How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy: Part 1

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of articles by Professor Bruce Gilley. To read the other articles in the series, click here.

In a grant request I was recently asked to review, the applicant cited a 2022 academic article by the grandly titled Boeing Distinguished Assistant Professor in Environmental Sociology at Washington State University, Dylan Bugden, titled “Environmental Inequality in the American Mind: The Problem of Color-Blind Environmental Racism.” Bugden’s article, the applicant asserted, “revealed that the dominant explanatory factor” for citizens’ diverse views about the distribution of environmental harms in the United States “is racial bias.” Moreover, the applicant wrote, the article proved that opposition to “policies to address environmental inequality is strongly associated with racist attitudes.”

If you have been in the academy long enough, you know that such a “Just trust me, this is what it says” citation style is now rampant in academic writing. Graduate students unfortunate enough to have me as their advisor know that they will get an earful if they cite a work in this knee-jerk, “reflexive” manner without telling me anything about its methods and conclusions, especially if they distort or decontextualize those conclusions. In a study of 248 citations for claims in articles published in 2017 in five top scientific journals, Smith and Cumberledge found that 25% of the claims were either partly (4%) or wholly (8%) unsubstantiated by the citations—or, worse, that they had no logical connection to the citation (13%).

Last year, I gave a talk on “Ending the Cancer of Reflexive Citations in Research” that was live-streamed and that can be viewed online. I covered multiple dimensions of the rot of junk citations that are today at the heart of academic research, a topic that I will return to in subsequent installments. The main point is that a key reason for the well-earned loss of respect and legitimacy of scholars, in addition to the better-known left-wing political and ideological biases driving their research, is the problem of bad citation practices that have created whole research paradigms built upon junk citations.

[Related: “The Knowledge Machine That Failed”]

The two are related because, as I will argue in this series, the reason that bad citation practices have become so endemic in academic research is because of the lack of intellectual diversity in the academy. Since groupthink is so pervasive, any citations that confirm academics’ left-wing biases are rarely double-checked. And so junk piles upon junk.

Let’s return to my grant applicant, who, unfortunately, will be smarting like my graduate students after reading my response to this citation of Professor Bugden’s work.

Bugden’s article is based on a survey of 1,000 Americans in 2020. He seeks to explain their views on so-called “environmental inequality,” or the distribution of environmental harms across individuals. The outcome variable (Y) is not the variety of views held by Americans on this issue, but rather the extent to which they accept as gospel “the scientific fact and moral problem of environmental racism.” In other words, “accurate beliefs” are defined as those that see environmental harms as racially patterned (versus, say, socio-economically or regionally patterned, or not patterned at all in any robust fashion).

For an explanatory variable (X), he turns to the silly but widely used “racial resentment” scale of the American National Election Studies (ANES). This scale describes people as racist if they agree with the claims that blacks should work their way up in American society like everyone else without special favors; that blacks have an equal opportunity in the U.S.; that blacks’ socio-economic status reflects their productivity; and that overcoming anti-bourgeois attitudes is key to uplifting black communities. I, for one, happen to agree with all of those statements, as do many blacks, so I suppose we would all be labelled inveterate racists by the ANES.

[Related: “Science: Are we getting what we’re paying for?”]

Bugden calls this X variable in his model “colorblind racial ideology.” His article does not explain its construction, substituting instead a series of citations to others on the ANES love-train that we are supposed to take on faith.

A high school student should see the flaw immediately: his model claims to show that one woke definition of racism (X) explains another woke definition of racism (Y). I say “claims” because even with an essentially tautological set-up intended to display the severed heads of the deplorables on pikes, the model coughs up less than a third of the variations in the outcome. The Boeing Corporation is clearly not getting its money’s worth in terms of progressive, anti-racist research from their man in Pullman.

So why did the applicant, whose grant I read, so breathlessly cite this article in a way that told us nothing about its methods, much less its fatal weaknesses? Because the applicant was seeking monies to explain the ways that conservatives and Republicans have held up the “equity and justice” of the Green New Deal with their unapologetic racism.

It takes a freak in contemporary academia to ask the question: what is this citation and what does it do? I guess that’s me. In future installments, I will show the many other ways that junk citations are the bedrock of what passes for research today.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Bruce Gilley

    Bruce Gilley is a professor of political science at Portland State University and a member of the board of the National Association of Scholars. In addition to his work on academic freedom and the revival of intellectual pluralism on campus, Dr. Gilley’s research centers on comparative development and politics as well as contemporary public policy issues.

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5 thoughts on “How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy: Part 1

  1. “The Boeing Corporation is clearly not getting its money’s worth in terms of progressive, anti-racist research from their man in Pullman.”

    Sadly, they actually are — this essentially is the modern equivalent of having paid off the cops.

    ” the applicant was seeking monies to explain the ways that conservatives and Republicans have held up the “equity and justice” of the Green New Deal with their unapologetic racism.”

