A Disturbing Pattern

Inadequately citing or entirely omitting the scholarship of women and people of color reflects the larger problem of entrenched marginalization in the academy, write 12 women scholars.

August 27, 2021
 
 

We are 12 women in an environmental history writing group who have collectively published 34 books and 207 peer-reviewed articles and chapters. Our ranks include four presidents of the American Society for Environmental History and two past editors of the journal Environmental History. Our collective includes winners of prestigious national fellowships and awards for distinguished scholarship. Many of us also serve in positions of institutional leadership.

In just three months, published work by four of our members was inadequately cited or entirely omitted in other relevant publications. Those disturbing lapses reflect a larger pattern, in all disciplines, of undercitation of scholarship by women and people of color. This pattern plays out in books, articles, grant applications and blogs and extends into applied fields of scholarship outside the academy.

Given what we as senior, primarily white women historians encounter, what are the experiences of our junior colleagues -- graduate students, postdocs, adjunct faculty, lecturers, untenured faculty -- and in particular of those from underrepresented groups including BIPOC and scholars from the Global South? We’d like to suggest concrete steps to address this problem that focus on publishers of history yet can be adapted and adopted across all disciplines.

The citation omissions we’ve described are appalling and infuriating. We know of these specific instances because we built a network of trust over years and felt comfortable sharing them with one another. They led us to wonder how such omissions map onto demographics of underrepresented groups in higher education. Who is taking ideas from whom? Who is erased?

Entrenched marginalization -- based on sexism, racism or other forms of discrimination -- is a larger structural problem in academe. We focus on citational policy as one way to begin to address bigger issues. Citations are powerful technologies of knowledge production, yet they may simultaneously produce ignorance. Failure to cite the work of particular groups of scholars, whether intentional or not, distorts our understandings of the past and of contemporary inequities.

We are neither the first scholars to experience, nor the first to call attention to, this serious issue. (See, for example, Cite Black Women.) Sara Ahmed shows that selective citational practices reproduce inequalities in the academy. Citations are guides, Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, that help “us find our way.” When only certain scholars are cited, the path becomes circumscribed, deeply worn into the scholarly landscape, carving what appears to be the only way forward. To break new ground, we must follow other guides and cite them. As Max Liboiron observes in Pollution Is Colonialism, “Citing the knowledges of Black, Indigenous, poc, women, lgbtqai+, two-spirit, and young thinkers is one small part of an anticolonial methodology that refuses to reproduce the myth that knowledge, and particularly science, is the domain of pale, male, and stale gatekeepers.”

Absences and silences matter. Many professional decisions are tied to impact and influence. Undercited scholarship affects who gets hired, tenured, funded, published and promoted. It undermines morale and well-being. Undercitation impedes participation in networks, communities and decision-making bodies that are the locus of evaluation and power. Undercited scholarship trivializes the contributions of women and marginalized groups, making disciplines appear whiter and more male.

And undercitation raises questions of academic honesty and integrity. When authors do not consider the full diversity of research published in their fields, their neglect of women and BIPOC scholars wields professional power against others. When authors fail to cite authors whose works they relied upon, they are guilty of plagiarism. How can scholars ethically continue to erase others’ work? It is ironic that in a profession that requires our students to abide by principles of academic integrity, some scholars fail to do so. Moreover, guilty parties regularly escape accountability. Indeed, they often are rewarded by those canonical scholars they do amplify through citations. As a result, the field reproduces itself in exclusionary ways.

For some people, statistics, reported incidents and personal experiences of overlooked, uncited or plagiarized scholarship are a rude awakening. For many BIPOC scholars, however, experiences of erasure, theft, academic invisibility and tokenism are not surprising. They reinforce an already deep cache of personal and professional indignities suffered within higher education contexts that are fundamentally structured by and through white supremacy. Scholars of color, white women and LBGTQ+ scholars have lower rates of journal publication, receive less support and encouragement, and recount numerous experiences when they have pitched manuscripts and proposals only to be dismissed.

