Should We Still Cite the Scholarship of Serial Harassers and Sexists?

Full vitae gender citation metoo

Image: iStock

By Nikki Usher

The reviews came back: "major revise and resubmit." I wasn’t thrilled by that but I also figured that reworking the article wouldn’t be a big deal. And then I read the reviews, and realized that if this paper was going to make it through to publication, I was going to have to do something that I had deliberately avoided in my initial submission: cite the scholarship of a sexist male professor who has developed a reputation for diminishing the work of women in the field.

In the era of #MeToo, when it finally feels OK to discuss sexism in academe with my male colleagues, I wasn’t sure how to handle this conversation with the journal editor. I had intentionally avoided referencing this particular professor’s work because he’s been fairly awful toward me and other women — although just a sexist jerk, not a sexual harasser.

Here’s a question we haven’t asked about structural sexism in academe: Do we still keep citing the scholarship of serial harassers and sexists? Within their institutions, they may finally get the fate due to them (or not). But their citational legacy will live on, sometimes even in the form of the pro-forma citations that reviewers expect to see in a manuscript, and ask for if they don’t.

And for those men whose academic sexism hasn’t risen to the level of actionable correction, and very likely won’t — while they continue ignoring female scholars and belittling their work on a daily basis — their reputation overall will remain clean. A serial sexist is unlikely to cite the work of female scholars, but if he is a predominant voice in your field or subfield, there is no way for you to avoid having to continue to build his academic reputation through citations, even if you would like to avoid doing so.

In my first-round submission, instead of mentioning this male professor’s work, I found and cited a half-dozen other scholars who made the points I needed for my theoretical scaffolding, although not in the same foundational articles. But of course the journal reviewers went looking in my manuscript for a citation of the serial sexist’s name and work.

This is a bind that we have yet to account for — how the process of building on academic work itself burnishes the reputations of people whose scholarship is good and sometimes even foundational, but whose characters are awful. In the case of a sexist jerk, you are often left without recourse: Cite him, or look like you don’t know what you’re talking about to reviewers and readers.

We know that academe has a gendered citation pattern. We know that women tend to be underrepresented on conference panels and as invited speakers. There is a growing consciousness to do a citation check for representation and a movement against male-dominated panels (manels).

But we have not tackled the question of how scholarship — in journal articles and books — amplifies the reputation and credibility of people who do not deserve that recognition.

In my case, the specific revise-and-resubmit instructions from the editor essentially said: Cite this guy, and pay particular attention to his contributions. A friend offered a somewhat sketchy solution: Do what the editor wanted so that when he sent the revised manuscript back to reviewers, they would see I had followed their instructions and added the requisite citations. Then, my friend said, when I got the manuscript back before final publication, surreptitiously remove the citations.

There’s a half-decent chance that the reviewer asking me to name the sexist professor is, in fact, the sexist professor himself. The effect of having to please a petty academic pushing his own citations who is also sexist and whose sexism has been a particularly toxic aspect of doing research in this subfield — well, that’s another layer on the cake of frustrating gender inequity in academe.

At what point can I as a writer send a note to a journal editor to say, "I don’t want to cite this guy and build his reputation. He is terrible to female colleagues. So even if the review mandates it, can we just ignore that directive and leave his name out?"

Likely the answer would be No, because an editor couldn’t do that with any expectation of consistency. Blind review simply has too many vagaries in the way academics use it to advance their own egos or research agendas. How would a journal editor draw the line between scholars not wanting to cite their rival in the field and not wanting to cite a sexist jerk? Would you have to provide a detailed accounting of the sexism and gender bias to persuade the editor?

In short, trying to avoid citing someone because you don’t like them is impossible if their work is important in your field. Perhaps it’s just adding insult to injury when the guy is a sexist jerk.

Consider the case of the Nobel-Prize-winning scientist James Watson, who, with Francis Crick, is credited with discovering the structure of DNA, and led the Human Genome Project. For years Watson was revered. Then in 2007, he publicly took issue with the idea that all races have equal intelligence: Watson told a British newspaper that people "who have to deal with black employees find this not true." Watson is now known as a notorious sexist and racist who failed to acknowledge the research contributions of his colleague, Rosalind Franklin. But we haven’t stopped citing or mentioning Watson and Crick because, well, DNA.

In the present-day creative arts, at least, reputations suffer by exclusion, such as removing the artwork of a serial harasser from public display (sometimes only temporarily) or no longer choosing to include poems by outed sexual harassers in various best-of collections. That may not be the best tack to take, but it is at least an acknowledgement that scholars’ questionable behavior needs to be raised as a factor in their reputation, even if their work itself is good.

In the case of my journal article, if I did add a citation to the sexist professor’s work, it is highly unlikely that I could a footnote to the citation: "This person is sexist toward female academics and has made inappropriate comments that diminished their scholarship and reputation."

I’m not sure what I’ll do about this citation situation, and it seems that the best strategy may well be the bait-and-switch my friend recommended. But we need to start asking questions about whether there are ways to have frank discussions with editors and even reviewers about why we might not want to keep reinforcing the academic fame and reputation of someone who would not do the same were the situation reversed.

Nikki Usher is a visiting associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.