Citation blindness, and what to do

Posted: July 2, 2013 by Jender in failure to cite/notice, failure to perceive problem, failure to take women seriously

As you may know, Kieran Healy has recently conducted an analysis of citation data in 4 top philosophy journals over the last 20 years. The results pertaining to gender are striking: Of the top 500+ cited items, 19 (3.6% of the total) are written by 15 women.

As has been noted, it wouldn’t be surprising if implicit bias–coupled, no doubt, with other problematic valences, along the elite/non-elite, junior/senior, and anglophone/non-anglophone dimensions, in particular–were playing a significant role in this data, especially given how failure to cite can percolate.

Without attempting to assign distributive weighting to these valences, I want to anecdotally register one batch of ways in which citation blindness has played out for me over the years. I’ll then offer a couple of positive suggestions about what women (or others subject to problematic citation blindness) can do to try to ward off or push back against this sort of thing.

1. Every year I read or get papers to referee on “Prominent Male’s approach to X” which do not cite me (much less discuss me), notwithstanding that I was the first to present and defend this approach in print and have since written several papers on the topic. The priority issues here are slightly subtle; a few people were working on this approach at around the time my paper was written. But no one could deny that I was one of the ground-floor proponents of the approach (which contribution is, thankfully, tracked in certain encyclopedia articles and surveys); nor could anyone doing due diligence on the topic miss that I am one of the primary “players” here. The editors of numerous journals certainly know this well enough!

But again, I am simply absent from many papers on this topic. This situation is improving somewhat of late, in part because I’ve been fairly active in contacting people and telling them my little story. But what a pain (for all concerned) to have to do that.

2. This citation blindness has occurred even in cases where the author is well aware that I work on the topic. Once I gave a talk where I discussed and defended the view (mentioning, as I often do in hopes of correcting the record, my initial paper). Two people who were present went on to write papers on “Prominent Male’s view” that did not cite me; one of these was my commentator. I caught one of the papers before publication and contacted the author reminding them that I was also a proponent of the view; the author was genuinely shocked that they had forgotten to cite me, and did manage to get a footnote to me in the final version, along with the usual in-text justification for focusing on Prominent Male as the prominent proponent of the view (a self-fulfilling prophecy, to be sure).

3. It has not helped matters that Prominent Male has never cited my paper in any of his work on the topic, notwithstanding that he was (of this there is no room for doubt) aware of my work.

4. Again, citation blindness percolates. Given that Prominent Male doesn’t cite me, why should anyone else? And so it continues.

5. One last peeve: of the papers I read or am sent to referee on this topic that do not cite me, a goodly proportion raise objections to the view that I have already anticipated and responded to in print.

So, what to do? Here are three suggestions off the top of my head:

1. Make crystal clear in the title of your paper what your new development (or response to objection, or whatever) is supposed to be.

2. Subscribe to the PhilPapers ‘new papers’ stream and religiously check for whether papers on your topic appropriately cite you. Many of these papers are drafts or forthcoming, in which case there will often be time for the author to cite you, or better yet, take your work into account.

3. When you get sent papers to referee on the topic which do not appropriately cite or discuss your work, do not be shy about saying that the author needs to do so.

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