New Best Practices Required

The Women’s Environmental History Network began investigating these issues within environmental history as part of its founding mission. Our endeavor here builds on earlier projects, including Julie Cohn and Sara Pritchard’s analysis of "Disparities in Publication Rates" in the field and The Syllabus Project, which aimed at diversifying syllabi.

Environmental history is, however, just one field. These patterns play out in many areas of scholarship. Rather than remain part of the problem, we propose specific steps that journals and publishers can take immediately to address inadequate and unbalanced citations.

We recognize that asking authors and reviewers to categorize scholars by race and sex/gender is problematic. Instead, we urge scholars and reviewers to consider whether the manuscript reflects the full range of diversity in the field. The strategies we propose also shift the historiographic dialogue to emphasize recent works. We urge the editors of journals to adopt the following new best practices:

  • Add to journals’ “Instructions for Authors” a statement that diversity in citations is a priority for the journal and notify authors that the review process includes specific questions about citational diversity.
  • Require in the journal submissions and review software that authors state how they attended to diversity in their citations and historiography. The two past journal editors in our group have found that queries added to journal submission software can make a significant difference.
  • Require reviewers to evaluate whether the manuscript under review includes citations that reflect the full range of diversity in the existing scholarship.
  • Adopt a new approach to historiography or historiographic footnotes that asks authors to start with recent research that influenced their work before discussing older, foundational scholarship. The foundational scholarship will still be acknowledged because recent scholarship is built upon the work of decades.
  • Direct reviewers and authors to online resources such as The Syllabus Project and Women Also Know History to assist in diversifying notes and historiography.
  • Create a process that allows scholars whose work has been ignored in an article to address the exclusion.

Implementing these changes sends powerful messages. The proposed practices alert those who fail to engage and cite scholarship by women, BIPOC and those in the Global South that their work must be fixed before publication. They tell underrepresented scholars that we all accept our obligation to them and their work and acknowledge that, no matter how well-intentioned we may be, we remain complicit in and must fight against institutionalized racism and sexism -- even if doing so painfully triggers defensiveness, anger and guilt.

Changing citation practices is only one way -- albeit a powerful and public one -- to address larger issues of representation within academe, as Perry Zurn, Danielle S. Bassett and Nicole C. Rust observe in “The Citation Diversity Statement.” Beyond citations, we must review syllabi to include other voices, positionalities and perspectives. We must examine the composition of conference speakers, rejecting those that are composed entirely of white, middle-class, male scholars from the Global North. We must also consider the grant process, ensuring that a diverse range of scholars have the resources and institutional support to submit competitive grants, and encouraging an equitable review process.

These changes are long overdue, but the current moment presents an ideal opportunity to create new practices. Interlocking crises laid bare by a pandemic drew heightened attention to inequities within academe. Departments, universities and professional organizations are grappling with institutional racism and high attrition among women and BIPOC scholars, as noted by Chavella T. Pittman in Inside Higher Ed and Amparo C. Villablanca and Lydia P. Howell in the Journal of Women’s Health. A campaign for inclusive citation, for an end to plagiarism of work by women and BIPOC and Global South scholars, is a small but crucial step in addressing these larger challenges.

We challenge scholarly journals and presses to establish clear guidelines for authors, acquisition editors, series editors, journal editors and manuscript and book reviewers to ensure that these lapses, whether intentional or not, are caught early and -- most important -- corrected.

Bio

Sara B. Pritchard is associate professor of science and technology studies at Cornell University. Brinda Sarathy is dean and professor at the school of interdisciplinary arts and sciences at the University of Washington at Bothell. Lisa M. Brady is professor of history and department chair at Boise State University. Kathleen A. Brosnan is Travis Chair of Modern American History at the University of Oklahoma. Nancy Langston is distinguished professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University. Ann Norton Greene is assistant professor of history and the sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Emily Wakild is professor of history and director of environmental studies at Boise State University. Julie Cohn is a nonresident scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and a research historian at the University of Houston. Laura Alice Watt is a retired professor of geography, environment and planning at Sonoma State University. Nancy J. Jacobs is professor of history at Brown University. Sara M. Gregg is associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. Sarah Elkind is president of the American Society for Environmental History at San Diego State University.

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