Citation Practices

In a recent post about citing papers on the web, Ross Cameron drew the following conclusion.

I’m tempted to think that if you put a paper up on the web, that’s to put it in the public domain, and it’s no more appropriate to place a citation restriction on such a paper than it is on a paper published in a print journal. I’m even tempted to think that conference presentations can be freely cited; i.e.that I shouldn’t have to seek Xs permission to refer in one of my papers to the presentation X gave.

The particular issue here is what to do about papers that the author posts and says at the top “Please don’t quote or cite”. (You occasionally see ‘don’t circulate’ as well, which is a little odd.) I’m not sure how common these notes are outside philosophy, but they are pretty common on philosophy papers posted on people’s websites. Now on the one hand, there is something to be said for following people’s requests like this.

On the other hand, as Ross notes, the requests can lead to annoying situation. One kind of case is where the reader notices an important generalisation of the paper’s argument. Another case is where the conclusion of the paper supplies the missing premise in an interesting argument the reader is developing. Either way, the reader is in a bit of a bind.

I think the main thing to say about these situations is that writers shouldn’t put such requests on their papers.

When you circulate a paper, either informally or by publishing it somewhere, two kinds of good things can happen. First, good things can happen to you, either by people offering you suggestions for how to improve the paper, or increasing their opinion of you because it is such a good paper. Second, good things can happen to the profession, because your paper helps advance the field in certain ways. Given the dynamic nature of research work, that advance consists largely in improvements that we see in other papers that cite the work. Now if you circulate a paper but bar citation of it, you’re basically getting the good consequences for you, without allowing there to be good consequences for the field. (Or, at the very least, you are getting the good consequences now while delaying the good consequences for the field.) This seems, to put it mildly, unjustifiably selfish, and it’s very hard to see a moral justification for it.

It’s also hard to see what exactly the costs of being cited are. It would be annoying to have a journal publish an article critiquing yours before yours came out. But unless you are rather famous, and the paper has already become quite well known, journals aren’t going to publish such articles.

A better reason perhaps might be that if mistakes in the paper are spotted, you want the chance to fix the paper before it goes into print. But other people citing the paper doesn’t prevent that. There isn’t any obligation on you to publish the first version of a paper you post to a website. So if you say p, and someone else writes something that shows you are wrong, but you can say p’ instead which does just as well in the context of the paper, you of course can say just that. It might be a little odd for the citer if your published paper doesn’t make the mistake that they cited it for, but that’s just a risk people take when citing papers off people’s websites.

There is, as was noted in the comments thread over at Ross’s, a rather tricky scope question when someone leaves such a request. Presumably it is OK to quote/cite the paper in some forums, e.g. on an email to a friend, or while txting. In practice, few people would say that you shouldn’t quote or cite it on a blog. (That’s what blogs do, right, they cite stuff that appears on the internet.) What’s really just being ruled out is citing it in print. But it is a little odd that to think that it’s OK to cite a paper on a high-profile blog, but not in a low-profile journal. Some situations in academic life are just odd, so that’s not a reason to ignore the request. But it does make it even stranger why someone would request this.

One last thought. I didn’t understand the ‘even’ in Ross’s comment about conferences. I’ve always been under the impression that presentations at conferences are in every respect public performances. What you say there can be used to establish priority, and so it certainly should be citable. I thought this wasn’t even controversial actually, but maybe the younger generation are thinking of confernces as being something like blog posts; things that shouldn’t be mentioned in formal company.

4 Replies to “Citation Practices”

  1. I used to follow the custom of begging to be cited or quoted, but that looked desperate. Here is a concern that I think is legitimate. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless has had papers rejected (apparently) on the grounds that the paper’s argumentative strategy is similar to work published after their work was submitted for review. On the off chance that B has had to cite A’s unpublished paper to develop B’s argument and B is lucky enough to get into print before A does, A’s work, which was apparently instrumental to B’s work, will never reach the presses. This is a big deal if A is not a big deal. A’s work serves as an unpublishable enabler but might have been published if only someone hadn’t relied on their work to further their own writing. Being cited by another isn’t exactly something to put on the vita.

    I really can’t see what’s wrong with saying that you’d prefer others not to use your work in ways that might make it harder for your work to make it into print even if you are the sort of person who’s trolling for feedback on the interweb.

  2. One thing we have to bear in mind is what the effect would be on likely levels of circulation of unpublished work if the established opinion were that it\\‘s selfish to request that people not cite it without permission. As Clayton stresses, it\\‘s a big deal to have your work rendered unpublishably obsolete because someone else has cited your unpublished paper, especially if you are at an early career stage where getting publications is crucial. So if you don\\‘t feel you can circulate stuff but request that people not cite without permission, what are you going to do? Often, I imagine, not circulate it at all. But early-career people often have much (maybe most) to gain from circulating their papers and getting comments. I don\\‘t want them to feel they can\\‘t get that benefit because they\\‘ll have to either look selfish or else risk losing publication opportunities.

    I should also say that I think there are many benefits to the philosophical community at large from having unpublished stuff circulating which do not depend on its being freely citeable in published papers. E.g.: keeping in touch with what people are up to, future planning about work you might like to do if certain currently-unpublished things should later appear in print, and of course good old-fashioned intrinsic interest. I don\‘t really think it\‘s fair, therefore, to say that people who ask that permission be sought for citations are reaping benefits without conferring any.

  3. I’m one of those who posts papers in progress including such a request. I think that so far in this thread the point has been missed. When I make such a request, it’s not that I don’t want to be cited. (I certainly do! And in almost every scenario I’d grant permission.) It’s rather that I’d prefer to asked first. (Similarly, if I wanted to cite another’s paper which included this request, I would just ask). The reason I’d prefer to be asked is (a) that I’d rather not be put on record as having claimed something really stupid, so I reserve the right to refuse permission, (b) I may have an updated version that I would prefer to have quoted instead, and© this gives me the opportunity to explain or defend myself, if the paper-in-progress doesn’t do this well enough, and it also gives me the opportunity to explain (and request acknowledgment) if my position has shifted.

  4. For the record, as a result of the various discussions this prompted around the web, my view is now the following:

    Adding that request at the top of your paper is permissible provided that there’s a general convention that permission will be given provided the reader wants to cite from the latest version.

    However: if what people intend to convey by ‘please don’t cite without permission’ is ‘please check with me that you have the latest version before citing’ then I still think it would just be easier for everyone if they simply said that!

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