Two geographers say that academics should stop citing so much work by straight white men

My spirits continue to sink as I see both the Washington Post and the New York Times move toward the Authoritarian wing of Leftism. The latest—and this really hurts—is a piece in the “Speaking of Science” column called “Why these professors are warning against promoting the work of straight, white men“, written by general assignment reporter Kristine Phillips.

Phillips’ column describes (uncritically) a new paper in Gender, Place & Culture by Carrie Mott and Daniel Cockayne, professors of geography at Rutgers and the University of Waterloo, respectively (reference and free link below). The paper’s thesis should be obvious from just the title of Phillips’s piece: that marginalized people—women, gays, blacks, and the like—are even further marginalized when their academic papers aren’t cited as often as they should be, denying them the career advancement that comes with professional recognition. The problem is laid out in Mott and Cockayne’s torturous first paragraph, a veritable dictionary of postmodern buzzwords and tropes:

Scholarship in critical feminist and anti-racist geographies has increasingly focused on the exclusion, discrimination, and marginalization of particular groups or individuals within the discipline itself. This scholarship has examined how knowledge is reproduced and remembered (Monk 2012; Staeheli and Mitchell 2005); how histories are narrated and by whom (Monk 2006; Peake 2015; Peake and Sheppard 2014); and on the neoliberal logics, transformations of reason in institutions of higher education that conflate political and market values, which structure performance review, hiring and promotional practices, and impact evaluation (Berg 2001; Mountz et al. 2015; Pain, Kesby, and Askins 2011). Building upon bell hooks’ (1984) conception of the ‘neo-colonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,’ we use the term ‘white heteromasculinism’ to refer to an intersectional system of oppression describing on-going processes that bolster the status of those who are white, male, able-bodied, economically privileged, heterosexual, and cisgendered. Geographers have addressed discrimination and exclusionary authoritative white heteromasculinism at conferences (Domosh 2014a), in research (Faria and Mollett 2016; Louis 2007; Mott and Roberts 2014), and in everyday academic spaces (Joshi, McCutcheon, and Sweet 2015; Mahtani 2006, 2014; Peake and Kobayashi 2002; Sanders 2006). This important research has drawn direct attention to the continued underrepresentation and marginalization of women, people of color, and those othered through white heteromasculine hegemony by focusing on the politics of knowledge and how particular voices and bodies are persistently left out of the conversation altogether.`

Now I haven’t read the entire paper in detail, as even I have limits on my ability to tolerate this kind of writing, but I at least get what they’re saying.  The authors cite data showing that work by women and non-Anglophones is cited less frequently than is work by English speakers and men. I suppose there are several possible reasons for this, including bigotry, but it’s hard to discern what’s at play because one must somehow discern a paper’s importance and visibility (i.e., where it was published) to judge whether it should have been cited, and that’s nearly impossible.

As for citing papers by Anglophones, well, at least in science English—for good or bad—has become the international language of communication, and how many of us read more than one or two languages, anyway?

Now insofar as minorities are underrepresented in academia as a whole, that also needs to be examined. Are there inequalities of opportunity, so that some people have unequal access to academia because of things like poor schooling or unequal treatment in schools? If so, that must be rectified. But if citation differences reflect inequality in outcomes, so that with equal opportunities different groups will still gravitate to different areas and produce different relative amounts of work, then should we try to ameliorate those differences by citing all groups more equally, regardless of the discipline and the importance of the work?

That, apparently, is what the authors recommend: examine carefully who you’re citing to ensure that you’re citing more work by members of marginalized groups. As Phillips says in her piece (my emphasis):

The authors offer what they describe as practical strategies for fellow geographers who work in a largely male-dominated discipline. According to the American Association of Geographers, men and women account for 62 percent and 38 percent of its members, respectively.

One of them: Scholars should read through their work and count all the citations before submitting their work for publication, and see how many people of diverse backgrounds — women, people of color, early-career scholars, graduate students and non-academics — are cited.

“Today, the field is more diverse, but this diversity is largely represented by earlier career scholars. Citing only tenured, established scholars means that these voices are ignored, especially when it is well-known that today’s brutally competitive academic job market continues to privilege the white heteromasculinist body,” they wrote.

Editors and reviewers also can act as watchdogs of sort by scrutinizing a scholar’s body of citation, they argued.

