Brian Leiter

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Academic Ethics: Should Scholars Avoid Citing the Work of Awful People?

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Across academe, many scholars have been suggesting that we should not cite the scholarship of bad people.

A recent essay in The Chronicle by Nikki Usher, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, posed the question starkly: "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."

She is not alone in raising this concern.

  • After John Searle, the Berkeley philosopher of language, was sued for sexual harassment, Jennifer Saul, a philosopher of language and feminist activist at the University of Sheffield in Britain, suggested that, "If you can avoid teaching/discussing [Searle’s work], that may be the best strategy."
  • Zachary Furste, a media-studies scholar, taught a class at the University of Southern California in which students read work by the literary theorist Avital Ronell — sued by a former graduate student for sexual and other harassment — but said if he taught the class in the future, "I haven’t really settled whether I will keep it."
  • James Sterba, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, responded to allegationsof sexual misconduct against Thomas Pogge, a political philosopher at Yale University, by declaring he would no longer include Pogge’s work in graduate classes: "You don’t need him. He carries too much baggage — he doesn’t have to be cited anymore. … He’s a negative image and we don’t need that. Maybe if he was Einstein we’d have to cite him, but he’s not."

The issue is particularly fraught in one of my academic fields, philosophy, in which Gottlob Frege, the founder of modern logic and philosophy of language, was a disgusting anti-Semite, and Martin Heidegger, a prominent figure in 20th-century existentialism, was an actual Nazi.

What is a scholar to do?

I propose a simple answer: Insofar as you aim to contribute to scholarship in your discipline, cite work that is relevant regardless of the author’s misdeeds. Otherwise you are not doing scholarship but something else. Let me explain.

Wilhelm von Humboldt crafted the influential ideal of the modern research university in Germany some 200 years ago. In his vision, the university is a place where all, and only, Wissenschaften — "sciences" — find a home. The German Wissenschaften has no connotation of natural science, unlike its English counterpart. A Wissenschaft is any systematic form of inquiry into nature, history, literature, or society marked by rigorous methods that secure the reliability or truth of its findings.

The English word "discipline" captures the idea better: Universities should be home to all, and only, disciplines — each one teaching and deploying skills and techniques for acquiring knowledge about their subject matter, whether it involves the collapse of the Roman Empire, the nature of black holes, the meaning of Plato’s Republic, the evolution of language, or the role of "genetic hitchhiking" in evolution.

The idea of universities as Wissenschaft is also central to the ideal of academic freedom that Humboldt championed: The freedom of scholars in research and teaching is predicated precisely on using their disciplinary expertise to produce knowledge of the truth. John Stuart Mill, who was directly influenced by Humboldt’s ideas, thought that such freedom of inquiry was to the benefit of society as a whole.

The problem with deciding not to cite certain scholars because of their personal malfeasance should now be obvious. Scholarly citation has only two purposes in a discipline:

  • To acknowledge a prior contribution to knowledge on which your work depends.
  • To serve as an epistemic authority for a claim relevant to your own contribution to knowledge. (By epistemic authority I mean simply another scholar’s research that is invoked to establish the reliability or truth of some other claim on which your work depends.)

In each case, citation has its purpose — ensuring the integrity of the scholarly discipline in question. Failure to cite because of a scholar’s misconduct — whether for being a Nazi or a sexual harasser — betrays the entire scholarly enterprise that justifies the existence of universities and the protection of academic freedom.

Of course, sexists and sexual harassers also betrayed their scholarly obligations by their citation practices and by driving their victims from the scholarly discipline. Nazis like Heidegger did even worse. That these miscreants betrayed the ideal of Wissenschaft is the least of the objections to be lodged against them.

Certainly, scholars should condemn Frege, Searle, Ronell, and the like. But to excise from the canon of relevant knowledge those who are appalling people is simply a further betrayal of what justifies the existence of institutions devoted to scholarship.

You should not — under any circumstances — adjust your citation practices to punish scholars for bad behavior. You betray both your discipline and the justification for your academic freedom by excising from your teaching and research the work of authors who have behaved unethically. Universities would, in principle, be justified in disciplining you for scholarly malfeasance, subject to appropriate peer assessment.

Such academic misconduct is unlikely to constitute a firing offense — unlike, say, serious plagiarism or fabrication of data. But researchers or teachers who let moral indignation interfere with scholarly judgment do betray the core purposes of the university and so open themselves to professional repercussions. The foundations of academic freedom demand nothing less.

Brian Leiter is a professor of jurisprudence and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago

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