Citation Needed

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?


17 responses to “Citation Needed”

  1. davidlduffy

    Maybe it depends on your ideal reader. If she1 is a specialist in your own little area, maybe you don’t need so many references, but for most of us, we might need to get up to speed in the topic of conversation. Maybe with Google Scholar now at hand, we don’t need quite as many citations, but we’ll still need reviews.

    Or maybe the Wikipedia has replaced the latter. I don’t think so, I just tried to look up “Kant” and “evil”. But duckduckgo’s first dozen looked pretty good. Actually, the DDG “image” search did give a Martian from Mars Attacks! as an example of das radikal Böse, and the great quote from Ayn Rand that “…Kant was the most evil man in mankind’s history”.

    1. Possibly it is Ayn Rand.

  2. Bunsen Burner

    This is a very strange perspective for someone who comes from a STEM background. When I was still in academia and reviewed an article, the citations told me something about the intellectual history of the problem under discussion. Finding no citations would be very strange as it would imply the academic thought they were the first to have the relevant ideas. This might be possible in some trivial ways, but the whole point of research is that you are building on ideas and concepts that predate you and that will probably still be relevant for future generations. Maybe the problem is you aren’t doing research at all? Maybe you just want to express some opinion and are better off just doing that on social media?

  3. I enjoyed reading this, it has me asking myself questions about my writing. I think in many ways this might help me better myself and my work. Thank you for sharing this post!

  4. Animal Symbolicum

    Glimpsing what I have in the comments of davidlduffy and Bunsen Burner, I suspect that what one thinks about your ideas here, Professor Gressis, depends to a great extent on what one thinks it is to philosophize, what one thinks it takes for a work of philosophy to be a work of philosophy, what genre of writing one thinks a work of philosophy belongs to, or what one thinks reading and writing philosophy is for.

  5. I really liked this.
    There’s a moment in your life when read what others have written to find out what you could write yourself.
    But then comes that immensely more satisfying moment when you know what you want to tell, and read other people to find out what they can contribute to your message.

  6. Bunsen Burner

    I would argue my distinction is between the concept of ‘research’ and ‘expressing a view’ irrespective of the topic. I wouldn’t expect citations from a physicist expressing his opinion on a subject, but I would if he was publishing research into a long standing problem.

  7. Animal Symbolicum

    You’ve made my point in several ways. But to pick the most general:

    That you think the distinction between research and expressing a view applies irrespective of topic means you think the notion of research as used to characterize a bit of philosophy is relevantly like the notion of research as used to characterize, say, a bit of natural science. That betokens a particular view of what philosophy is and what it’s for.

  8. ombhurbhuva

    A lateral thought:
    This citation business done in excess may have a herding tendency in that one’s interpretation may be overshadowed by the great interpretive panjandarum. The fledgling scholar may be loth to depart too far away from that great continent into the perilous ocean of likely error. Thus we have ages in which Idealism reigns, then realism, logical positivism, ordinary language etc, etc. With a basic historical grounding in philosophy taking up Kant, Wittgenstein or any of the classic central figures in the history of ideas without having your hand held will produce a personal understanding. To maintain the aquatic metaphor, jump in the deep end. In subsequent reading of the commentarial literature to have the great one agree with your apercus is quite satisfactory.

  9. davidlduffy

    I think everyone who writes academic papers in any discipline has experienced the same difficulties about the right density of citation for a particular topic. And with how important this particular contribution might be to posterity.

    As to the relationship between citation practice and what research actually is, as A.S. has asked, I think the sciences, and in law and history and mathematics and literary criticism and big chunks of philosophy, have the concept of a grow-able body of knowledge which is too big for any one individual, and a work wears its interconnections on its sleeve.

    So is, for example, Raymond Gaita’s Good and Evil: an Absolute Conception a piece of research in that sense? His memoir (Romulus, My Father, made into a movie starring Eric Bana), is easy, it’s good as literature. Good and Evil seems to me written for a general audience, and does offer citations. However, he is trying for wisdom rather than knowledge, saying “we cannot acquire moral knowledge in any sense that would make us morally knowledgeable. Philosophers often speak of moral knowledge without noticing how unnatural it is in most contexts. It is more natural to speak of a depth of moral understanding or of wisdom, and it is not accidental…that they take time…Thrasymachus is an example. He is little more than a moderately clever and brazen thug who sulks when the argument gets difficult. That, no doubt, is part of Plato’s point. Thrasymachus is not an example of someone with a serious understanding of…good and evil…”. The notes say upfront things like “I shall explore what I think Socrates is saying…I do not claim exegetical authority for my remarks. Moreover, what I say goes contrary to most current scholarly opinion…”. So, it’s an erudite well-written piece of philosophy but not research. The ethical stance ends up being pretty recognizable to me from sitting in church as a sprog – ditto Anscombe (eg in War and Murder). I find Popper and Rorty just as erudite and more entertaining, but I think I might put them in as doing research (YMMV).

  10. Bunsen Burner

    Perhaps. I find it strange to conflate research with opinion. Maybe the problem is that people in the humanities take their ‘opinions’ a bit too seriously? For some reason the way many terms (Theory for example) are used in the humanities makes me think of a cargo cult. But let’s look at it this way. As an academic, you are a specialist in a community of experts. This community exists because it has developed a set of coherent practices and thoughts that the public deems contributes to the greater good. What’s more, there exist constraints such as credentials and peer review that at least try to keep this community coherent and pertinent. However, the set of people capable of expressing opinions i.e. philosophizing is far greater. Is every Op-Ed piece in a newspaper philosophizing? What is the payoff in expanding the notion of ‘research’ so broadly? It hardly strikes me as particularly useful. After all, on the vast majority of topics, the opinions of people who have expertise in them are far more interesting and valuable than that of a professional philosopher.

