Academic ethics: Should scholars avoid citing the work of awful people?


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 allegations of 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 Chronicle of Higher Education for more

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