When should scientists cite the work of sexual harassers?

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, prominent men (and a few women) in many walks of life are being held accountable for sexual harassment and bullying (good!). Academic science is no exception; think for instance of evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala’s recent resignation from UC Irvine following a university investigation finding him guilty of serial sexual harassment.

Which raises the question of what forms accountability should take. Most obviously, there are official sanctions imposed by employers, the courts, and other institutions, such as being fired, rescinding of awards and honors, and legal sanctions. But in this post, I want to focus on one form of “unofficial” sanction that could be imposed by individuals: not citing the work of sexual harassers and others guilty of bad behavior.

There’s a lot of debate in the humanities right now over whether or when to cite the work of sexual harassers or others who’ve behaved badly (note that I link to that only for its summary of the debate; I disagree with some of the author’s opinions on the debate). In the sciences, I kind of feel like the issues are fairly straightforward, although perhaps that just shows I haven’t reflected on them sufficiently carefully. So I’m going to think out loud here. Basically, I think it comes down to the purpose of the citation:

  • If you’re writing a historical review of research on some topic, I don’t think you really have any choice but to cite the work of sexual harassers or others scientists who’ve behaved badly in some way. For instance, if you’re writing a historical review of research on X, and X was discovered by a sexual harasser, well, surely you have no choice but to cite the paper reporting the discovery of X. Right?
  • Similarly, if you have some other strong scholarly reason to cite a specific paper X, whether paper X was written by a sexual harasser seems irrelevant. For instance, in a paper I co-authored recently, we needed to cite every previous experiment on a particular topic, in order to establish that all previous experiments on that topic had produced similar results because the experiments all shared certain key features. One of those experiments was by Francisco Ayala. At the time we were writing the paper, Ayala’s sexual harassment wasn’t publicly known. But even if it had been, I don’t see how we could’ve justified not citing his paper. You can’t say that “All previous studies that did A found B” and then only cite some of the previous studies that did A. As another example, if paper X is the only one that establishes some claim, and you want to make that claim in your own paper, well, I think you have to cite paper X, no matter who wrote it.
  • But in many other contexts, researchers have choices about exactly what papers to cite, and already make those choices for all sorts of reasons. In such contexts, choosing another citation over citing a sexual harasser seems perfectly fine to me. For instance, if you’re writing a textbook, and you need an illustrative empirical example of some concept, you’ll often be spoilt for choice. Many examples would satisfy all your pedagogical goals equally well, so you can pick and choose on whatever basis you want. I don’t see anything wrong with choosing examples from people whom you consider admirable, or at least from people who haven’t behaved badly in any way you’re aware of. As another example, the first paragraphs of many ecology papers (including some of  mine) contain numerous “throwaway” citations in support of broad, familiar claims like “Human impacts are reshaping the global biosphere.” Just cite whoever you want for such claims.
  • I think that, when you have a choice about who to cite, that those choices are personal. It’s a matter of making choices you personally can live with. I say that because, in a situation in which you have a choice whether to cite paper X or paper Y, nobody besides you is likely to notice your choice, much less infer your reasons for it.

What do you think? Looking forward to learning from your comments.

p.s. This post deliberately focuses on a narrow issue, so please don’t leap to any conclusions about my views on broader issues. Personally, I often find it helpful to “work my way up” to thinking about a broad topic by first thinking about some narrow aspect of that topic. But I know that approach isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s fine with me if commenters would prefer to broaden the discussion.

8 thoughts on “When should scientists cite the work of sexual harassers?

  1. I worry that by punishing someone for their bad behavior and not citing them, you may inadvertently and unfairly punish their co-authors and collaborators who may have had no knowledge of, or may have even suffered from (e.g. the bad scientist’s students), the scientists bad behavior.

    • I guess I feel like that’s another one that just comes down to what your personally comfortable with. Like you, I don’t like the idea of punishing bad behavior in a way that harms innocent people as well. So personally, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to cite a multi-authored paper if one of the authors was a harasser. But I also feel like my choice to cite or not isn’t actually going to make even a tiny difference to anyone’s career.

    • That was my first thought too (& the junior researchers are *probably* the most likely people to have suffered at the hands of the abuser).

