According to Healy, the average paper in his database cites 15 papers. That seems approximately right to me, as far as what is typical. But I find that I almost always cite way more than that, and I almost always want to see more citations when I'm reading. There are several reasons for this. (Some of these are reasons why I try to include more citations, some are reasons why I want to see more citations, and some are kind of both. I hope it will be clear which is which.)
- I want to demonstrate the importance of my topic to the referees. I want to show them that my topic is something that prominent people have been talking about in the relatively recent past.
- I want to demonstrate that I am up-to-date on the literature, and that my contribution is current.
- I want it to literally be true that I am engaging in a current, ongoing philosophical conversation—I don't want it to just look that way (though I realize that ‘demonstrate’ is factive).
- I want to demonstrate that my interpretations are accurate. I have, on occasion, been disbelieved when I have said that certain philosophers said certain things. It can be nice, in these situations, to have a reference in the text indicating where this happened. It can also be nice to have a quote handy. And, of course, if you have the quote, you have to have the citation.
- I want to demonstrate that I did not just make this up, as a way of lending credence to my views. I am not a very prominent philosopher, and I sometimes find it helpful to point out that other philosophers more prominent than me have made similar points, or are somehow in agreement with me. (I don't have a clear example of this that I'm comfortable sharing, but I regularly see prominent philosophers making bald assertions that no referee would ever permit me to get away with. I tend to have better luck with “it seems to me that p, and I'm not the only one; look at all the smart people to whom it seems that p!”)
- I want to alert my reader to more detailed discussions of topics I can cover only briefly. I especially want to do this when the more detailed discussion is something I wrote, but I often want to do it anyways.
Sometimes I see other people not doing this stuff and I get annoyed. Sometimes I'll be reading a paper, and I see the author consider some view or principle or something, and I'll think, “that's crazy. Whoever said that?” and the author doesn't say who said it. And then I'll think, “Geez, why would I ever consider believing that?” and then not only does the author not rehearse the argument, he doesn't even bother to tell me where I might go to find it. Doesn't even give me a name. And then maybe I get kind of interested in knowing whose view it is, or what the argument for it is supposed to be, but then I have to do a bunch of my own research in order to run it down. And then maybe nothing turns up, and I just wasted a bunch of time I could have spent reading something more worthwhile, or researching something that wasn't a dead-end, or writing something of my own, or tickling Junior, or playing Scrabble with Mrs. Zero, or watching baseball, or anything at all.
So while some of the reasons why I try to cite more papers in my work are kind of utilitarian and bogus, owing to the fact that I'm a nobody who's trying to play defense against hostile referees, I think that some of them are widely applicable. It seems to me that the fact that typical philosophy papers have so few references indicates that we as a discipline have some bad scholarship habits.