If women are cited less often than men in geography, for instance, could that be because only 38% of geographers are women? Are they cited less than 38% of the time? And if that’s the case, why? Are they on average younger, just now overcoming barriers of diminishing sexism? Is a lot of the work cited “classic” work in geography, work done when women were even scarcer in academia? And how do we overcome such inequities? After all, there’s only one Darwin, and he happened to be an old cisgendered white man.

To me, the solution lies not in policing your citations (Is this guy white or black? Is he straight or gay? A graduate student?) and setting some goal for citing minorities—a goal that would likely force you to rewrite your paper—but to ensure that from the start all groups are given equal opportunities for academic achievement. My own view is that in science we still have a way to go in ensuring that underrepresented groups are given equal opportunity, but it’s also my experience that, among work that is published in the field, important work is nearly always recognized regardless of who published it. The solution is not making your “literature cited” section into a vehicle for affirmative action, but in making science equally open and welcoming to all from the very first time it’s taught in school.

What bothers me almost as much as this virtue-flagging publication is the Washington Post’s decision to publicize it (without critical comment) in a science column. What was the point? I’m sure it wasn’t to mock that article!

h/t: Watson


Mott, C. and  D. Cockayne (2017). Citation matters: mobilizing the politics of citation toward a practice of ‘conscientious engagement’, Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2017.1339022


  1. DrBrydon
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    No words.

    • Tom
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

      • Zach
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Do not use buzzwords when you write
        Good prose should burn and rave at what they convey
        Rage, rage against the ideologue’s fight

        Though good activists don’t know what’s right
        Because their aims remain humble they
        Do not use buzzwords when they write

        • DrBrydon
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

          Is that original?

          • Zach
            Posted July 17, 2017 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

            Well, no. I riffed on the poem that Tom referenced. The specific words are mine though, yes. Thought I’d address the topic at hand.

            • DrBrydon
              Posted July 18, 2017 at 9:02 am | Permalink

              I like it.

              • Zach
                Posted July 18, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink


        • Tom
          Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          Bob Dylan?
          Dylan Thomas?
          Dylan from the Magic Roundabout?

  2. Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I work in cancer research in Seattle. This I regard as doing science. More than 50% of the scientific staff here, at all levels from LabTech to PIs, are oppressed by their two x chromosomes. “Science” may or may not have a problem with equal opportunity, but it doesn’t look that way from the cheap seats in biomedical research.

    As for the paper cited, I will not play their game. I am published and of course the papers have have many citations. I don’t recall – even once- citing any because of who wrote them. ASAIK, my colleagues are the same; we cite those whose work inform our own. Dangly bits and melanosome concentrations are simply irrelevant.

    • eric
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      I mostly agree.

      However it occurs to me that whenever a publication has many authors, the decision of who gets to be lead can easily end up reinforcing sex and probably race inequities, since right now white males are generally over-represented at the top of many scientific fields.

      That problem will hopefully work itself out in time, but I think an easy and ethical way of helping the solution along is to encourage senior professors to let their post-docs and grad students get first authorship on important publications where they (the junior folk) do most of the work.

      Most good professors already do this, and have done it for decades. But I suspect there are still many holdouts, professors who squeeze a little more credit for themselves than they deserve from their students’ work.

      Ensuring that post-docs and grad students get first authorship for work that is mostly theirs to begin with would “naturally” solve some of the problem of white male over-representation, as the younger generation of scientists is likely much more diverse than the older ones.

  3. Simon Hayward
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Were one to tally citations, who do you count? First and last authors only? Everyone? That’s a lot of names (a manuscript might have 40 citations each with 4 or 5 co-authors), sure one would know many of the authors personally, but by no means all. The names might, or might not, give information on the sex of the person. They tell you next to nothing about skin color and precisely nothing about sexual orientation. I’m too old to do anything except cite what I think are the important papers relevant to the study at hand.

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Not to mention:

      ” women, people of color”

      Sometimes, if one appeals to tradition, one can tell (*) whether or not an author is a woman. As for their racial background – sometimes, if the name is right. But in general I have no idea! How does one do this then? (Even if it were desirable, which is severely debatable.)

      (*) Sometimes wrongly. Hilary Putnam and Dana Scott have both been mistaken for women based on their names, for example, and shouldn’t we be open to “non-traditional” combinations here too?

