Essay on placing academic work in the right scholarly context
Papers and books exist in the context of academic disciplines (in some cases mainly just one field, in other cases multiple ones). As we work on projects, we are in conversation with those who have done similar research in the past. An important part of any writing is acknowledging work that came before it and placing the research in a relevant scholarly context. This serves several purposes, such as letting the reader know in what particular literature one is situating one’s work, clarifying what is motivating one’s specific questions, and also giving credit to others who have done work in the domain.
Unfortunately, too many academics think that the only way to make a novel contribution to a field is to disregard, or worse yet, dismiss and degrade all work that has come before their own. While it is certainly the case that one way academic work can bolster its merits is to show how it is novel or revisionist and why it adds something new to existing literature (e.g., by filling a gap that has not yet been addressed at all or by addressing a contradiction in prior scholarship), there are ways of achieving this goal that do not involve demeaning and deriding all work that preceded it.
Even if you do not subscribe to the above, there are strategic reasons to shy away from either purposefully ignoring or being overly dismissive of others’ work. There are only so many people who work in any one particular area. Chances are extremely high that the people who will be assigned to write a referee report of your work for a journal or who will decide whether it should get on a conference program will be those with whose work you are in conversation in one way or another. Even if the referees’ work is not the most direct link to your scholarship, there is a good chance that these referees are just one friendship tie away from those whose work you may be ignoring or criticizing unduly. One reason for this is that there are a limited number of scholars who work in any particular domain and thus have the necessary expertise to evaluate your work. The other reason is that editors and organizers of conferences with a peer-review system often pick referees by looking at the bibliography of a paper, since the reference list is a reasonable place to find scholars whose interest areas and expertise overlap with those of the paper under consideration.
How would you feel if the paper you were reviewing did nothing but bash your prior scholarship? You would likely feel angry, annoyed and bitter, putting you on the defensive; in other words, not the optimal state of mind – at least from the perspective of the person whose work is being refereed – for evaluating work.
As you write and then go over your piece, think about how it would be perceived by those whose work you are referencing. If you are being overly critical with derogatory language, chances are that the authors of those pieces will not be particularly sympathetic to your work, no matter its merits. In contrast, by using a more neutral and respectful tone, readers will focus on your arguments and contributions rather than getting defensive about their own work as they evaluate yours.
Unfortunately, this does not always work, and being generous with citations can sometimes backfire. People – not to mention entire disciplines – have different reviewing styles. Some scholars approach reviewing with the goal of helping the author arrive at a publishable-quality piece. Others see each refereeing task as a call to arms where their one goal is to exert their supposed superiority and demonstrate the inadequacy of the paper under consideration. Whether your paper is sent to a reviewer from the former versus the latter category is partly up to luck. (You didn’t think academic publishing was all about merit, did you?) But it is not simply luck.
As noted above, people in the bibliography may be contacted for review. People who do not show up in the reference section may be approached by the journal as well, of course. But if they are peripheral to the domain then there is a much smaller chance that they will be on the editor’s radar as a prospective referee. Accordingly, if you have reason to believe that someone will not be sympathetic to your paper and the person’s work is only tangential to your topic then it may be strategic to opt out of citing their scholarship.
It is, of course, hard to guess people’s approach to refereeing before having any hands-on encounter with them. Often we only learn through trial and error. I had an interesting experience once that serves as a useful example of why it can be helpful to think about some citations strategically. In this case, I learned that it is not always optimal to be overly generous with citations to the work of those tangential to an area. In the first version of a paper I wrote with some collaborators, we cited a colleague’s work extensively even though the person’s scholarship was not completely in line with what we were covering. I was quite certain that this person ended up as one of the reviewers given a few clues (type of language used, additional references suggested). The reviewer had given our paper unnecessarily critical comments about certain sections.
As we made some revisions to the paper, reframing our approach a bit in preparation for submission to another journal, we decided to remove the references to this person’s work since they were not central to our paper and we preferred to avoid another encounter with that person in the refereeing process. I surmised that if we did not point out this person’s work then the editor would likely not come up with the name independently given the peripheral connection to the area we were addressing. As suspected, as far as I could tell, the person was not involved in this second refereeing process (at a different journal from the initial target) and the outcome of the review was much more favorable this time around. (Of course, lots of other factors likely mattered as well, but I suspect our revised approach to citations played a role, too.)
To be clear, I am neither advocating being dishonest about others’ scholarship nor suggesting that you pepper your writing with unwarranted praise or completely irrelevant and unnecessary citations. It is fine and often important to be critical of others’ work, but doing so in a courteous tone can go a long way toward making people feel sympathetic to your writing even if they do not agree with everything you have to say. And remember, being overly generous in what work you cite may lead to undesirable outcomes. If your writing elicits very critical feedback, think about what role your citations may have played in that and revise accordingly.