How do you decide what literature to cite when you write an article? Sociologists routinely complain that economists fail to cite the sociological work on the topics they write about. But sociologists themselves are typically citing too narrowly. Most view citations as a matter of nodding (or genuflecting) toward the “key” people or concepts with special attention to making sure to cite anybody who they think might end up reviewing the paper. In the process they focus on a few famous people (mostly White men), often those assigned in the courses taken in grad school, and/or articles published in the American Sociological Review or the American Journal of Sociology. We may also include people we know personally or have met at conferences.
These practices both tend to downplay the contributions of women and people of color and tend to exacerbate the prestige hierarchy in sociology. The #CiteBlackWomen campaign has been importantly pushing back against these practices, but even intentionally citing Black women runs into the problem that there are no race designations in citations so you have to know who is a Black woman to cite them, leading to citations of a few famous people, not a broader base of citations. Reviewers are notorious for “cite me” recommendations or the occasional suggestion of lines of research the writer has missed, but apart from that, a typical journal reviewer is not generally going to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all research in an area and it is not reasonable to expect reviewers to do their own literature searches as part of a review.
I’ve talked to students about their citation practices, and it appears that the most common approach involves sorting Google Scholar search results by number of times cited, and citing the most commonly-cited sources. This, of course, just exacerbates inequality.
So how can we get out of this box? I have been as bad as everyone else for most of my career, but I have recently been working hard to push back against the elitist bias, and want to share some of the strategies I have used to try to expand my citation networks. I urge others to share yours.
Since this post has gotten long, let me begin with my three main take-away points. The rest is strategies for implementation.
- Look for and cite the most recent work on your empirical topic, paying special attention to work coming from people who are not already highly-cited, less-prestigious institutions, and less-prestigious journals. This requires a broad search strategy, about which more below.
- If your work takes off from some key theoretical or empirical papers, look for the recent work that cites those papers in Google Scholar or Web of Science, again paying special attention to works by those who are not already elites.
- Pay attention to work in progress including dissertations, conference papers, and publications in journals your library does not subscribe to. PDFs of many of these are available online through working paper repositories (SocArXiv, ResearchGate, Academic, SSRN, and many campus or personal web sites); good libraries subscribe to the dissertation database. You can also do an Internet search for the author and email them to ask for a copy of the work and to ask whether there is a published version or related papers. Most people are happy to cooperate when you make these requests.