  4. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Jerry, women long failed to “make the grade” for a position in the orchestras until candidates were forced to play behind screens. Unconscious stigmas are everywhere. One should be aware of them, without making fetishes of it.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      And if the stigmas are unconscious, how can you BE aware of them? Look, I’m not saying that all science is free from bias, what I’m saying is that combing citations is not where we should put our energy to fix it. I’m in favor, as I said, of ensuring equality of opportunity, not guaranteeing equality of outcome.

      • Gavin
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        One way to become conscious of unconscious bias is by taking a moment, once in a while, to look at your actions to see if they show evidence of a bias that you aren’t aware of. Looking through your citations to see if you think they represent the diversity of people who are contributing to your field seems like one practical, objective way to do that. Maybe you will be satisfied with the diversity of your citations, and you can focus on something else. Another person might look at their citations and realize that they have subconsciously shortchanged some people. Maybe they aren’t giving credit where it is due, or maybe they are only looking at work from “established names” and need to read more. Now they have identified a bias and have a metric for working on it. Great! You don’t need it? Fine, don’t do it. Put your energy somewhere else. But saying this is not where “we” should be putting our energy seems unproductive. There are probably people out there who certainly should be putting their energy into this. Maybe checking their citations will help them realize that. It’s one little thing. Certainly there are many other things to do. Many of those are also little things. Little things matter.

        • Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

          Here is one of 55 references in a recently published paper that I am a co-author on;

          “Burga, R. A., Nguyen, T., Zulovich, J., Madonna, S., Ylisastigui, L., Fernandes, R., & Yvon, E. (2016). Improving efficacy of cancer immunotherapy by genetic modification of natural killer cells. Cytotherapy, 18(11), 1410-1421.”

          Please indicate to me the gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and any relevant disabilities for each of these authors.

          After you do that, if you believe I have used unconscious bias to cite the original, please indicate which other work I should have cited in its place in the manuscript. Be sure to check the authors of those you recommend.

          There are 54 others I’d like you to check after this one.

    • bowneps
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      I’ve always thought orchestras set a great example for the rest of us. But isn’t citing without paying any attention to the gender of the authors equivalent to having the candidate play behind a screen?

      • Jeff Rankin
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        The current breakdown will never be good enough. There’s always another demographic that’s being “marginalized”. That’s part of the game.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink


      • Heather Hastie
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        I’d have thought so too. It’s a while since I wrote an academic paper, but I usually had no idea of any of the personal attributes of those I cited. All I was interested in was the quality of the work, or at least my perception of its quality. I think that’s all that should matter.

        The problem is in getting into the field in the first place, and that’s where the effort to change things should be.

        I’d hate for someone to be citing anything I did just to make up their quota of a particular type of person. I’d find that hugely embarrassing.

    • fizziks
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      Aren’t these stupid authors arguing for the -opposite- of playing behind the screen? They want everyone to be evaluated by demographic characteristics not quality of work.

  5. Bill Shipley
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Leaving aside the justification or morality of the recommendations of these authors, it is impossible to follow them even if one wanted to do so (which, personally, I wouldn’t). Consider their own paper:

    Mott, C. and D. Cockayne (2017). Citation matters: mobilizing the politics of citation toward a practice of ‘conscientious engagement’, Gender, Place & Culture

    Now, is “C. Mott” a male or a female? Is “D. Cochayne” gay or straight? What are the ethnicities of either one? Are either of these authors graduate students, senior researchers or neither?

    • DrBrydon
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I am sure this information could be had via the agency of your neighborhood committee or Blockleiter.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      That was my reaction, too. How on Earth would you possibly determine sex, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, race/ethnicity, religion, disability, etc from a first initial and last name? Are authors now expected to include such information so that we may begin discriminating along those lines?

      • Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        Well, to be fair… within one’s own discipline, the genitalia and skin color of many of the initials in paper titles is known (or assumed) to others within the field. Much less so for things like ethnicity, religion, orientation, etc.

  6. Historian
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    It is possible that this article was written for the purpose of gaining “street cred” with fellow activists as well as a means to padding their resumes with the ultimate goal of being awarded a promotion. I wonder if they know or care that they have become laughingstocks to everybody else except their small cadre of fellow zealots.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Yep. It’s just virtue signaling. I find it troubling that news media have picked it up and reported on it without any of the derision it deserves.

  7. Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Such bias is best addressed on the macro level (in the way Jerry was suggesting), rather than by deeming every supposed “micro-offense” a sin and attacking the offender.

