Grad student to one of his supervisors: I liked your manuscript a lot and have only added some minor suggestions, but some of its major claims were anticipated by X.
"I discovered these claims independently."
Grad student: but why don't you cite X; he got there first [by a decade]?
"I don't have to cite X because I did not read X and I am not going to read X."
Thanks to more Healy data (aided by Bloom) about some purportedly generalist high prestige journals and blogging by Meena Krishnamurthy, citation practices in analytical philosophy are back in the harsh spotlight. Familiar patterns of exclusion are magnified at the top of the citation pyramid; if I understand Healy's analysis, women and other minorities are (largely) absent in the 1%.
The exchange I quoted at the top of this post really happened. In reflecting on it over the years, I assumed initially that the supervisor, who teaches at a research-focused university, was just ungenerous to X, who teaches at a small college and not even in professional philosophy. (I will leave the identity of the grad student vague so as to protect my sources.) At the time I also treated the information as evidence of a lack of inquisitiveness by the professor. This particular professor did not have the juvenile pride in lack of philosophical literacy common among some analytical philosophers (of an older generation), so I was surprised by his stance. Later, as a true empiricist, in glancing through the book to check if X was, in fact, cited, I learned that X was indeed never mentioned. In fact, non-citer's book has been cited three to four times as often as X since. There is no justice.
As I became more at ease in professional philosophy, I learned that this incident was not an isolated event. Professional philosophers rarely cite (as Healy notes we average less than fifteen citations per paper). As I became an experienced historian of philosophy who could distance himself a bit from his own intellectual culture, I concluded also upon further reflection on analytical citation practices the following:
- Low citation rates of others create an illusion of originality;
- low citation rates of others create and participate in historical effacements and cover-ups;
- low citation rates of others make one's background commitments opaque and, thereby, creates barriers to entry to outsiders;
- if citation is a scarce good it becomes a valuable commodity to be given as either a form of (aspirational) tribute or a rare act of generosity.
That is to say, citation within analytical philosophy is primarily a form of status signaling (recall). It tells the reader what peer group the author belongs or aspires to. 'Peer group' is a polite way of saying faction. This is no surprise, of course, if we look at institutional factors (and pay attention to the empirical evidence recall). The journals that Healy draws his data from are captured by particular groups within professional philosophy. (As is well known some of the most famous and celebrated philosophers of the twentieth century are barely mentioned in their pages [recall].) This intersects with the by now well known demographic patterns of exclusion (and a number of other biases).
To be clear, now that more and more analytical philosophy takes place in an institutional grant environment where 'objective performance metrics' play a role, we should expect citation practices to change (perhaps, led by Synthese or blog-driven citation-echo-chambers). It is an open question to what degree these grants, which tend to divide the academic world into chosen winners and the rest, will facilitate new demographic patterns of outcome alongside, say, the globalization of Anglophone professional philosophy.
Okay, the stage is set for my observations on Healy's analysis of this state of affairs. Healy writes:
Most of the time, publishing in a high-status journal is in effect a permit to talk about other people’s work. Your contribution must be framed by the central items in your field. And while it’s hard to clear that bar, a much, much smaller number of articles move from being items in the literature to being topics of the literature. Most of the articles in our dataset are “contributions to the literature” in the first sense, but not the second. In this case the agenda-setters, as opposed to the participants, are all men.
As I’ve said before, an academic discipline is a kind of exclusive conversation. Even for very successful entrants, “participation” usually means being present as a contributor, but not as a topic-maker. It’s a little like attending an ongoing public debate. You need a ticket to enter and sit in the audience. You may be called on by the moderator to ask a question or make a point from the floor. But the agenda for the discussion is set by a much smaller panel of people up on the stage—people who started out as audience members. Most of academic life has this structure, from departmental talks to conference panels and plenaries to journal exchanges. A key issue then becomes how work gets selected for attention up on the stage, who gets engaged with from the stage, so to speak, and how this process plays out as new audience members come in the door.--Healy. [Italics in Healy's original; but emphasis added in bold--ES.]
It is no surprise, and legitimate, that attention is now focused on the ways in which deserving women are excluded from setting the discipline's agenda and to offer reforms to this state of affairs (see here). I have no doubt that the discipline's conversation would be enriched and improved with women among the 1%. For example, as my regular readers know I think it was a near-disaster for analytical philosophy that Stebbing was forgotten while Max Black, a very fine philosopher, but nowhere near as original and interesting as Stebbing, set parts of our collective agenda (recall and here).
Healy's analysis takes the institutional status quo as given. (That's not meant as a complaint--he is doing empirical sociology, after all.) Healy's analysis emphasizes the commonalities between the practice of philosophy and other academic disciplines without pausing at this fact. Philosophy is, on the whole, not an empirical science and so largely not driven by empirical or computer results (yes, I have heard of X-PHI!) or investment in experimental systems that drive lab research. In scientific fields, the sociology of citation is influenced by the organization of science, of course, and existing norms of citation, but citation does not only aim to participate in the discussion but also to advance (fill in your favorite epistemic goal here). While undoubtedly bits of philosophy undoubtedly aim at something more than participating in the discussion, large chunks of philosophy are nothing but attempts at keeping the beautiful, noble, (etc.) and, yes, exclusive conversation going. Of course, this is not merely a dis-interested enterprise because there are success goods to be derived from being the center of some conversations.
We learn from the example of Socrates, that keeping the conversation going without aporia and anger is no simple matter; we learn from the fate of Hume's Treatise that even in an extremely literate and philosophical age a work's philosophical significance can be overlooked. We learn from the profession's ignorance of, say, early modern feminists, female and male, that ignoble historical cover-ups succeed.
I end on a reflexive, narcissist note. After my first two years in the profession, I recognized that there was no place for me in the audience of the agenda-setters. My papers were being rejected without comment at the top journals (recall) and I experienced being invisible at professional events. (I am a white above average-length male, by the way; I have long arms.) I became aware of the often invisible barriers to participation; after all, when they do not do so themselves, the agenda-setters rely on trusted gate-keepers to pre-select the approved audience. Part of the story is that I got trained into the wrong conversations at Chicago--the leading factions had moved in another direction (recall). I accepted that my work would appear in supposedly less prestigious outlets and through 2010 I would average under ten citations per year (the vast majority of which self-citation).
Then I co-founded NewAPPS with the aim to change the institutional status quo; I have very much enjoyed directing attention to other people's work overlooked by the agenda-setters of yesterday. Amazingly, too, the scholarly citations to my work increased five-fold per year since--not enough to be in the 1%, but beyond my expectations. This is not a matter of justice (recall X). But sometimes you should not buy the ticket to the main attraction because it is a corporate re-run; enjoy a walk in fresh air, instead, and seek out more interesting and more diverse (and, thus, epistemically more robust) conversation partners--it's not impossible that before long inquisitive folk will want to join in the fun.