Y u no cite me?


Two uncomfortable, if not disconcerting, realizations of academic publishing is that (1) people don’t read, or (2) if they do read and write, they don’t cite relevant or appropriate work. A hard-working academic’s day can be quickly sent down the dark hole of despair or rage face when reading a manuscript or publication that doesn’t properly cite relevant work or (ahem) one’s own seminal work. Worse, if cited, the work may be cited wrongly, or the minor points override the major takeaways in subsequent research and citations. In these situations, the imperative that one should contribute to standing on the shoulders of giants calls to mind the bleak image of a whale fruitlessly calling out for colleagues in an endless sea.

More whale-calling, channeling Andy Abbott, below the fold…

While noodling around for cites on bounded rationality, I ran into Andy Abbott’s (2010) take on the phenomena of non- or inappropriate citations, which he sorts into several categories of ignorance. Using his own The Systems of Professions as a reference, Abbott examines Wikipedia’s citations in the entry on professions, as well as academic publications’ citations of his work. He notes that whereas the Wikipedia entry on professions does cite several seminal texts, it does not cite his work, and its content and editing rehashes theoretical ground that experts have rejected decades ago. Deeming this account at the level of an undergraduate paper, he notes that the entry’s authors “have no clue even how to find that literature or how to identify it when they run across it, although it could be found and identified by a person with standard library skills in an hour or two in any library that has access to the Web of Science, JSTOR, and the Annual Review series” (180). He concludes that the article reflects a “group of people that is more committed to having a debate than to finding a conclusion” and that the debate concerns “personal identity, not a problem in social theory or sociological analysis” (180). In short, Abbott concludes that such amateur authors lack the ability and willingness to adequately synthesize known work.*

As for other academics citing his work, Abbott counts up those which he deems as appropriately citing his work (about half). He identifies 10% as wrongly summarizing or quoting his work. He also characterizes a percentage of publications as citing his work ceremoniously, perhaps “to borrow the charisma” of his work or to serve as “preemptations lest I review the paper for publication and be angry at my omission” (184).

Most interestingly, he articulates the concept of “expert ignorance.” While specific facts are no longer are at the author’s grasp years after publication, the author’s increasingly stylized view of the central argument (“synthetic ignorance”) may not be readily apparent to others (186). This contribution may eventually be reworked into a larger synthesis of content by others; ignorance of what the author feels is the central contribution may allow someone to develop new notions.

Orgtheory gift of the day: using a meme generator, I’ve created the above illustration which can be shared with colleagues when you’re singing your own whale song or sharing someone else’s whale song, depending on which form of ignorance you’d like to cultivate or combat.

* My own take on this – help out such authors by directly contributing expert knowledge.


Written by katherinechen

June 27, 2013 at 8:45 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Katherine, nice post. A couple of things. First, is your “above illustration,” generated by a crazed robotic graphic designer, meant to be sent to people whom I feel (as did Andy) have wronged me?! And they will do what??!
    Second, I wanted to see how Andy’s book stacked up in the league table of all-time book citations & so looked for his Google Scholar Profile. Lo & behold, he doesn’t have one! I guess this is a subtle comment on how he really feels about the citation arms race?!


    Howard Aldrich

    June 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm

  2. We got similar results looking up all the citations to our work. 2/3 of the citations were passing or gratuitous (i.e. one in a list of “rational action theories” or “used mathematical models”), most of the rest referenced some specific claim with no reference to the larger theoretical structure. Some citations were patently wrong. Um, Abbot did not cite us as a precedent for the methodology. ;-) But then we did not use the data to make the general point he made (or you are making) about citations in general, an argument I agree with based not only on this exercise my others I have engaged in that have involved looking up citations.

    Pamela E. Oliver and Gerald Marwell (2001). “Whatever Happened to Critical Mass Theory? A Retrospective and Assessment.” Sociological Theory 19(3): 292-311.



    June 28, 2013 at 4:38 am

  3. We got similar results looking up citations to our work: 2/3 gratuitous or passing. most of the rest very narrow citations to some specific result but not the larger pattern of reasoning, some patently wrong, only a small minority providing two or more sentences engaging the actual arguments in any depth. Um, Abbott did not cite our methodological and empirical precedent, even in passing. Thus underlining the central point? To be fair, we centered our article on the handful of pieces that had used our work, not on the more general commentary on the character of citation practices and theoretical development in sociology.

    Oliver, P. E. and G. Marwell (2001). “Whatever Happened to Critical Mass Theory? A Retrospective and Assessment.” Sociological Theory 19(3): 292-311.

    (Weird, this is the second time a comment I’ve posted to orgtheory has disappeared. Going to copy it this time.)



    June 28, 2013 at 4:47 am

  4. I have to say I was slightly embarrassed of myself when I noted to an author that they should maybe build on this paper that had been published in the same journal earlier because it was integrally connected to what they were studying (that paper was, naturally, co-authored by me). I was even more embarrassed when I felt angry that they did not cite the paper despite its clear relevance and the hours of work I had put in as a reviewer trying to help them improve numerous aspects of their paper.
    Two takeaways for me were, (1) ALWAYS cite all papers reviewers suggest you to cite, (2) from the reviewer’s perspective its not (only) shameless self-publicization and citation hogging — they are actually doing real work reviewing so you might as well reward them by taking their suggestions seriously (when it doesn’t destroy your paper).
    In the end I overcame my anger at their ignorance of my great insights and congratulated the authors for a great revision.



