How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy: Part 3

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.

If you plan to present a paper at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Spokane next year, please be advised: your submission needs to be chock full of citations to the work of blacks. That’s just a starter. In addition, there should be lots of citations to other non-white and non-male scholars. Each proposal will be screened to ensure that it “uplifts and amplifies Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, and other multiply marginalized perspectives.”

We’re still not done. Since the conference is about how all college writing should assail “capitalist rhetorics [sic.] of scarcity” and “the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” aspiring presenters would do well to include citations from indigenous spiritualists as well. Doing so, promises conference chair Jennifer Sano-Franchini of West Virginia University in her mercilessly cringeworthy call for papers, will be like “the Indigenous practice of potlatch, the ceremonial sharing of gifts and property.”

On that note, don’t even think of citing research from the last people who actually observed the potlatch and described it as a way to formalize social hierarchies, resolve bloody wars, or sacralize vast inequalities of wealth. No citations to such works are welcome in Spokane. The whole point of this “citation justice,” promises Sano-Franchini, is to “disrupt white settler logic” and “trouble [sic.] narrow conceptions of expertise.”

A loony-bin academic conference in a remote galaxy? Think again! The so-called “citation justice” movement is on the warpath. Academic conferences, journals, publishers, and grant agencies are demanding that scholars figure out the race, gender, and sexual preferences of those they cite before deciding whether they are cite-worthy. This has taken the existing problem of junk citations driven by laziness and added a new dimension to it: patronizing and degrading motives.

[Related: “How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy: Part 2”]

In February, the all-female editorial team of the American Political Science Review (APSR) delivered themselves of the view that “epistemic injustice” plagues academia. Henceforth all submissions to their journal will be screened for “citations to work by underrepresented scholars.” The aim is purely scientific of course, since this is supposed to be political science. The citation police would “benefit knowledge production,” even though we might ask whether a certain Professor of Potlatch might deem this evidence of “white settler logic.”

Here’s the funny thing: in addition to being ludicrous from a scientific perspective, the citation diktat by the ladies of the APSR is full of lazy junk citations, which I discussed in the last installment of this series. Indeed, they do not seem aware of the problem. “[W]hile including citations to work by underrepresented scholars can go some distance” to remedy all that injustice, they write of their new fiat, authors who really want to make a splash might consider reading the cited works! If authors “take the time and make the effort to carefully engage with this scholarship,” it will be duly noted as evidence of 110% commitment during the rigorous peer-review process.

Not to be left out of the scramble for diversity citations, the APSR ladies helpfully direct prospective authors to the University of Wisconsin’s Gender Balance Citation Tool, which issues red alerts if too few women are cited. Nothing untoward here, insist Sharon, Michelle, Clarissa, Kelly, Celeste, Julie, Valeria, Dara, Aili Mari, Denise, Laurel, and Elisabeth. It’s all about following the science!

The citation justice movement is the logical consequence of junk citations. Once citations became lazy shortcuts or simple padding for rhetorical or decorative purposes, the game was afoot. There was a money tree to be shaken. Predictably, scholars with ideological agendas or those who believed their excellent work was not being cited because they were not white males rushed to the barricades. As those scholars have marched through the institutions and seized power, junk citations have become both corrupt and lazy. Two black academics who set up a “collective” (or potlatch), called Cite Black Women explain that citations have nothing to do with science but with power. “The most cited authors are deemed thought leaders, and their works are regarded as scientific knowledge,” they write. If it’s all just social signaling, why not get in on the game?

[Related: “How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy: Part I”]

Indeed, one might argue that the citation justice movement is less junky than the random nature of normal junk citations—at least the works are being cited for a reason. If there are spoils to be had, why not dole them out on the basis of genitalia, skin pigmentation, and sexual stimulation preferences? Some reason seems better than no reason at all.

When I first pointed out the growing plague of citation justice in a talk to colleagues in Thailand, the problem had not yet spread beyond the West. But Asian scholars are nothing if not diligent and attuned to norm shifts driving the academic journals in which they need to publish. As a result, I now get emails from totally sincere colleagues in the region asking if I could recommend, for instance, “a black scholar’s paper on integrated policy tools in the design of wastewater facilities.”

Citation justice is only the most prominent example of corruption that has crept into the cracks created by junk citations. It is easy to make fun of because of its fevered ideological agenda. In the next installment, I will discuss forms of citation corruption that are no laughing matter.

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.

2 thoughts on “How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy: Part 3

  1. The University of Wisconsin may have some civil rights problems with the gender balance citation tool as it is using first names to guess at what sex the cited author is. Since certain national scientific communities tend towards using initials instead of full first names, this may lead to persistent, impermissible discrimination based on national origin.

  2. ““a black scholar’s paper on integrated policy tools in the design of wastewater facilities.”

    And the sad thing is that there probably are brilliant Black scholars in the field who have innovative ideas beyond the 1970s technology we are currently using (which consumes a *lot* of electricity) except that no one is going to listen to them because of this foolishness.

    So who are we really helping here?

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