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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