Thursday, June 20, 2013

On Citations

Kieran Healy's recent posts on co-citations in philosophy (also this one) got me thinking about citations more generally. (Not this kind of citation, or this kind, of course.)

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.)

  1. 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.
  2. I want to demonstrate that I am up-to-date on the literature, and that my contribution is current.
  3. 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). 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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!”)
  6. 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. 

--Mr. Zero


Bobcat said...

It's happened to me before that I know that a lot of philosophers believe X, and yet when I try to find evidence that they believe X, I can't find any papers written where the person says X. So, I know that, say, three prominent philosophers believe X because of conversation with them, but they haven't written it down. Should I just write something like, "private conversations with Williamson, DeRose, and Stalnaker"? Or should I get their permission first? Or should I email them for confirmation and then say, "email evidence available upon request"?

I once saw David Sussman write in a paper that Kant's theory of evil is not taken seriously by philosophers, and as evidence, he pointed to the (then) lack of much work done on it. What do you think of that approach to citing a generally held view? I think he was right (based on my own experiences talking to Kant scholars about Kant's theory of evil), but the evidence he adduced was, of course, subject to alternative interpretations. (As all evidence is, I know; it's just that in this case it seems particularly far from dispositive.)

zombie said...

I tend to have a lot of citations, because my work tends to consider lots of empirical evidence. So my papers sometimes approach the number of citations one might see in a science paper (50 or more). On occasion I write somewhat short papers on very specific points, with relatively few citations, and the referees almost always demand that I include more citations.

What I find rather egregious, however, is referees who insist that I cite their papers. One person in particular, in my field, appears to be quite the citation whore, and cites his own papers extensively (to a laughable degree, if you ask me). This particular person has "suggested" that I cite him in my papers (in one case when his identity was known to me -- because he revealed it -- and in another case when, because he was on the editorial board, he was the "fact-checker" for a paper I wrote). He is a very well-known and important person in his specialty, so he surely doesn't need to be cited in my little papers. His prominence is such that I can't really avoid him as long as I'm writing on this particular topic, but it irks me to cite him!

As to one of your points, Zero, I suspect it is common amongst we junior scholars to cite more abundantly out of necessity. We are more likely to be accused of not being familiar with the literature than Bigshot Philosopher.

Anonymous said...

Hardly anyone ever cites my articles and books. I badly need citations for my tenure case. But more prominent philosophers are loathe to cite the work of lesser known philosophers such as myself. My work only seems to be cited by grad students, and even then rarely. What do I do?

Anonymous said...

It's too late for you.

zombie said...

4:18, I don't have a lot of advice to offer you here, but FWIW I would suggest two simple things you could do on Make sure your papers are actually indexed on, and follow people there whose work interests you. I get notices all the time that someone is following my work, and I generally look at that person's profile and, if we have common interests, I follow her or him as well. If someone is reading your work, they're more likely to cite it, I should think. (More likely, in any case, than someone not reading it.)

The more prominent the journals you're published in, the more likely you are to get cited, so... the usual advice about publishing in good journals applies here too.

Anonymous said...

4.18 Don't worry about not being cited for your tenure case. Your outside reviewers are unlikely to go looking you up on google scholar. Citation rates are extremely low in philosophy and you're a relatively early career person. The fact that young people are citing your work bodes well for your future.

Anonymous said...

US folk hardly cite anyone! what is it with you guys? Its like you think no one has ever worked on the issue before or if they have, they did a crap job so you;re going to tackle it afresh.
Having said US folk, one of the worst offenders was our friend McGinn (lose 5 points for playing the McGinn card) whose a Brit of course.
But the point still stands - UK and Euro philosophers cite more than their american counterparts and its starting to piss us off!!

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one noticing that many of the journals actually ask for fewer citations? I'm assuming because they want to minimize notes, but it puts me in a bind when writing since I do tend to cite quite a bit, and I worry that a lot of citations will hurt my chances at publications. Is this a misplaced worry?

Anonymous said...

10:32, I have not noticed any such things. Few journals include notes these days (they mostly use author: date). Maybe it is different in your area?

Andrew Higgins said...

Philosophers cite less, and also tend to give fewer acknowledgements (compared with both the sciences and other humanities). This is really unfortunate.

For what it's worth, I've found that the average of 15 citations noted by Healy, for the top 4 analytic journals, is actually significantly lower than the average number of citations of philosophers in general. In an analysis of 5,000 metaphysics articles, I found an average of around 20-25 citations per article, depending on the sub-discipline. I grabbed all the articles listed on Philpapers under specific sub-topics (objects, ontology, persons, and (anti)realism), not discriminating based on journals, so this suggests that articles from the top 4 analytic journals are actually worse than the overall average.