Some Practical Ethics of Citation

Scholarship can be a lonely road. Even for people who work in large labs, research often means long hours of quietly crunching numbers or fixing machinery alone. For humanists, research is frequently intensely solitary: whether among the dusty boxes of an archive or in an armchair at home, or late into the evening at a semi-deserted office on campus, scholarship involves a lot of time spent (relatively) alone. There are others on the road, of course, but they can seem far away.

Citation is the network of bridges along scholarship’s lonely road. I have more to say about that (in a theoretical vein), but this blog post (my first on this website!) is oriented toward some practical ethics for using the bridges.

These citation ethics considerations, with additions from friends at the end (I’ll tack on more as they trickle in), were developed for my grad students–but might be broadly useful for others as well.

1. Cite at least two articles from the journal you’re sending an article to–one can be a drive-by, but the other should be a substantive engagement.

2. Where feasible, cite the work of people who have helped you with a piece of writing in the text itself, rather than or in addition to giving thanks in an acknowledgments section.

3. Especially when drive-by citing, don’t mangle the main idea; if germane, articulate it directly in a footnote, even if it’s not the specific point you’re making.

4. Only cite other citations (“qtd. in”) if you have a clear reason for doing so, specific to the point you’re making/exploring/etc.

5. Cite yourself freely, but only as elucidation of an important point or situating of the present work in a larger arc.

6. Cite women and people of color and other marginalized voices; this requires (sometimes uncomfortably, depending on your subject position) actively seeking out marginalized voices on the subject you’re considering.

7. Don’t defer overly much to those you’re citing–the point is to stage your own conversation with them, not merely report on what they’ve said.

8. Even if not writing about these directly yourself, have an honest go at figuring out and understanding the context/audiences for which those you cite were writing.

9. Cite from a range of subject positions within academe: not just important essays by senior scholars, but also recent work by junior faculty and graduate students.

10. Cite for disciplinary liveliness, not only for the immediate uses of your argument.

11. Cite in search of agreement, even and especially where you disagree.

12. Cite work that has influenced your thinking in important ways, even if (or especially if) you are worried about being *too* indebted. [From Patricia Ingham]

13. If you’re only or primarily citing older arguments in the field (say, more than a decade), have scholarly justifications for doing so and make sure you aren’t steamrolling or overlooking recent scholarship that runs parallel to your argument. [From Eric Detweiler]

I think these considerations are most relevant for disciplines with text-heavy citation, but they seem at least potentially useful even in fields where citation is mostly just author-date, with the idea of aggregating positive knowledge. The aim is to offer guidance that duly recognizes the importance of citation to both the circulation of ideas and the accruing of symbolic (and actual) capital in academe, but that is also not sheerly instrumental. I have not always practiced all of these, so they’re guidance for me as well.

What say you? Other ethical considerations I don’t have in mind? Arguments or disagreements with or questions about the guidelines offered here?

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