Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Citational Practices - some thoughts

I’ve belatedly been reading Colleen Morgan’s great blog post about what she terms ‘citational communities’ – the invisible colleges of academics and researchers and their publications that we cite to support our own published work. A key message of her thoughtful piece is that for many female scholars, there is not only a glass ceiling, but also glass walls which result in their work being undercited and referenced. I suspect that the extent of this varies widely from discipline to discipline with some academic communities being more male dominated than others. The key point though is that citation is essentially a political act, in which we as researchers can align ourselves with or against other scholars or perhaps more perniciously cut scholars entirely out debates by sidelining their work.

I confess my first reaction on reading the article was to think how different her particular field (digital archaeology) is compared with my own (early medieval Britain) – and I was shocked at the practices she was mentioning (people actively not citing rivals or preferentially citing friends). There are many major female scholars in my field of my own, and earlier and younger generations, whose work has been profoundly influential on my own work at a personal level as well as within the wider subject (on a personal level- Tania Dickinson gave me a grounding in Anglo-Saxon archaeology as an UG that I am still grateful for; working on early medieval Northumbria and Wales scholars such as Rosemary Cramp and Nancy Edwards have also ben fundamental to my development as a researcher). I can and do cite these and many other female scholars regularly

However, a key point of Colleen’s blog was also that these kind of biases need not necessarily grow out of explicit or overt prejudices, but also the more structural biases implicit in academia. It made me think about how my own citational practices actually work. Again, my first reaction was that I just cite what is most relevant or appropriate in a particular context. Yet, ion reflection I think it is probably true that I do tend to cite colleagues and friends more often. Partly, this is for practical reasons, I’m often more aware of what they have written and their research output. Like most academics I feel that I’m constantly struggling to keep up with the current literature being churned out even in a small field such as mine; inevitably I tend to be better at reading the work of people who work down the corridor or who are friends outside academia – often because they’ve asked me to read it before publication. Within my world, due to its size, there tends to be a greater collegiality – I can think of very few people working in my world who I do not know personally to a greater or lesser extent. However, even within this world there are clear sub-communities – they are partly based on sub-specialisms, but they are also influenced by other factors, particular geography and generation. Regionally, it is inevitable that people tend to be more aware of the work of those who are in physical proximity. Based in Durham and living in York I tend to have better links and understandings of scholars working in Durham, York and Newcastle than Southampton or Exeter. These kind of regional connections are also particularly important in the development of informal networks of peers when people are early in their careers, particularly during their Phds. For example, when I was doing my PhD in the mid-1990s, there was a distinct cluster of PhD students all working on broadly similar topics (early medieval archaeology in Britain) in what might be termed the ‘Thames valley corridor’ - London, Reading and Oxford. We knew each other’s work and went to the same seminars and conferences – but as, or perhaps, more importantly, was the more informal networking at pubs and parties; I probably spent more time actually talking about my work in the pubs of Oxford and ULU than I did in my own Department. Inevitably, although as a peer group we have now dispersed to universities across the country I still keep a closer eye on the output of my friends than perhaps I do of people I don’t know so well.

This issue of informal networking (the après conference and Saturday night party) brings us back to the initial point. As I get older, I do less of this; family commitments and work pressures mean I get to less conferences and I’m far more selective in what I do go to (I tend to be more conservative in choice of conference and tend to only go if I’m speaking myself). I get out to the after-research seminar drinks less and haven’t been to a decent party for a long time. Parental responsibilities (and more importantly ‘parental desires’ – being a dad is something I enjoy rather than see as being a duty) tend to fall on women’s shoulders far more extensively than on men’s (this is not a good or inevitable thing, but it is in our society a truth). As a result, it often ends up being harder for women with families to get to conferences or if they do, to stay for the social side of things. The events which I’ve found so important in developing my personal and citational research communities are precisely those which young scholars with families (or indeed young scholars outside academia with limited access to the time/money needed to go to conferences) – due to structural biases in our society this tends to be more of an issue for women than men. If as a middle aged man with a permanent academic post I struggle with engaging with the academic world beyond reading published research, then how hard is it for those earlier in their careers? As someone who worked outside academia until their mid-30s I remember the struggle – and that was before we had children.

So, what can I do? Sticky one, but basic stuff includes ensuring the conferences that I am involved with are more family friendly and be pro-active in ensuring gender parity in panels and line-ups of speakers, try to engage more via things like Twitter, blogs, social media with the work of younger scholars, think about my necessarily selective reading more carefully and try to find time to be a little more adventurous in what I do look at. I like Colleen’s idea of setting up a list of female contemporary archaeologists that can be cited as a way of encouraging us to be more imaginative in our use of citation. We all tend to stick to the well-worn hollow ways of citational traditions we have erode into own personal academic terrain; sometimes it’s good to  get out of these ruts.

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