  8. Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Science is overall moving towards models with a higher explanatory power, and scientists will want to cite what gets them farther towards that goal. This makes it implausible that certain people are purposefully cited less often, based on superficial criteria that are in addition also obscure, or may need additional sleuthing to uncover.

    However, it all makes sense for the postmodernistically-afflicted: since explanatory power is only accepted in a limited capacity, there is a shortage of criteria for why one paper is cited over another. From that view, a scientist loses little, or nothing, when she cites work from a member of a (so-called) “minority”, for it is just as good as that paper from the white straight (jewish?) man that might be deemed superior within the oppressive patriarchial cis-het white colonial narrative.

    As an added ideological benefit, it sets in motion the well-known dynamic where the ideologically likeminded would stress their “minority” and special snowflake status, as it happened in the “safe space” woke culture, for that would become a chief reason for being worthy of being cited. This in turn would introduce “identity” as a major criterium, and give it legitimacy, which is what these people want.

    The problem here are fascistic, racistic attitudes of the postmodernists and their projections. They should have the guts and spell out that they dislike “Jewish Physics”, done in the interest of raking in the Shekels by oppressing everyone else (especially the oppressed Muslims).

    It’s time to recognize postmodernists not as left wing, but as ultra right wing, identitarian, obsessed with racial and cultural purity, and with an authoritarian desire to control from top-down, with elements of a palingenesis built into their belief system (thus qualifying as fascists proper). As a plus, it’s founded also on the ideas of the literally card carrying-Nazi Martin Heidegger. As far as fascism can be modernized, they fit the bill perfectly.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      It’s time to ditch the right/left dichotomy, and adopt Popper’s open/closed society dichotomy.

    • fizziks
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      This has shades of the no true Scotsman fallacy.

  9. Kevin
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    People who generalize blame using poor logic accomplish little.

    By these people’s logic:
    Jackson Pollock was a drunk. Drunks are bad. Pollock’s paints should all be burned.

    • Colin McLachlan
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 4:38 am | Permalink

      To be honest, I can’t say I’d lose much sleep if they were 🙂

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:49 am | Permalink

        Lol, + 1 !

  10. Mark R.
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Torturous first paragraph indeed. I’m currently reading Pinker’s The Sense of Style and that paragraph illustrates all the pitfalls of academic writing; the last sentence is simply horrible. These authors need a lesson in classic prose.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    A full paragraph of jargon and gibberish with nary a decent action verb to be found in the whole sordid mess.

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and then there is the nominalization (zombie noun) “othered”. Gag!

    • Richard
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      On one project, I received the following gem from a member of the team in another company with whom we were working:

      “The recursive checks up the object type semi-lattice slow down checks for types not in the working schema”.

      After ten minutes of trying to parse this sentence, a colleague and I finally located the verb (it’s “slow”).

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 2:00 am | Permalink

        That’s hilarious!

        • Richard
          Posted July 18, 2017 at 6:13 am | Permalink

          Yes, we thought so too. 🙂

          The sad thing was that once we had identified the verb the rest of it fell into place, and the sentence made perfect sense. Still, that’s more than can be said of most of this pomo drivel.

          • Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

            At least software design (which seems to be the field here – or maybe research into algorithms) has decent background knowledge. I’m not sure these geographers-gone-wild have a field like that.

            (Traditional geography does, but …)

  12. Paul Britton
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if this is why previous civilisations collapsed? Tying themselves in knots bikeshedding.

    Shouldn’t we instead be focussing on things that really matter, such as….

    …given that Climate Change/Global Warming is happening/will happen, (anthropomorphic or otherwise), what measures do we as a species need to take to survive, given that we can’t ‘push the rock back up the hill’, and stop it.

    • Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I had to google “bikeshedding”. It’s apropos.

      • Paul Britton
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        Only just learnt it myself…. it seemed highly appropriate in this context…

      • Craw
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        Great word! It fills a felt need.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 2:04 am | Permalink

        Yes, a concept we definitely needed a term for! Thanks, Paul!

  13. BobTerrace
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Someone should cite something for what is said and not for who said it or for who those people are, especially in a field like geography, where those personal attributes should be irrelevant.

    That first paragraph of M. and C. above is laughable. Half of the words used show bias and obfuscate the intent. I would grade it no higher than C-.