    There is *so* much of this in my field (education) and when I want to address issues of educating boys in general (and the NAEP “boy gap” in language skills is greater than the STEM “girl gap”) but it can *only* be addressed in the context of either “schools shortchange girls” or “schools shortchange minorities.”

    Both may be true — actually *are* true in some cases — but I want to deal with something that I actually know something about — issues involving the education of boys in the mostly-White school districts of *rural* New England. And that’s racist…

    (And I mean *really* rural, schools that have a graduating class of 30-40 kids even though they are the *consolidated* schools of a dozen towns. One room schoolhouses, which still exist. Etc…)

    And by any objective statistical measure — when adjusted for population density — the White kids in rural schools are at equal risk to the Black kids in urban ones, the only difference being the unintended target of a drive-by shooting because of the population dispersal — although also being at a higher risk of a MVA fatality for the same reason. (I saw what heroin was doing to the Maine lobster industry in the 1990s — fentanyl is far worse, I’d argue *worse* than in the Black urban community if for no other reason than a hospital being 50-70 miles closer. But we aren’t allowed to say this….)

    But there is no interest in this because everything is in the tight metric of “urban minority school as compared to rich white suburban school.” (Not that rich white suburban schools don’t have their problems, they are just far better at hiding them….)

    And that’s what I think that citations actually are — a means of *exclusion* rather than of identification. And how do you do research when people are willing to give you incredibly valuable information with the promise that you will never, ever, identify them? The fact that I was physically there, boots (or shoes) on the ground, teaching in such a school is irrelevant while someone who literally flew in to interview people for 10 minutes *is*?!?

    It’s one thing to talk about racism in education, which I will concede sometimes exist (see supra). But when you are talking about the Green New Steal, I want to scream.

    Let’s take the case of East Boston, a gritty (mostly minority) suburb of Boston, MA.

    They want to electrify everything — make all the home heating electrical, make all the cars electrical, and even make the municipal buses battery-powered electrical. Now you don’t have to be an electrical engineer to understand that all of this electricity has to be produced somewhere/somehow and beyond even that, it has to be (a) physically transported to East Boston and then (b) reduced to the 13,600/8,700 volt (3 wire) current that either runs along or under the streets to transformers that then reduce it further.*

    In other words, you need a substation — a bank of big transformers to reduce it from the uber-high voltage of the high tension lines down to the 13.600/8,700 voltage that you can use, and you need it kinda near where you are going to be using it because while 13,600.8,700 is a high voltage, there still is significant loss if you have to transport it any significant distance. So it has to be in East Boston.

    Only that putting it there is somehow “racist” because it will somehow “increase air pollution.” (Only if it catches on fire, and utilities try very hard to prevent this from happening because of the expense involved…)

    So not converting to electricity is racist while trying to provide the necessary electricity to do so is also racist — and in some alternate dimension of reality, this somehow all makes sense…

    *To all the engineers reading this, yes, I know that 3-phase power is three sine curves that are 120 degrees out of phase with each other, that the current reverses and that the actual electrons don’t move far (is it even an inch) — but you understand what I mean, likewise when I say 13,600 volts (average) with each wire being 8,700 (average) volts to ground, which is only a reference to the other two, but try telling that to a lineman. And likewise what I mean by “transporting.”

    1. NERC does a regional level long-term examination of reserve capacity on electrical grids. You can find the 2022 one here:

      The NPCC-New England one is on page 41 and is, honestly, not that bad. If you want horrific, go to page 25 to see the MISO setting 15 states up for a resignation from the developed world.

      That doesn’t mean that locally, people are being intelligent about things but local fools are within physical retribution reach in a way that remote fools are not and that simple fact tends to temper their foolishness.

      In the case of East Boston, remote placement of transformers will increase local electricity bills because of higher line losses and why would someone want to do that other than because of racial animus?

  2. The same thing occurs in public health literature with citations of work claiming SES is the dominant *cause* of health status, a relationship significantly confounded by the fact that both share common causal predictor factors, like level of socialization, social capital, etc. Marxist ideology leads to an almost willful ignorance of this potential issue,

  3. Something non-ideological that I believe contributes to this is the way that admin-driven approaches to teaching citation practices are all obsessively procedural in their focus: exactly what to italicize, where the periods and parentheses go, in order to do APA or Chicago style or whatever correctly. These rules are very teachable in the sense that they are pretty much brainless, and they lend themselves to videos and modules and styles of marking that are afraid to level substantive critique but comfortable with penalizing process-level gotchas.

    So the more substantive matter of: did you understand the argument you are citing, and cite it accurately and fairly — whether you are relying upon it or critiquing it — gets far too little attention in discussions of citation in the undergrad classroom. That feeds into what happens at the grad level and beyond.

    Anyway, interesting and under-discussed so looking forward to the next installments!

    1. Good point Kathleen, and one I had not thought of. We all get asked by students about the citation style for their papers, but we never get asked how to cite, because I suspect most academics think the answer is “just make sure you stick a bunch of random citations on the end of sentences to make it look scholarly.” Yikes!

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