APSA Takes on Citation Discrimination

Glenn Ricketts

As a political scientist, I once belonged to my disciplinary guild, the American Political Science Association. It seemed like something anybody with a degree in the field ought to do because...well, because. It was supposed to be a good way to make connections, find jobs, meet publishers, talk to colleagues, listen to the latest research directions, etc., etc. Anyway, I joined up as an ABD, hoping to improve my professional prospects and stay on top of my game as a practicing political scientist. Incidentally, I long ago concluded that the “science” part of the title was pretentious – the study of politics seemed more akin to astrology than science, although some of my fellow practitioners labored mightily to be “scientific” by cranking out elaborate and indecipherable mathematical models, to which about half of the APSA’s quarterly Review was usually devoted.

But I never did any of those things, since the APSA’s annual meeting always coincided with the start of the semester at the community college where I teach, so I was pretty much confined to reading about it all after the fact. 

Eventually, I let my membership slide. Part of the reason was the fact that so many of the articles, for which I was shelling out more than $100 per year to read, were in fact unreadable, the kind that make “social science” the butt of so many jokes outside the club. Most of all, though, was that the APSA seemed to want practice politics rather than study it, and the content of the Review had become far more editorial than scholarly, usually dominated by the tedious race-gender-class mantra.

I don’t think I’ll be re-upping any time soon, especially after reading this piece in IHE.  At this year’s annual meeting the APSA devoted not one, but apparently several panels to the question of gender bias in….citations. Yep, citations. Men, it seems, are far more likely to cite their own previous works in refereed journals than women are, and they also cite works by their female colleagues to a far lesser extent. The consensus seems to have been that this is why women are – here’s this one again – “underrepresented” in the field.  

I happen to agree with that to an extent. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s, I did indeed notice that fields such as psychology, sociology, English or foreign languages attracted lots of female majors, in much greater proportion than poly sci did. But then – and now – I’m not sure why that is the case. I certainly don’t think that you can simply attribute it to “gender bias” without taking a closer look. There was no “women keep out” sign over the Political Science department’s doorway, just as the others with heavier female enrollments didn’t try to attract them with neon lights or a more “woman friendly” environment. We didn’t yet do that stuff in those days. For that matter, I also recall that women in foreign languages were especially drawn to French or Spanish at the college level, while significantly fewer seemed attracted to classics, Germanics or Slavic languages. Is there a reason for that? Undoubtedly; I just don’t know for sure what it is. Maybe political science is just a bum major?

I’m long, long out of graduate school, and political science has no doubt evolved to quite an extent since I finished. Identity politics, post-colonialism, multiculturalism, etc. have certainly made big inroads, along with all of the other faddish intellectual movements that have captured the social sciences and humanities in the last twenty years. And while I don’t have any data, the smaller cohort of female political scientists seems to be concentrated in these new subfields, especially “gender politics,” LGBT issues, etc. I’d venture that such a small subset within any field is going to get cited far less simply because of its limited scope and relevance beyond those confines.

But I don’t think that theory would cut it with the panelists at APSA, where the consensus seemed to be that some pretty drastic changes were necessary if political science is going to achieve “gender equity,” starting with the way it’s taught in the classroom. Guys raise their hands a lot more than the ladies do, even if they haven’t read today’s assignment. Don’t let ‘em get away with that, make sure they’ve done their work first, before they get the chance to pop off. I can’t say I’m unsympathetic, although in my own classes, unpreparedness definitely reflects gender parity.

That’s only the beginning, however. We need to revamp the field itself away from its “male” orientation, and show greater appreciation for the work done by female political scientists, who apparently don’t get no respect. [I have a very hard time connecting with this one; my own dissertation advisor was a relentless critic whom I never seemed to satisfy or please; he didn't use the self-esteem building approach. The best I got was an absence of criticism or – on exactly one occasion – “This is OK.” At the same time, I think he also drove me to do better work than I would have otherwise, so I’m actually very much in his debt. As always, tough coaches look best in retrospect.]

What especially got my attention, though, were the proposals for bringing affirmative action to scholarly citations, from dissertations to refereed journals and finally, to tenure and promotion evaluations. What does this mean? I guess it means that if your doctoral dissertation is deficient in citations of female authors, you’ve got more work to do. If you submit an article to a refereed journal, well, not bad BUT…You didn’t cite enough sources by female authors, better try again. Oh, and don’t try that stuff about they’re not relevant or up to standard, we want WOMEN, get it? Your promotion application is very strong – good teaching evaluations, you’ve published a couple of books, several articles and conference presentations, but WAIT: you’ve hardly cited any women in your writings. Sorry, but this department is firmly committed to gender equity, and if you want to get promoted, you’d better get with the program, etc., etc. How come you don't write more about women's issues?

Once again, bean counting trumps it all. It’s the numbers that matter.  

As I said, I’m not going to be renewing my APSA membership. Just as well, though: as a man, I’d probably get rejected on grounds of “gender equity.”

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