    • Richard
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 3:06 am | Permalink

      And isn’t citing something for who said it verging on Argument From Authority, anyway?

  14. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    When they came for Larry Summers (for asking very similar questions) I said nothing…

  15. Derek Freyberg
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Aldo Matteucci (#4) and Gavin do make a fair point: if women/minorities/name your preferred group are underrepresented in citations, maybe it’s worth looking for a reason, and maybe there’s a solution.
    Perhaps “if you have two possible citations of equal plausibility of use, pick the one by the woman, or at least make sure you don’t systematically pick the man” – a sort of affirmative action of citation – would be reasonable advice. But that’s asking a lot of a researcher who has put his/her effort into researching and writing an article and picking appropriate citations to support/explain the points made in it.
    And, let’s face it, if this is a problem in geography, why write about it in Gender, Place & Culture using language like “critical feminist and anti-racist geographies” unless you’re just virtue-signaling? How about a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Geographical Society, where people who are professional geographers might see it and think about it? This is one aspect of such writing that I find particularly annoying – it’s not addressed to the the people who might be in a position to do something about it, it’s addressed to a cheering squad.

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      In my fields one generally sites (except in an “e.g.”) the relevant work – there’s not really any discretion as to authors. (Maybe a little as to whether one does the book that summarizes a bunch of papers or the original papers or both, but …)

  16. Posted July 17, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    The scourge of social geography continues to flail about in unrepentant and arbitrary rage. I continue to be convinced that this is one of the most useless, and in fact actively destructive, areas of academia.

    The fact that the NYT and WaPo see fit to publish such stuff in a science section is an indication of both how poorly journalists and the general public understand what qualifies as science, and how well social geographers have managed to capitalize on this misunderstanding. This misunderstanding comes in no small part from the scientific cache that is attached to the term “geography”, I think.

    In the real sciences, there is often not a choice of what research to cite; i.e. you cite the research that is relevant to the question you are trying to address. Domain experts work on a universe of different problems and there is often a clearly defined history of specific researchers who share your particular domain interests. You cite these people’s work and construct a solution (hopefully) to the scientific problem. In social geography however, there is “narrative”, code for self-involved pontification, and a notable lack of objectively defined research questions. Because of that, there probably are a great many choices of who to cite, as no one seems to be building a body of knowledge toward answering any questions in particular.

    • improbable
      Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      “capitalize on this misunderstanding” is exactly correct, but “arbitrary” it is not.

      This isn’t a mistake, or poor writing skill, or a failure of reason about the world.

      It’s something closer to a hostile takeover. A skirmish in a war, in which those interested in social preening and positioning and one-upmanship would like to take over the field (and jobs, offices, conferences, courses, funding) from those actually interested in the subject.

      Isn’t geography about soil, rivers, railways and suchlike? The sort of people so interested in such things that they’ll devote their lives to reading about them in dusty basements… how much chance would they stand in a war of competitive cocktail parties & hostile gossiping? If these are your skills, then making sure that the high-profile debate is about citing the “marginalized” is an excellent strategy.

      • Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        That’s physical geography – human geography also exists, but I have seen for years that it too got invaded by pomos.

  17. Douglas Anderson
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    White-heteromasculinismphobic garbage

  18. Posted July 17, 2017 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    I think these recommendations, even if one were to take them seriously as opposed to merely citing whatever is important regardless of the background of the authors, may perhaps work in areas like much of the humanities where there are one or two authors per article.

    But what about the ones where there are regularly 7-12 lab members plus overseas collaborators on an article? Do they count as “0.28 Chinese, 0.42 female” in the tally or do they all get counted as zero because the senior author was a white guy?

    Also, how would I even know which biologists are straight? Does a Brazilian scientist count as “white” in this context? Do they expect that every author name on a journal website comes handily with photo and info on sexual orientation, US-compatible ethnicity categories, gender and suchlike?

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:41 am | Permalink

      Perhaps they send a letter to everyone:

      “Dear Fellow Scientist,

      Please let me know your if you are male/female/LGBTQ/black/white/PoC so I can decide whether or not I should cite your work.

      Yours insincerely,

      Prof. Richard Head PhD”

      Or perhaps they don’t do much citing themselves: who needs to cite anything to engage in “argumentum ad rectum”?

  19. Jonathan Dore
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand. The sources you cite surely depend on the argument you make and the previous research that is relevant to yours. You can’t control who performed that research.

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