    June 28, 2013 at 7:54 am

  5. I mean I was slightly angry (or maybe ‘annoyed’ is a better word) that they did not cite the paper after I received their revised paper…



    June 28, 2013 at 7:56 am

  6. Henri makes a good point, but the trouble with the review process is that sometimes, as an author, I don’t see the relevance AT ALL of a recommended citation. For those who have been inappropriately cited, have you ever wondered if it was the REVIEWER–not the author–that requested a citation be included due to the REVIEWER’s expert ignorance?



    June 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm

  7. Another dimension to the issue of honorific citations to previous work is the negative impact they have on the critical development of a field. In our paper on the history of resource dependence theory, Tyler Wry, Adam Cobb, and I discovered that a very large number of all the references to the work of people who founded the “resource dependence theory” perspective were honorific. We could tell that many of the authors who were citing the original work had either never read it but maybe had heard about it through secondhand sources and assumed that they knew enough about it to cite it. A consequence of mindlessly citing previous work in an honorific way is that the work never gets critically looked at again and it just continues to accumulate positive mentions, giving the false impression that people have continued to “work” on it. In fact, in the case of resource dependence theory, it pretty much stagnated. So, honorific citations to a particular piece of work can actually have a long run negative impact on the work’s legacy — and never gets to serious critical attention that it deserves.


    Howard Aldrich

    June 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm

  8. Worth noting that contra the lives and emotions of academics, “could be found and identified by a person with standard library skills in an hour or two in any library that has access to the Web of Science, JSTOR, and the Annual Review series” isn’t actually that accessible.

    I’ve cited Abbott in the past, I feel accurately (he may disagree) – however now I’m out of academia I have no possible access to Web of Science, JSTOR and the Annual Review series, so I’d be in no position to improve the wikipedia article…

    (I know JSTOR is “on the web” – but abstracts aren’t all that useful most of the time.)



    June 28, 2013 at 5:01 pm

  9. Katherine: I gotta ask, how long did it take you to find the guy for the photo?



    June 28, 2013 at 5:24 pm

  10. I agree that reviewers suggesting citations is rarely useful–unless the reviewer is stating that work x provides support/opposition for point y made by the author. There are exceptions, for instance when an author misses an entire sub-literature that would change the paper top to bottom or the consensual-most-important-study-on-that-topic-ever. But otherwise, thinking adding citations are useful is just an exercise in thinking that literature reviews are a crucial part of a study. Which they are not.



    June 28, 2013 at 5:39 pm

  11. Yeah, I’m with Cwalken. However bad authors are at appropriately identifying citations in the several months (or even years) they spent working on the paper, peer reviewers are even worse in the several hours they spent reviewing the paper. It is very rare that a citation suggested in R+R does anything more than “and a similar issue is also seen in Smith (2000).”

    Death to control freak R+Rs! Viva Sociological Science!



    June 28, 2013 at 5:46 pm

  12. “Death to control freak R+Rs! Viva Sociological Science!”

    I hear you, GR. I just resubmitted a paper where the reviewers asked for (a) collection of at least two entirely new data sets, (b) multiple intercoder reliability issues, (c) adding of sections of “hey, talk about these citations.” Arg!



    June 28, 2013 at 6:19 pm

  13. I agree with all of the above who’ve said reviewers who use the review process to promote their own work are annoying, but it’s also really annoying to be a reviewer and read a paper that purports to be doing something really novel and interesting, X, when there is already a long list of papers recently published that do X and they do it better than how it’s done in this new manuscript. When that happens I have no problem pointing out to the authors that their claims about novelty and contribution need to be scaled down a bit (and I provide the appropriate references, which they failed to do on their own). If was reading this paper as a reviewer for Soc. Science I might have omitted the list of references and just have recommended a straight up rejection.


    brayden king

    June 28, 2013 at 6:39 pm

  14. In defense of those hapless anonymous reviewers out there who are torturing all of us, Tiantian Yang and I just dealt with a set of reviews from a top journal that actually contained at least a couple of suggestions about stuff we’d overlooked that actually strengthened the paper! Who knew!? (Of course, we don’t have the final decision from the resubmission yet…)


    Howard Aldrich

    June 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm

  15. Fabio, wha, you didn’t realize that your computer camera was taking your portrait as you were reading review comments and composing your response to reviewers’ comments? Guess the model release & IRB notice about a new experimental project to make a mosaic image of everyone’s faces as they review manuscripts/read review comments got lost in the mail… I kid, I kid. The meme generator I linked above was very helpful. Perhaps these could be a new part of the reviewer comment, editor letter, and author response to reviewer comments process.
    As for the discussion about reviewers recommending citations, I usually find these helpful in contextualizing prior research, as well as understanding what people have read.
    Concerning the pitfalls of ancestor worship referenced above, in his book Writing for Social Scientists, Howie Becker has a chapter about how to write a literature review (titled “Terrorized by the Literature”) that warns against having one’s thoughts “deformed” by prior literature that some of our orgtheory readers might find helpful.



    June 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm

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