by Robert Gressis
A number of philosophers have claimed that philosophy papers typically have too few citations. If you don’t believe me, do a Google search.
Why should philosophers want their papers to have more citations than they do? I can think of six reasons:
Having a Conversation: if people reading your paper want to know what you’re responding to, they can look at your citations. If you don’t have any citations, then they don’t know how to follow the conversation.
Fairness: imagine that lots has been published about what you’re writing on, but in your paper, you don’t cite any of it by name. Sure, you engage, consciously or unconsciously, with arguments that appear in the literature, but you don’t credit them to particular individuals. This is unfair, because if someone responded to your argument, you’d want them to cite you. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so, to be consistent you should cite them.
Inclusivity: it’s important to cite socially marginalized philosophers in particular, for at least two reasons, one political, and one economic. The political reason stems from the fact that social marginalization doesn’t stop in the study: there is strong yet invisible pressure to downplay the contributions of socially marginalized folks, and that pressure doesn’t go away when you write a philosophy paper any more than it goes away in any other situation. Consequently, philosophers will cite marginalized philosophers less than they should, unless they consciously take steps to fight against this pressure; so, philosophers should consciously seek out the work of socially marginalized philosophers, to help fight against the fact of marginalization.
Economics: the economic reason to cite the work of marginalized philosophers is that the more they’re cited, the better their job prospects will be, in that the higher their h-index, the likelier they are to get tenure-track jobs, get tenure, or make vertical moves to more prestigious departments. And this goes not just for marginalized philosophers, of course: the more you cite any philosopher, the more you help them out professionally.
Common Courtesy: Speaking of philosophers beyond just the marginalized, one reason to cite other philosophers has to do with common courtesy. Let me elaborate. If you care about your product — i.e., if you care about producing good philosophy — you have reason to read other philosophers’ work. The thinking is this: the more you read, the more nuanced your perspective will become, and so, the better your work will get (especially if you read people who have significantly different perspectives). But, if you read and are affected by someone’s work, then it’s just common courtesy to acknowledge them by citing them.
Self-Interest: the fact is, in most cases if you submit a work to a journal, and that work has few or no citations, your work will get a desk-rejection. Is there any good reason for this? Yes: editors already have too much on their plate; having a good sorting mechanism reduces their work. Rejecting a paper without citations is precisely that kind of sorting mechanism; after all, chances are, if someone submits a paper without citations, there’s a good chance their work doesn’t meet professional standards. Of course, there’s a chance that the work does meet professional standards, but people have time-limitations. So, this professional norm—desk-reject papers without citations—saves people a lot of time and doesn’t really lead to much loss of good work.
Despite all these reasons, I think we overrate the importance of citations. Rather than tediously responding to each consideration one by one, I’m going to describe how I used to work, and how I work now. I hope it’s clear how this description is a response.
I wrote my dissertation on Immanuel Kant’s theory of evil and defended it in July of 2007. For this dissertation, I read a lot of Kant and a lot of secondary sources on Kant. I scrupulously poured over his corpus, and created a huge, color-coded database of everything he said that was relevant to evil. I gained a deep appreciation for his views on evil, but my dissertation was, on the whole, quite tedious. “In Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Kant says …, but in ‘On Negative Magnitudes’ he says …”. That sort of thing.
From 2007 to 2016, I dedicated my entire research career to Kant’s philosophy of religion and of evil. I made sure to read each new article on Kant’s theory of evil as it came out. I was often scooped, which dispirited me and made me give up writing several papers. The papers I did manage to write usually couldn’t find publication in reputable places, but boy, let me tell you, they had a lot of citations. I really canvassed the field. Not only would I try to cite everyone whoever enunciated a view on Kant’s theory of evil, I would try to include the page numbers and sometimes the sentences where they articulated their views. I did this for two reasons. First, I feared my paper would get rejected if I didn’t cite a person the reviewers thought I should cite. Second, I wanted to cover my ass: I never wanted to say, “most scholars of Kant think so-and-so” unless I had the goods.
