Hot take: we would all do well to lose the practice of “defensive citation” — citing excessively so that no reviewer can claim you are ignorant of the literature when you fail to cite them.

I am reading a primary research paper, not a review, and it’s got 50 citations in the first two paragraphs. There’s no need for this. I blame Goodhart’s law.

I appreciate that a number of you pushed back on this post to ask why this sort of citation practice is a bad thing.

I had a dozen answers on the tip of my tongue, but none of them felt so compelling that it would force an imagined interlocutor to come up short and immediately concede my point.

So it was good to take the time to think about why I dislike this so much.

My answer—and perhaps it's a bit of an old man yelling at a cloud stance—is that I don't see this as a purpose of citation.

Show thread

A lot of it has to do with process.

As I see it, the purpose of citation is most definitely *not* to signal in-group status by illustrating a knowledge of the perhaps insider norms of what material has to be cited in what order with what descriptors.

And the purpose of peer review should not be to gatekeep in this way, let alone to generate citations for the reviewer's CV.

I tend to think that the purpose is to record the substantive intellectual influences on a given piece of work.

Show thread

To be fair, the late Bruno Latour offers a different and more explanation that I think also has considerable merit. For Latour citation is about power; it's something that the author uses to exert leverage against the solitary reader.

"You want to dispute my claims? Then you're going to have to come for all of us. Me, and my homies lined up behind me. [18,20,23-36]."

Show thread

Either way, I guess what I don't like about defensive citation is the process that makes it necessary.

I don't see why every paper has to pretend to be a review paper just to head off gatekeeping efforts. I'd rather have a link on one good review paper than to see that you can do a google scholar search for whatever terms are in question.

Show thread

As a reader, I'd rather know the key paper that matters than get a list of papers I'll never have time to read.

You don't need to tell me that your area is a topic of increasing interest in evolutionary biology [1-11]. If it wasn't, I'd be reading something else.

Just tell me what you are going to do, based on whose prior work, and get down to business.

Show thread

@ct_bergstrom I disagree. The expert reader can skip those parts at negligible cost. The novice reader/student will have a clearer idea of the wider context and its relevance. Maybe [1-11] is just lazy, but the overall practice hurts you less than it benefits other types of readers.


@securescientist @ct_bergstrom

As one who is often a novice reader in a variety of fields, a long list of citations is far from helpful. I’m not going to read them ALL. Instead of a long flat list, if you gave it some structure—some guidance on *why* each paper is cited. Titles are not enough. And of a dozen on a particular topic, which are high-quality?

Sign in to participate in the conversation
Qoto Mastodon

QOTO: Question Others to Teach Ourselves
An inclusive, Academic Freedom, instance
All cultures welcome.
Hate speech and harassment strictly forbidden.