On Citations

I’m really enjoying recent conversations about the role of citations in our scholarly lives. If you haven’t read it already check out Rebecca Futo Kennedy and Maximus Planudes’s thoughtful piece over at Rebecca’s Classics at the Intersection blog. I can also recommend “The Politics of Citation” over at the Digital Feminist Collective’s blog, Shawn Graham’s “Citation as an Act of Enchantment,” this careful study of the citations by Jules Weiss in the troubled HAU journal, and Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s efforts to hold themselves accountable through a reflexive quantitative study of their book Data Feminism.  

All this recent discussion of citations is also practically important to me because one of my main projects over the last two years has been writing a survey of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. This involves immersing myself in an expansive body of scholarship ranging from historical archaeology to garbology, material culture studies, thing studies and theory, ethnoarchaeology, and good olde fashioned history. Unlike in Europe and the UK, the field itself remains rather loosely defined in the US despite the long tradition of work that fit well within the scope of an archaeology of the contemporary starting with Bill Rathje’s and Michael Schiffer’s work in the 1980s and continuing to the work of folks like Jason De Leon and Shannon Lee Dawdy. This adds to the feeling (at least in my head) that my little book could contribute to the defining of this emerging discipline in a North American context.

Without being so arrogant to assume people will read my book in this way (and bearing in mind that people much smarter and more accomplished than I are invested in this field), it nevertheless adds a certain amount of pressure for me to think carefully and critically about who I cite.

RFK and MP do a nice job reminding us that our citation practices constantly walk the fine line between describing our field as it existed in the past and creating new communities (or even as a kind of “worlding”). Citations are aspirational, then, in some ways in that they seek to make clear the messy work associated with thinking which needn’t follow the well-trod professional pathways of “key works in the field” and much more likely swirls and eddies around works by scholars who represent our diverse intellectual commitments and social connections. In other words, the books that appear in my citations reflects the social and intellectual world in which a piece of scholars emerged and by setting it down in text, it formalizes these connections. 

The process of formalizing the connections from which ideas and arguments emerged is pretty terrifying. In a recent article of mine, I finally just broke down and admitted that some of my ideas for “slow” and “punk” archaeology came from a 12 month period when I was obsessively reading Philip K. Dick. It was perhaps not my finest moment as a scholar. 

In other cases, however, citations give us a chance to create new communities by amplifying voices who have been marginalized or making obvious social connections that inspire our thinking. Citing women, people of color, early career scholars, and scholars working outside of our field, in precarious positions, and outside of mainstream publications and media, ensures that our work reflects the diversity of our predilections as intellectual consumers. As such, our citation practices reinforces that reading is not a solitary, private, or personal act. Citing what we read put pressure on us as scholars and individuals to use our time wisely and to assert honesty and openly the world in which we live. 

Honest citation practices are essential not only because they reproduce for others the range of our intellectual commitments, but also because they offer insights into the processes of scholarly production. As someone who has not spent much time over the last 15 years at an institution with a world class library in my field, my citations undoubtedly reflect the challenges of access that I face working at my institution. At the same time, my personal commitments to open access publishing means that I tend, whenever possible, to gravitate toward open access publications, especially over the last five or six years, and my hope is that they will appear more frequently in my citations. I also suspect that my increasingly bifurcated interests in the Mediterranean and in North America will creep slowly into my scholarly work with scholars working. 

Finally, (and this should be filed in the “why we can’t have nice things” box) the growing interest in metrics and citation tracking (as manifest in such things as the i10 and H indices) means that our citation practices can and will be monetized. While the reach of these tools into the humanities has remained relatively modest, anyone who checks out their Google Scholar profile from time to time knows that our work is being tracked in the citations of other and quantified. In fact, many major academic presses now not only track scholarly citation, but also social media references to scholarly work.

That our invasive assessocratic overlords will use these indices to evaluate the “impact” of our work means that citations are not only road maps to our own intellectual habits but also assemblages of data that can be monetized and assessed. Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s remarkably honest assessment of their own citation practices in Data Feminism is commendable, but it also offers a view into a chilling future where who we cite (and by extension who we read) and who cites us (and where we are read) produce quantifiable data that can reward and promote (as well as marginalize and penalize) our scholarly community.

On some level, of course, we’ve known this. If you write a book and no one reviews or cites it, it probably isn’t a very significant book. We also have developed social media habits, such as not including links or providing screen captures, for example, that allow us to avoid giving monetizable page views to work that we seek to criticize as offensive, irresponsible, or bad. Scholarly habits have lagged in this category meaning that scholars who write problematic, offensive, or irresponsible works the require firm and direct critique can continue to benefit from this critique in their scholarly indices. In the most egregious cases, of course, the problematic nature of poor scholarship will tend to wash out the benefit of widespread citation, and perhaps in less problematic cases, the citation of challenging works is simply part of the academic conversation. At the same time, thinking about who we read and who we have to cite when we write are matters of discernment not only as we measure our own energies and commitments, but also as the ambivalent reach of academic big data practices reinforce the idea that all citation is good citation.

If there’s ever been a time to think critically about who we cite. It is now.

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