The Strange World of “Citational Justice”

Woke scholars value everything but knowledge.

The latest fresh hell is citational justice. Which is quotas for footnotes. Now we’re supposed to track the group identity of the authors we cite and make sure there are lots of blacks, women, and People from the Global South among them. There are already articles, workshops, library guides, and position statements on the subject. There isn’t yet an Office of Citational Justice, but a professional bureaucracy will doubtless soon supplement the mandated do-it-yourself efforts.

There’s no end of word-salad articles by advocates of citational justice describing what it is and attempting to justify it. Far better than such impenetrable jargon is a skeptical piece by an anonymous writer in Areo. That author, in a low-key fashion, makes clear that citational justice would require Rube Goldberg machinery to implement. Even its advocates, listing obstacles to citational justice, make clear that the Areo argument is well-founded:

• What about white-passing Black folks? Determining how an individual identifies can be difficult.

• If you want to cite trans folks, is this a form of outing? Do you include dead names, as publishing has not prioritized removing dead names?

The Areo author helpfully analyzes citational justice within three categories: citational fairness (the contention that biases have reduced the number of footnotes granted to members of certain identity groups), distributive justice (“equity” by identity group, applied to footnotes), and retributive justice (the notion that people who offend progressive sensibilities should not be footnoted). The last is the purest expression of spite, as the Woke seek to unperson any scientist who commits thoughtcrime. Citational justice as a means of retribution is manifest barbarism.

But why bother about citations, anyway?

Citations have become a leading measure of academic value and hence of all the worldly goods of academics.Citations have become a leading measure of academic value and hence of hiring, tenure, promotion, and all the worldly goods of academics. For this state of affairs, we must thank Eugene Garfield, who devised the “impact factor” metric, based on citations, as a measure of an article’s value. We also must thank the computer revolution that makes it possible to quantify impact factor with some degree of accuracy and hence to use it in determining the relative merit of academics. Impact factor metrics affect the sciences more than the humanities, but they afflict both.

Plenty of non-woke scholars criticize impact factor as a metric of academic value. Citation is an imperfect proxy for quality, and it has created a permanent incentive for scholars to game the system by maximizing their citations. Nevertheless, it has become a basic measure, since the impersonal and quantifiable is easier to apply and justify than any qualitative assessment of merit. The citational justice advocates are certainly correct that citations have become the royal road to success in academia. The argument that any individual deserves this good because of identity group membership is as specious here as anywhere else, but the Woke grifters know their own interests.

To this sheer self-interest, we may add the Foucaultian and Latourian belief that knowledge is power, adhering to the knowledge creators, rather than the crystallization of the search for truth. Hence the offhand declaration that “who and how we cite has implications on how truth is defined in various disciplines and can further marginalize those already less included in dominant discourse.” The desire for citational justice is bound up with an assumption that there is citational power to determine the categories of knowledge, as well as all the consequent effects to impose power. Citation in this scheme is only a tool in the search for power.

Citational justice makes a certain perverse sense within these presumptions of Foucaultianism and impact factor. But these presumptions are very far from those with which scholars originally began to adopt the citational form. We should remind ourselves—what was the original point of citations?

Citations are a means to make possible the joint search for truth by a far-flung community of scholars. A citation is partly a means of self-discipline—a requirement that the scholar prove to himself, as much as to his audience, that he is not speaking arbitrarily, but that his arguments are grounded both in primary sources and in the arguments and discoveries of his professional colleagues. But it is a self-discipline that also recognizes the value of his fellow searchers-after-truth, whom the scholar acknowledges to his peers and to future scholars.

The desire for citational justice is bound up with the assumption that there is citational power.Charles Bazerman puts it nicely, that while citations do not eliminate scholarly competition, which acts as a spur to the search for truth, they integrate it into a scholarly community. Citations are an essential component of joint inquiry into truth, by scholars who are devoted to their own inquiries and who feel affection and duty toward their fellow inquirers. Academic professionalization can be proverbially rigid, especially the ritualistic comment that you need to familiarize yourself with the literature, but the purpose is to acquaint a novice practitioner with the work of the community devoted to inquiry into a particular subject matter.

The willingness to undertake such a process is certainly a more reasonable qualification for membership in a scholarly community than is membership in an identity group.

Impact factors, Foucaultianism, citational justice—all of these acids dissolve the presumptions of intellectual self-discipline, devotion, affection, and duty that animate true citation and scholarly inquiry. The Woke seek to ruin the scales of meritocracy by forcing quotas into every aspect of assessment and betray the scholarly spirit by degrading the search for truth into the search for power. Yet every meritocratic system can be gamed; every scientist who conducts his career to secure grants and prestige rather than to seek truth also has betrayed the scholarly spirit.

We must remove the incentives for meritocratic gamesmanship by removing research entirely from the requirements for most university faculty and focusing their professional incentives on teaching and university service. Most professors in the United States make their living credentialing semi-literates for white-collar jobs; research proficiency is not necessary for that work. Divorce research from job security and advancement for the vast majority of professors, and we reduce the importance of impact factor, citations, and citational justice. A small number of professionals, not necessarily teaching faculty, can do the research, funded by private foundations and the government. The search for citations will still be a problem—but a much lesser one.

Or perhaps a smaller reform might work. But so long as citations are the coin of the realm, we will face self-righteous grifters who demand the coin as a matter of justice. Only a structural change of incentives will force the grifters to look for new marks elsewhere.

David Randall is the research director of the National Association of Scholars.