There has been some discussion in the philosophy blogosphere on citation rates in academic philosophy journals. Since I recently decided that I was going to try to get my work published, I have spent a bit of time thinking about this. When John Protevi at NewAPPS asked about citation patters, I left a comment, but the topic really warrants a longer treatment. Here are some thoughts:
Let me postulate, for this discussion, that doing philosophy and publishing are very different enterprises. That is, the content of the philosophy is separate from the distribution of it, and while you hope that your philosophy has some merit, we are currently concerned with getting it published regardless.
Consider the top philosophy journals, not as philosophy journals, but just as publications. Do these journals compete with each other? Yes, but they also cooperate more. If anything, the top journals are in coopetition. While the journals do compete for the best new content, consider how they make their money. They make their money by being purchased, in this case by academic libraries with limited resources. They will only get purchased if the libraries (and philosophy departments) feel that there is active research going on that they need to access. So it is much more important for journals to have an active discussion amongst themselves to give the appearance of active research being done (again regardless of merit).
It is not so much that they compete with each other, than they are in competition with everyone outside their area.
Now, how do these journals show that they have an active discussion? They reference each other, back and forth. This mutual referencing fosters the importance of the discussion, and hence the journals too. Once the discussion has begun, all other journals that wish to publish on the topic will have to reference back to the original journals, again fostering the original journal’s importance. Hence a journal, or group thereof, that fosters a discussion—a niche if you will—will effectively block out other journals. All other or new journals will always be playing catch-up since they will inherently have fewer references and hence be less important.
This suggests that citations and referencing is a highly strategic business practice. Journals need to get themselves into the discussion somehow to make themselves relevant. If possible, they want to be the nexus of the discussion.
One interesting consequence is that it is less the individual researchers or papers that are cited, but that the journal is cited at all. The journal wants to be in on the discussion, and it doesn’t matter how it gets there. This suggests a bias towards references that include the journal or involve the journal in discussions, whether those references are relevant or not.
This leads to the treatment of ‘stars’ within the profession. If the journals publish the writing of a ‘star’ they will immediately get themselves into a position where people need to have that person’s work. So it is a good strategy for a journal to play into ‘star’ writers and to burnish their reputation (e.g. dedicated journal issues, invited papers) since this will make their research seem important and require people who do research to reference the work of the star in that journal.
Consider, then, why we cite. Is it to give credit to those who did great work? Sure, but there is too much at stake in terms of reputation (reputation yields job offers and money) for that to be the sole reason.
Is it to show we know what we are talking about? Unlikely but possible: journal publishing is not done to show that you have the done the reading, and if you are talking about something important then it doesn’t matter who is referenced.
Is it to make our lives easier, so we don’t have to argue every point? Likely at times, this is again too simplistic in terms of other issues.
Is it because it plays into the business model of the journals? Probably more than we want to admit.
As mentioned above, journals will be biased towards self referencing their publication. Hence, if your work can be framed in a way that allows for journal self references, all the better. Same goes for citing stars. This also means that the bias could allow for references to go unchallenged: e.g. reference Hume for everything (or David Lewis), and always have some references to big journals. Conversely, less prominent work can be slipped in unnoticed if it is sandwiched between stars and big journals.
Perhaps there is an optimal ratio of prominent authors and different top journal references to less prominent references to give the appearance of new-ness and importance to the discussion.
At any rate, journal publishing exists at the intersection of business and philosophy, and it does no good to treat the double blind review as the only factor in getting published.