Don't Cite Me On This

In a world that combines austerity with an attention economy that comes without wages, do we really need to cite more stuff?

October 29, 2014
First, let me start with a disclaimer. I may have totally misunderstood the key point of an article and how people who I respect interpreted it. If so, I hope someone will set me straight. 
Thanks to Alan Liu, I became aware of an essay by Patrick Dunleavy who teaches political science and public policy at the London School of Economics and writes essays about the craft of academic writing. The essay that caught Liu’s eye looks at differences between citation rates in different fields and suggests that if citation practices were less incomplete, inconsistent, and sloppy in the social sciences and the humanities we could “reverse the collective self-harm” this messiness inflicted upon us all. 
The problems for Dunleavy are multiple. Leaving out citations to assumed background knowledge leaves readers in the dark (or - as Alan Liu points out - out of the old-boys' club that knows how to fill in the blanks without the aid of references). It tilts arguments by cherry-picking evidence and leaving out alternative interpretations or traditions, and it makes it harder for readers to retrace the author's intellectual journey. Further, because citations or links can be extracted and analyzed, leaving them out makes it hard to see the big picture of how knowledge is connected. The reasons for not being more systematic? Laziness and the indifference of senior academics who don’t give newer entrants in the field a leg up by citing their work. Alan Liu also faults a preference in the humanities for style over articulating how an argument is embedded within a larger conversation. And perhaps partisanship leaves out entire schools of thought out of pique. 
I have some issues with this. (Surprise!) First, I’m not sure why being cited in journals that get cited  lot has become such an important metric by which scholars’ individual value is measured. Being cited by some other scholar counts, but being read quite literally doesn’t. Amazon and Adobe track reading obsessively, page by page, but the rest of us don’t have the tools or the inclination for such detailed espionage, and it's a good thing, too. (Yes, I know such measures are coming . . . but I'm not all that excited about it.) The centralized funding regime in the U.K. is adding another measure – how much notice you get from the general public. While I approve of the idea of trying to encourage researchers to think about why their work matters and be able to communicate what they know to non-specialists, it seems to be piling on the paperwork and the pressure to be productive. This leaves little time for things that used to be handy for scholars, like reflection or curiosity. It also feeds this weird cycle whereby you have more to keep up with, more to cite, and more reasons to be cited as a matter of survival. So many angels, so many pins. So little time.
I have said previously (and have long believed) that the self-indexing function of literature reviews and citations is often superior to other indexing and discovery methods. I like to help undergraduates recognize the maps scholars provide to the ongoing conversations scholars are having. I try to make a case for the rhetorical and useful value citing sources, which is generally seen by students as simply a tedious set of rules for listing ingredients that could get you expelled if you do it wrong. I get very cross when book publishers tell me the references aren’t in the printed book I’m holding in my hand but can be found online, as if those endnotes are just a waste of paper. (I earnestly hope this is one of those failed fads that quickly fades away.) 
That said, this mania for racking up numbers inhibits good, honest work by focusing on the wrong thing. It puts every scholar on the defensive: prove yourself. It pits us against each other in the great productivity stakes. It drives resources toward questions not set by scholars but by funders.  It emphasizes appearances and metrics over thoughtfulness and risk-taking. 
In 1945, feeling that scientists might become overwhelmed by information in the post-war Big Science boom, Vannevar Bush turned his attention from developing nuclear weapons to envisioning the ways that technology could help scientists chart the paths they forged through the literature so they could remember and share them. Many people point to this essay as a prototype for the Internet, but if so, it was the early, non-commercial Internet, when sharing paths to information was the point. Now attention is, and sharing is both a way to build individuals' reputations and collate information to be used to create new (and often profitable) things.
Competition and a desire for personal recognition has always warred with the benefits of enlarging our communal understanding through building upon another’s work. That essential conflict is playing out in the ways we reference others’ work. The more we see citations as reputational currency to exchange for personal gain in an age of fabricated austerity, the less we will understand the world. We will be so frantically producing citeable units that include large bundles of algorithmically-readable tokens of back-scratching attention we will have no time to think or connect in meaningful ways.


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