  11. Animal Symbolicum

    Bunsen Burner:

    You seem to think I suggested there’s no useful difference to be found between (a) the presentation of things discovered through research with (b) the expression of a view. And you seem to think I suggested taking seriously philosophers who express their opinions on subjects in which they’re not expert. Plus, you keep making my original point by displaying a particular attitude toward philosophy that is obviously informing your opinion about the importance of citations.

    On top of that, I agree with everything you said in your last reply — except, perhaps, when you characterize doing philosophy as (merely) expressing opinions (though I couldn’t tell if you were saying that in your own voice or an imagined interlocutor’s).

    From all of this, I can tell I haven’t been clear enough to get my point across to you. A fellow professional philosopher, Professor Kaufman, seemed to understand my original point, and that’s enough for me in these circumstances. So I’m going to drop it.

  12. I think it’s quite rare that someone who is a non-specialist would read a journal article on Kant’s theory of evil. Not saying it doesn’t happen, but if I have to choose between clogging up my article with references (for that unlikely reader) or having something more streamlined (for the majority of the four or so people who *do* read it), then I’ll choose the latter.

  13. That’s an interesting criticism (I’m taking it as a criticism). Let me say a couple of things in response.

    First, I don’t say that I have *no* citations in my articles. E.g., I write, “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.”

    Second, your writing “Finding no citations would be very strange as it would imply the academic thought they were the first to have the relevant ideas” is quite striking. It’s not an implication I had thought of, but I bet you’re right that it’s what people would infer that I’m implying. So, for example, if I were to write a paper on Kant’s theory of evil and only mention Lawrence Pasternack and Allen Wood, some might read it and say, “what? He thinks Henry Allison’s take isn’t worth our time??” To me, that’s a very weird way to respond to a paucity of citations; I want to say in response, “no, I don’t think that. I’m saying that, given would my response is, and how different it is from Allison’s, it would feel shoe-horned in for me to engage with Allison.” Moreover, I would bet that the people who make this inference are selective about it. E.g., were I to write an article on Kant and evil and fail to mention the response of Goethe or Emil Fackenheim, no one would give a shit. But were I to mention Goethe and Fackenheim but not mention Wood or Allison, people would find that unacceptable. Why is that? (Indeed, I could go further: if I mention Wood and Allison but don’t mention Muchnik or Pasternack, people won’t care. But if I engage with Muchnik or Pasternack but not Wood or Allison, people would find that unacceptable, even though I think Pasternack’s and Muchnik’s work is better.)

    Anyway, when I don’t mention certain figures, it’s not necessarily because I don’t think them important or good. They probably just don’t take about it in ways I find helpful to my particular project.

    Third, you mention that if I don’t have citations (or perhaps: if I don’t have enough citations) then I’m not even doing research. I’m basically just spouting an opinion. That, to me, was the most powerful part of your response. This suggests an argument like this:

    1. Academic journals are for academic research.
    2. To qualify as academic research, an article must engage with enough other relevant research.
    3. Therefore, you must engage with enough other relevant research for your work to even be research.
    4. Part of professors’ job is to produce academic research.
    5. Therefore, to do your job, your articles must engage with enough other relevant research.

    I’m most interested in 2. I’ll have to think about that more.

  14. Yeah, I started to engage with Bunsen Burner’s super helpful comment about that.

  15. Part of what inspired my article was assigning Philippa Foot’s article that inaugurated the trolley problem, and noticing that she cited very few people (maybe two? And one of them was Aristotle.)

    That said, she might have been starting a new field; or perhaps she wasn’t doing research at all, but just stating her opinion.

    There’s another possibility as well: it could be that stating your opinion is when you’re not an expert on X and you don’t engage with the community of X-experts, but just say what seems intuitively right; but what if you *are* an expert on X, and your conclusions about X are the result of deep engagement with the community of X-experts, but you don’t cite very many or any of them in your work on them? It seems like what you’re doing is more than spouting an opinion, but perhaps less than research. Maybe some third option, like “me-search”.

  16. Animal Symbolicum

    And Professor Gressis is doing a much better job than I could at addressing your concerns!

  17. davidlduffy

    Hi Robert. Foot’s example is not unique to philosophy. Several of my favourite scientific papers have no references. The Babinski sign paper in neurology was 28 lines long. And there are a few one page doctoral theses in the sciences that were passed because the observations made were just so impressive (I am guessing the one page includes citations).

    It seems to me that many of the much-cited thought experiments wouldn’t necessarily need a whole heap of citations. But actually “researching” everything that is going on in one’s response to such a mental image does require citations from all the relevant literatures. I was just reading about the “Shooting Room Paradox” (which I just noticed was originally suggested by Derek Parfit) – to understand if it actually is a paradox requires an understanding of the mathematics (which have to be explained in small pieces to me, even though I do a lot of applied statistical work, including writing MCMC software to fit generalized linear mixed models). Similarly, Gettier’s paper has 3 citations, but any paper trying to unpack that will need at least a couple more ;). The point is that those thought experiments do call upon one’s intuitions, and intuitions need to be educated to be correct.