Looking back, I really wasted my time. I wasn’t excited about my work. I would never ask myself, “why does this matter?” and I wouldn’t be excited about it either. I would just wade into the literature at periodic intervals, write my notes on whatever I read, and try to incorporate it into whatever I was writing. Over and over again.
It’s worth saying why I would consult the literature and write in such a punctuated way. I teach at California State University, Northridge. Officially, I have a 4-4 teaching load, though I once calculated that, with time off, I ended up teaching only about 3.3 courses per semester. Regardless of whether I teach four or 3.3 courses, though, that much teaching doesn’t leave you a lot of time for research. So if you tell me, “hey, not only do you have to read tons, you also have to keep careful track of everything you’ve read, so you can give credit to those to whom it’s due,” you might as well tell me, “do less research.” To put a point on it: the more we have a norm to read and cite tons before you go ahead and write, the more you disadvantage people with large teaching loads and advantage people with small teaching loads.
Luckily, though, there’s a way around this problem: you can cite without reading, or at least without reading closely. There’s a risk to this, of course: you might cite someone as taking position P, but reading their work would reveal to you that, in fact, they take position Q or even ~P. Luckily, though, this risk is not very great: the gatekeeping institutions that want you to cite profusely don’t usually read what you cite. In practice, what this practice really amounts to is this: “hey, I liked your paper, but I work on this topic too. You should cite me.” Or, “hey, I liked your paper, but I’m friends with someone who works on this topic too. You should cite her work.”
Going back to me: I mentioned earlier that I worked on Kant from 2007 to 2016. What happened in 2016? (It wasn’t Trump.) No, I finally decided, hell, I’m tenured, might as well work on things that excite me! (I got tenure in 2014; it took me a while to come to my senses.) So, I did, and not only is my work a lot more enjoyable to read (in my opinion), but I’m much more productive.
What’s my secret? You might think I’ve already revealed it: work on what excites you. But that’s actually not it. After all, how do you get excited about something? Near as I can tell, there are two ways. The first way is to read an article that you find provocative, but deficient in an important way, and then you get excited about showing it up. That is not my way. My way is the second way: I just find myself getting excited about a problem – I don’t know how it happens, but it usually happens from me finding a problem in my life – and then I write about it. In writing about it, I see ways in which my original way of framing the problem, or my original response to the problem, is defective. So, during the writing process I hone what I’m saying until it gets more nuanced. Then I read. And I read mainly because I know that I have to read in order for my work to be taken seriously – I need to find people to cite so those self-same people (or those self-same people’s friends) can gain power from being talked about.
That’s not the only reason I read, though. Once I’ve gotten clear to myself about how a problem goes and how to respond to it, I find it enjoyable to read how other people frame the problem and respond to it. I often find that they frame it importantly differently or respond to it in ways that make no sense to me. And then I can write about them. But honestly, though engaging with two or three such people probably improves the paper by showing how my work interacts with people who have already thought of the problem, there’s usually not any need to engage with more than just a few people.
In practice, I find that trying to canvass a whole literature, unless you’re doing a literature survey, doesn’t add much. In fact, it often detracts. The paper becomes more tedious. When you see the list of notables in endnote 17, your eyes glaze over.
More important than that, reading tons and tons of people just makes me lose enthusiasm for my project. Seeing subtle variations of the same move made, over and over, enervates me. In other words: if I had to read the literature before figuring things out, not only would I not have the time to write, I wouldn’t have the motivation. I would just stop caring.
Finally, I want to add a caveat: this is my style. I imagine there are many others who flourish in the current high-citation system. Good for them! But notice that that system privileges one kind of philosophical approach. There are other approaches, taken by people with my temperament, or foisted upon people by high workloads, that should be permitted. In slogan form: it’s fine for some journals to emphasize citations, but why should all of them?