Helen Kara has written a though provoking piece about citation and scholarly friends: To Cite or Not to Cite your Friends One of her scholarly interests is ethics so it’s not surprising that she would think about this in relation to the ethics of citation. Is citing your friends cronyism? Is it “gaming the system”? What does it mean in relation to equality, merit, and conscious efforts to cite the work of those from groups who have been marginalised in scholarly conversations? In discussing the ethical issues, Kara makes strong points about the relationship between emotion and intellect.
One of the things I love about my scholarly activity is reading the work of people I know and like. (Helen Kara)
I highly recommend that you read her piece. I agree with her and I think there is another underlying thing here that might be worth pondering.
Collective vs competitive values in scholarly work
To what extent is research a collective enterprise of advancing knowledge? And how does that fit with powerful competitive (and individualising) forces?
The points Kara highlights from the Payson article provide a clear illustration of this tension. He apparently suggests that if you cite your friends, they are more likely to be selected as reviewers, but that there is an ethical line which researchers should be careful not to cross less they be seen as “gaming the system”. Wanting friends as reviewers suggests that peer review is generally a negative process and only your friends can be expected to be kind or generous. “Gaming the system” only makes sense if your framing is competition. The focus on metrics suggests the purpose of publishing is more about what the fact of having published in a particular place will do for your position in a competition than it does with communicating with other scholars in your field. (A position I strongly disagree with, See communication vs validation: Why are you publishing?)
As I’ve explained in some detail in Scholarly Publishing (A Short Guide) the competitive context is not irrelevant. However, the ways in which publication metrics are used in hiring, promotion, funding, and other competitions for (scarce) resources are strongly aligned with particular communicative goals. Communication with other scholars to advance knowledge is the primary reason scholarly publishing is highly valued in those competitive processes. Core academic values are not competitive. The advancement of knowledge is a collective process.
Scholarly publishing is a practice which formalises knowledge claims and makes them available in durable ways to those not directly involved. Even when articles and books are sole-authored, their contents are the result of engaging with other scholars in a range of ways. One might systematically review the literature in a particular field but as an author you are also influenced by everything you have ever read, by conversations, lectures and seminars you have attended, by conversations you have had with other scholars in both formal contexts like conferences and informal contexts. You will frame your systematic literature searches in ways that are informed by what you already think might be relevant, and using criteria embedded in your disciplinary, methodological, and other scholarly contexts. No one reads everything, nor should we expect them to. In fact, one way of making an original contribution is by bringing a perspective from another body of knowledge to bear on a topic central to your field — what happens if we think about it this way? (see Guetzgow, Lamont, and Mallard, 2004)
Citation as social practice
If publication is a way of engaging in a more formal conversation and including those who you have not met (or who may not yet be scholars in your field), citation is a way of acknowledging the influence of the conversations in which you are embedded. The point of citation is to acknowledge the work that has influenced your thinking, and to frame your own ideas and arguments in the context of a wider conversation.
Thinking about citation in the context of scholarly publishing as part of the collective work of advancing knowledge also shifts how we understand peer review. When reviewers suggest that your paper should cite other work, what they really mean is “This article/book would be improved by engaging with the work of X, which you should then cite.” The reviewer sees how work that they are familiar with from their position in the vast sea of scholarly knowledge might make your contribution stronger. Although some reviewers make this kind of suggestion from a position inside the competitive frame as an attempt to “game the system”, many genuinely engage with your work and want to improve it. (for more on peer review as editorial labour see Peer Review (A Short Guide))
This kind of editorial comment is similar to a librarian suggesting books based on what they know about your reading preferences, or a friend introducing you to one of their friends that they think you will have a lot in common with. Sometimes it is more like discovering that your friend has recently learned to knit so you invite them along to your regular knit and natter group so they can meet other people who share this interest. Your research sometimes takes you into territory that your existing scholarly networks (in person and in print) are not talking much about and an introduction to others who are already discussing this can be welcome.
This framing also provides a different perspective on movements to cite more women, people of colour, and other marginalised voices. The call for positive discrimination is a call to read more work by those who are marginalised in scholarly conversations.
To pass the #GrayTest, which I named for the scholar Kishonna Gray, who invented the hashtag #citeherwork in 2015, a journal article must not only cite the scholarship of at least two women and two nonwhite authors but also mention it meaningfully in the body of the text.
(Belcher, 2019, pp 184)
Counting the number of women (or other group) you have cited in an article is one way to check whether the scholarship influencing your own is missing potentially interesting perspectives. Sometimes it is a matter of being more careful about which examples to cite when making general points about the wider debate in which your are situation your argument. This kind of personal citation metric may also alert you to the ways in which your citation practices constitute certain voices as more important than others.
Properly engaging in this kind of politics of citation is a much more radical practice. It requires actively seeking out scholarly work by those marginalised in the conversations you normally engage in, and allowing those conversations to influence your thinking and thus your analysis, arguments, etc. The work you publish as a result of this engagement will be different than had you not engaged with those scholars (in print or in person), and your citations will acknowledge their influence on your thinking as they introduce the work of those scholars to the readers of your scholarly publications. The Belcher handbook has a useful guide to tracking the values that are important to you to ensure your practices match your values.
Professional friendship and scholarship as collective endeavour
Returning to the piece which inspired this post, when I read what Helen Kara wrote about reading (and citing) her friends and how it feels, I see a collective project of knowledge creation that takes place in both formal (professional) and informal ways. The bonds of friendship have developed out of time spent together in collective professional activity. Some of that activity has resulted in co-authored books or articles, formal collaborations on funded projects, and so on. But they have also developed their ideas in more informal conversations with each other. The friendship grows out of the practice of spending time together discussing ideas shared, perhaps in conjunction with social activities including shared meals. Over time, those discussions expand to include topics of conversation that are unrelated to their professional concerns. (My views here on the formation of professional friendship bear the traces of the work of Janet Finch on family practices.)
In this context, it makes sense that one would cite one’s professional friends. You could not have created the knowledge you are communicating without them. You must acknowledge their influence on your thinking. Reading their articles and books deepens your understanding of things that you discussed over dessert. Because publication in a peer reviewed article or book is a formal contribution to the scholarly conversation, it makes sense to acknowledge their formal expressions of the ideas that influences you even if you learned of them in other ways. Their articles and books are available to the reader of your articles and books in a way that dinner conversations are not. Citation is way of recommending that the reader of your book or article might also want to read the articles and books of your friends, not because they are your friends, but because they say things that are likely to be of interest to anyone interested in what you have to say.
This is not cronyism. The friendship that has grown out of ongoing professional engagement does not diminish the value of your professional work. You are recommending (by citing) the work of your friends for the same reason that you became friends with them—because you have a lot in common, you value their knowledge, and it has greatly influenced your own.
Joshua Guetzkow, Michèle Lamont and Grégoire Mallard (2004) “What is Originality in the Humanities and the Social Sciences” American Sociological Review 69: 190 DOI: 10.1177/000312240406900203
Wendy Laura Belcher (2019) Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (2nd ed) University of Chicago Press.
Janet Finch & Jennifer Mason (2003) Negotiating Family Responsibilities Routledge.
To Cite or Not to Cite your Friends (Helen Kara)
This post started as a comment on Helen Kara’s post. Although it was long for a comment, I have expanded on it considerably here.