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I agree entirely.

I'll add that I don't worry about citation conferring prestige to my work--I worry about the quality of the work, and of its venue, doing that (and I've done pretty OK publication-wise!). If I come across written work with obvious citation gaps, that counts against the work's worth and "prestige" as far as I'm concerned. By contrast, I _do_ notice when the work I read points me towards work I've never heard of, and that burnishes the work in my estimation. It also makes me more likely to cite the paper pointing to such work, because it's that much more useful a resource for anyone reading up on the topic.

When I read student work, I check the list of works cited first, because that tells me a lot about the kind of paper they wrote (and whether they followed my instructions). I do the same when I referee, for similar reasons.

I recently refereed a paper with a reference list of just five items--three classic "big books" from the 1960s/70s, one paper from the mid-1990s by a major scholar, and a paper from the early 2000s by another major scholar. That's a _huge_ red flag in and of itself. When I read the paper, it turned out to be on a topic that's received a fair bit of attention in the last ten years or so, including some books and articles which have won major prizes. As a result, the paper was retreading ground already well-covered by recent work, presenting it as novel. You really can't justify ignoring all that. I guessed it was a paper submitted for a grad seminar that focused on the foundational stuff from the 60s and 70s, since that seemed the only way you'd get that kind of reference list for this topic. I recommended rejection.

I've since discovered the identity of the author, through a presentation. In fact, they're a major scholar in the field, and one of those five citations was a self-citation (it was perfectly apt, but it goes to show that the research process was worse than it looked, since that's 20% of the cited material!). IMO, that's inexcusably sloppy. Sometimes, you really are one of just a handful of people who've written on something. But you should take the time to make sure that's the case, rather than simply trusting your gut.

As for the original question, there's a balance to be struck, and it's a matter of finding your professional voice. I'll just add that you have to become adept at identifying which kinds of work and ideas need only be acknowledged (as in a reference), and which need to be engaged with in some fashion (cursorily, substantively, etc.).

Daniel Weltman

Philosophers in general cite each other much less than scholars in most other fields cite each other. This is, I think, bad, and to remedy it, most of us should be citing more (although I realize that many of the reasons people don't cite are hard to fix, like word counts in journals - I'm definitely guilty of deleting citations to more peripheral but still useful stuff because I need to get my paper under a certain word count).

We can't do this if we don't find and read the relevant stuff in the first place, which means if we do the first option that the question asker describes, we won't be heading in the right direction. Instead we should do the second option: if you're going to write about something, at some point (it doesn't have to be before you write down your own ideas) you should find out who else has said similar stuff and cite them, either by attributing the idea to them (if it turns out they thought it up first) or by describing how your view and theirs differ (if they have a similar but still distinct view).

In general, most ideas you think up are likely to have been thought up by someone earlier. Being a good researcher entails finding that stuff, or at least making an effort, rather than doing something akin to the process Marcus describes in the Einstein case. I agree with Marcus that it's not always possible to do this perfectly and that to some extent this would be fixed by a crowdsourced peer review process. Sometimes I've had peer reviewers point out relevant literature I missed, and sometimes I've done this during peer review, but having just a few reviewers helping you catch the missing stuff is very unreliable.


That really depends if you’re writing in something you have expertise in or specialized in. I’m assuming if you specialized in that area, you can recall the author(s) who wrote something similar almost instantly. Citations should be easier if you’re an expert in your subfield. But if you’re writing in a topic that is outside of your subfield, then you may struggle a lot since you can’t recall any literature you haven’t read about regarding that topic. In such a case, you might want to read more to avoid getting rejected for not engaging the literature enough.

I often find myself struggling when to cite if I’m working on a paper that is outside of my usual interest or competence. But in my usual one, I can recall relevant authors instantly. Common knowledges do not need to be cited FYI. If you keep your papers narrow, then you also wouldn’t need to worry too much about citations since you should have sufficient knowledge of the literature already.

This is one reason why I like books and papers that gives a broad and impartial literature engagement. It helps the reader to research easier and faster having secondary sources.


Great discussion here, one thing I think worth remembering and emphasizing is that, at least in philosophy publishing, the *incentives* are set up by (most) journals to *not* cite widely as well. For reasons beyond my comprehension, many journals still count references in the word count for either a hard or soft word limit. I think this is particularly harmful for philosophers doing interdisciplinary or otherwise empirically-engaged work, e.g. philosophy of psychology, moral psychology, philosophy of physics.


Thanks for the very helpful and intriguing discussion. I want to especially second Marcus's suggestion for a crowsourced peer review. I think we are not only bad in finding citations but also misread work (by obscure authors). I am certainly myself guilty. But I frequently find myself misread by others too (often not in print---my citation counts are still extremely low).

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