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.