers send me) too little attention is then paid to getting really clear on what one’s position is and defending it well. Now, if all that is called for is listing a large number of people who have written on roughly that topic, that is not very demanding (though there is a question of how valuable it is to do so). But this brings me to a further reason why I oppose the proposal, and indeed the most serious “citation failures” that I frequently encounter: misrepresentation of others’ views.

To be sure, the proposal doesn’t say ‘Don’t worry about whether you are accurately representing others views’! But the problem is that compliance with it either takes a great deal of time, or it works the way a number of recent papers read: one follows a practice, common in other fields, of listing after a sentence a long list of author-date citations. E.g., “The view has faced numerous challenges [several papers cited in author-date fashion].” But is it really that view that each of those authors has challenged? And: did they all actually challenge it, or did some at one point in their papers discuss a challenge to it and then endorse the view? Mistakes about such things are more likely if there is pressure to increase the number of papers we cite. My impression is that these mistakes are more common now, and specifically in papers with large numbers of citations. It might be a coincidence, but I doubt it.

Of particular concern is that if the proposal were adopted, the burden would fall disproportionately on philosophers whose careers are not well established, in particular on graduate students and untenured faculty members.[1] They are under considerable pressure to publish but unlike those of us who are doing most of the refereeing and editing, they rarely receive invitations to contribute to a volume and thus have no choice but to go through the refereeing process. I would rather not see a further burden imposed on them. One might reply that it is not imposed only on them; the proposal is to impose it on oneself, not only on those whose papers one referees. But even assuming conscientious adherence to the same citation requirements that one is imposing on others, there is still the fact that for those with well-established careers the burden is self-imposed and (probably) escapable and for others it is not.

A further problem is that the proposal, if accepted, would have the unintended effect of discouraging engagement with work outside of philosophy, a point that emerges thanks to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. The proposal in no way suggests that engagement with such work would be frowned upon; but given time and space constraints, those needing to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals would be unlikely to be able to do this as well as strive to cite all the relevant work in philosophy. This would be a significant cost to the profession (and not only because it would be demoralizing for the author who is trying something a little different). A lot of very interesting work in philosophy draws from a wide array of sources, not only that of professional philosophers (and, for that matter, not only that of academics); such work reduces insularity and contributes to diversity in philosophy in more ways than I have the space to list here.

Taken together, these considerations constitute very good reasons for resisting the proposal.

But isn’t frequent citation of one’s papers of great importance to one’s career? I doubt it. Attention to one’s work that involves serious engagement, assigning it in courses, recommending it to colleagues, reprinting it in an anthology—that makes a difference. So do invitations to present papers or to contribute to a prominent anthology or guest-edited issue. Simply having one’s work cited seems very unlikely to do so, particularly if it is merely cited (without even a gloss such as ‘For an intriguing alternative, see…’), one among a large number of articles. Thankfully, in our field we do not rely at all on citation counts. (I fervently hope that does not change.) In the dozens of tenure and promotion cases for which I’ve been a reviewer, the matter has never come up, nor has it come up in tenure committee meetings I’ve been part of. It would be bizarre to think that in our field frequent citation of an article is a sign that the work is held in high regard; it could be cited frequently as a glaring example of an egregious error or a common confusion. So here is something else we senior scholars should do: make sure that tenure committees and deans do not get the idea that the frequency with which a particular article (or a scholar) is cited is an even slightly useful measure of the quality of the person’s work. And everyone: please do not provide a citation count on your CV or website.

Neglecting the work of those not in the “in group” is serious. But we don’t need to address it by citing much more than we now do; we need instead to work to correct tendencies to cite and engage with only the famous, and in particular need to modify our practices in choosing whom to invite to speak in colloquia and conferences and in selecting work to assign in our classes.[2]

[1] In her reply to Táíwò (see below), Krishnamurthy acknowledges the challenges for junior philosophers and says that “what matters most is that we make a good faith attempt to cite what is objectively relevant to the topic at hand,” but doesn’t indicate whether she still endorses the proposal she and Wilson put forward concerning referees and editors.

[2] Thanks to Nathaniel Baron-Schmitt, Meena Krishnamurthy, Adam Leite, Frederick Schmitt, Sandra Shapshay, and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò for helpful comments.

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