      People cite their H-indices and at a junior level a citation or two can make a difference to your h-index so a missing citation is likely to have a greater impact on the junior researcher’s statistics (regardless of whether the h-index is used by anyone at all).

  2. Victims of the sexual harassment are often on these papers. Not citing the paper punishes them more than the harasser. They are usually early career, in search of jobs, and have less total citations. So every citation means more to them than an established scientist on the paper.

    So they get double punishment, first they get harassed and now they get less cited!

    Unless the paper is single authored by the harasser I highly recommend people not using citations as a form of punishment.

    • I now realize I should’ve made clearer in the original post that I was thinking of papers sole-authored by the harasser (as in the example of the Ayala paper the post refers to).

      Which, given the rarity of sole-authored scientific papers these days, makes the whole topic of this post largely moot in the sciences (in contrast to the humanities and some social science fields, where sole-authored papers and books remain common).

  3. Mind if I change the subject just a little bit? 🙂
    I think I prefer to think in terms of “What sort of people to cite?” as opposed to “What sort of people not to cite?”. So, when there are plenty of choices – in writing a textbook, or the introduction of a paper with broad claims, and so on – I think it makes sense to cite underrepresented people and minorities. So, for example, to cite studies by authors from developing countries, by women, and so on. I remember how proud I fell on seeing my professor’s paper cited in Begon.

    Which brings me to another topic: What’s the goal of citing a paper? Of course the first goal is to provide support to your claims – and for this it doesn’t really matter who wrote the paper. But citations can also be used to inspire people and to show what kind of people do interesting research. So if we cite the work of sexual harassers, we may be implicitly saying that “This person did bad things, but also published good research, so having done bad things doesn’t really matter.” Similarly, if most of the references of a paper are from developed countries, someone from South America may think “If only scientists from rich countries have good research, what chance do I have?”.

    And interestingly, most of the references in my paper are from developed countries, and this is the first time I thought about this.

    Any thoughts?

    • “So if we cite the work of sexual harassers, we may be implicitly saying that “This person did bad things, but also published good research, so having done bad things doesn’t really matter.””

      Personally, I don’t interpret citations that way at all, and I hope nobody else does. I assume every citation I encounter was made for some scholarly reason. So I don’t assume anything about the citing author’s views on any other matter! Like, I sure hope nobody sees that I cited Ayala recently and infers “Jeremy Fox must not think that sexual harassment matters.” Because that inference would be completely wrong! And honestly, if somebody were to make that inference, I think they should be taught not to. Again, if you personally would rather not cite some paper because you don’t approve of the author’s behavior, and it’s a context in which you have a choice as to what papers to cite, I think that’s fine. But that’s just you making a personal choice. It’s not you acting on some principle that you are entitled to expect and assume that others will follow. I don’t think you’re entitled to expect anyone else to read your mind and infer your reasons for your citation choice. And I certainly don’t think you’re entitled to assume anything about anybody else’s reasons for their own citation choices.

      My attitude about this is much like Meghan’s and my attitude in our “work at the times that work for you” post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/work-at-the-times-that-work-for-you/. If as an academic you send an email in the evening, or show up to work at 7 am, or whatever, I think that’s your business. And if somebody else leaps to some incorrect conclusion about your reasons for working when you do, or feels that you’re somehow putting implicit pressure on them to as you do, well, I think that’s ultimately their problem not yours. Yes, absolutely, everybody should develop healthy work habits that work *for them*, and work to foster a climate in which everyone feels free to do that. But I don’t think you foster that climate by altering the times at which you work in a (inevitably futile) attempt to not do anything that anyone else might interpret as implicit peer pressure. Similarly, I think everybody has a responsibility to help foster a professional working environment in which sexual harassment doesn’t happen and is appropriately punished when it does. But I don’t think that anyone who cites Ayala is somehow working against that goal by implicitly condoning harassment.

      I like the idea of making sure as an author that you aren’t neglecting to cite systemically-overlooked work. It’s a bit like how, if you’re running a seminar series or choosing reviewers as an editor, you should put some effort into considering the full range of good candidates. Not just pick the first good people who come to mind.

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