To Cite Or Not To Cite Your Friends

One of the things I love about my scholarly activity is reading the work of people I know and like. I tweeted about this a while ago:

And that was indeed how I felt. The people I tagged in that tweet are all people I have shared social as well as professional space with, and I would count them, more or less, as friends. But I’ve been thinking about this recently, and wondering… is it a good thing to cite your friends’ work? Or is it a form of cronyism?

Cronyism is a dirty word, hurled at politicians and others who are seen to be giving jobs to friends or relatives. Yet in the small businesses I see around me, it seems absolutely natural to give jobs to people you know and have faith in, and those are friends or family. Why would you trust a stranger with your livelihood? In normal human terms it doesn’t make sense.

Yet we’re supposed to treat people and their work equally and on merit. Even the law says so, here in the UK at least, and in many other countries too. But I’m sure plenty of my readers, like me, have tales from inside and outside academia of times when this hasn’t happened. For example, I know an IT expert, I’ll call her Jade, who was asked by a local charity to help them recruit an IT professional. The charity had about 60 staff and really needed in-house IT support. Jade worked with them to prepare a job description, person specification, and advertisement, then she helped with shortlisting and interviewing. I saw her soon after the interviews and she was fuming. ‘I don’t know why they even asked me,’ she said. ‘They took no notice of what I said, they just appointed the person they already knew. Who was not the best person for the job.’

In theory scholars should treat academic literature equally and on merit, though there are debates about what ‘equal’ means here. I regularly see – and support – calls for positive discrimination, to ensure that women, people of colour, and others who struggle to get their voices heard are cited by those with more privilege. And I try to do this. But when I am writing myself, I feel a real pull to cite work by my friends. I like spending time in their company, whether across a café table or as a reader of their work. I want to share their ideas which are often kin to my own. I feel encouraged by them; they inspire me to do my best, whether through their physical presence or their written words.

I know that I should find and read and cite writing which contradicts my own, which I disagree with. This is necessary intellectual work. I tell students how important it is, and when I do it myself I feel clever and a bit smug. But when I cite my friends I feel loving and loved, which are much nicer feelings. And I hate when I read something by a friend which I can’t cite, not because it’s poor quality (my friends don’t write bad stuff!) but because it doesn’t fit with the work I’m doing.

We can’t separate our emotion from our intellect, whether we’re interviewing people for a job, or reading scholarly writing with a view to citing it ourselves, or simply taking a walk. So maybe we should stop pretending we can make that separation, or even that it’s somehow desirable. Perhaps it’s time to give feelings and thoughts equal billing in our decision-making, and to acknowledge this in our writing and other work. Those who practise reflexivity advocate this, but I don’t remember anyone I’ve read writing about the ethical and emotional aspects of citing (or not citing) work by your friends. I had a look online and there’s very little written about this. I did find one interesting recent open access article from the field of economics, by fellow independent Steven Payson. He points out that if you cite your friends in academic journal articles, the editors are more likely to pick them as reviewers, which can work in your favour. His article also states that close friends may ‘cross an ethical line’ and game the metrics system by citing each other as much as possible for mutual gain.

These are interesting perspectives on academia, but as an independent researcher they’re not relevant for me. Also I’m working on a book, not a journal article. So I guess what I need to do is get my emotion and my intellect working in tandem. They already do, to some extent; however much I love a friend, if they write rubbish I’m not going to cite their work. Also it’s not as if I only cite my friends. But I do recognise that the pull to spend time with the written work of people I like is strong, as is the wish to cite their work. This may be skewing me away from other potentially useful sources. So I need to aim for a balance: cite my friends’ work where relevant, be sure to seek out opposing views, and cite the work of lots of people I don’t know. Especially women and people of colour. That’s what I think I’ll do. As always, though, alternative views and counter-arguments are welcome in the comments.

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6 thoughts on “To Cite Or Not To Cite Your Friends

  1. Hi Helen,
    You’ve raised an important and sensitive issue. It’s one facet of what I’ve called “academic patronage” ( I didn’t address citations but the same principles apply: there’s a tension between acting on merit and giving preferential support. As I wrote, systems based purely on merit can seem quite strange.
    Brian Martin,,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think there is another underlying thing here that might be worth pondering. To what extent is research a collective enterprise of advancing knowledge? And how does that fit with powerful competitive (and individualising) forces?

    The points you highlight from Payson are the most clear here, in that “gaming the system” only makes sense if your framing is competition. And most of the legal and social frameworks around merit are also about competition for scarce resources. We cannot escape this framing entirely. However, core academic values are NOT competitive.

    When I read what you wrote about reading (and citing) your friends and how it feels, what I see is a collective project of knowledge creation that takes place in both formal (professional) and informal ways. Your bonds of friendship have developed out of time spent together in collective professional activity. Some of that activity has resulted in co-authored books or articles, formal collaborations on funded projects, and so on. But you also develop your ideas in conversation with each other.

    Publication is a way of engaging in a more formal conversation and including those who you have not met (and who may not yet be scholars in your field). Citation is a way of acknowledging the influence of the conversations in which you are embedded. I’m not even sure what it would mean to find the “best” citations. The point of citation is to acknowledge the work that has influenced your thinking, and to put your own ideas and arguments in the context of a wider conversation.

    When reviewers suggest that your paper should cite other work, what they really mean is “This article/book would be improved by engaging with the work of X, which you should then cite.” In other words, they are saying “You should go talk to X” even if the talking is more like reading than the kind of conversation you have with your scholarly friends over dinner at a conference.

    This framing also provides a different perspective on movements to cite more women, people of colour, and other marginalised voices. That call for positive discrimination is a call to READ more work by those people. To engage in those conversations and to allow those conversations to influence your thinking and thus your analysis, arguments, etc. You do this work when you actively engage with indigenous scholars in your work on methods and research ethics, for example.

    This has got very long. I might copy my comment here and use it to write my own post on my own blog. Thank you for raising such an important issue in such a thought provoking way.

    Liked by 1 person

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