Citation Problems in Philosophy—and Some Fixes

Philosophers widely violate the academic norm to “cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand,” claim Meena Krishnamurthy (Michigan) and Jessica Wilson (Toronto), in a post at the What’s Wrong? blog. 

They identify some varieties of citation failure, and argue that it’s a problem worth taking seriously. Failure to cite people’s relevant work deprives them of various professional benefits that often follow from being cited. It also, they argue, reinforces harmful biases in the profession. Additionally, philosophical progress is stymied when relevant arguments and examples are missed, leading possibly to vast literatures “founded on false presuppositions” as well as the wasteful reinvention of wheels.

What should be done about this?

“When doing literature surveys we need to ‘go deep’ down the list if we aim to identify all work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand.” This may sound onerous, but it’s our job:

In many other disciplines (e.g., linguistics, history, physics and the other sciences), practitioners are expected to carry out, and do carry out, full literature reviews and to cite any clearly relevant literature accordingly. Philosophers do not appear to face any special burdens so far as literature that must be surveyed. If practitioners of other disciplines can carry out such surveys, then so can we…

[P]art of what we are pushing for is a reconception of how much time philosophers devote to scholarship. Yes, given current practices whereby many do not engage in anything like full literature surveys, implementing our suggestion is going to involve some rearrangement in one’s work habits, whereby sufficient time is scheduled for and devoted to engaging in finding out the actual dialectical state of play as regards the topic at hand. The resulting paper and associated dialectical context will be better for it, however—as will our profession and its practitioners.

We can also have an impact on the citation practices of others:

We suggest that the quickest way to improve citation practices in philosophy as a whole would be for large numbers of individuals to commit, in their capacity as journal or other referees, to rejecting for publication papers or other submissions that fail to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand, on grounds of failing to meet basic standards of scholarship.

Additionally, individuals should

be proactive on their own and others’ behalf, by contacting authors of papers, encyclopedia articles, etc., to let them know of citation failures. One convenient way to do this is to sign up to receive PhilPapers updates on one’s areas of interest in order to get a heads-up about recent work. If a piece of work shows up that is lacking appropriate citations, to oneself or to others with whom one is familiar, then one can take a few minutes to contact the author and nicely inform them of this.

The whole post is here. Thanks to David Boonin (Colorado) for the pointer.

I also refer readers to “Philosophers Don’t Read and Cite Enough,” a guest post by Marcus Arvan (Tampa) here at Daily Nous, which I note—with a touch of friendly irony—is not cited in the post by Krishnamurthy and Wilson.

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