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.