One approach to under-citation of women

Ned Markosian writes that he recently sent the following email:


Dear ____,

Thank you for your two emails about my reason for declining a referee job. I recently adopted a policy of not refereeing any paper that cites zero female authors, if it seems clear to me that there are relevant papers by women that should have been cited. I gave a lot of thought to the argument that it would be better to referee such papers, so as to encourage the authors to cite some women. I can see the advantages of that policy. In the end I decided to go with the policy I have chosen instead because I decline so many refereeing requests anyway, simply because I can’t referee 24 papers a year, and I prefer to donate my limited time for refereeing to authors who are not contributing to the alarming gender imbalance in philosophy citation practices.

My view is that the gender imbalance in philosophy citations is a serious problem in our profession, and one of the many systemic biases that contribute to the unacceptable lack of diversity in our field.

As you point out, I have myself been guilty of failing to cite women. In fact, although you didn’t point this out, I have been one of the worst offenders! I feel extremely remorseful and downright embarrassed about this, and I very much wish someone had drawn my attention to this failing on my part a long time ago.

Anyway, I hope that is helpful. Please let me know if you have any other questions, and please still feel free to call on me to referee for ______.

Best wishes,

What do readers think of this approach?


9 thoughts on “One approach to under-citation of women

  1. One thing that several people have brought up is that my declining to referee papers that don’t cite women is not really a way to solve the problem. The editors are likely to send those papers to other referees, and the status quo will remain undisturbed. I get that. But my main motivation, originally, was just that I didn’t want to donate my refereeing time and energy to those papers and their authors. Now I am starting to wonder, though. What if a lot of potential referees adopted the same policy? Might that not put pressure on editors to take the problem more seriously? And, perhaps more importantly, might word of this movement have an effect on authors, who would want to take proactive steps to maximize their chances of acceptance? “Have you heard? The Gendered Conference Campaign has moved to journal referees. If you want editors to be able to find referees for your paper, you’d better cite a fair number of women.”

  2. What about rejecting the paper on the grounds that it fails to cite all papers by women that should have been cited? I’ve certainly had papers rejected in the past because they failed to cite someone who should have been cited. It strikes me that a systematic failure to cite relevant papers by women authors is reason enough to reject. And not commenting on other aspects of the paper would make the point that this is a deal breaker (and save time!).

  3. I worry a little about Ned Markosian’s approach on the grounds that I’m always a bit skeptical of cases where we find a “moral” justification for doing what we wanted to do anyway – in this case, referee fewer papers. Now, it sounds like Markosian is asked more than his fair share of times, and so needs some good way to decide which ones to say no to. Perhaps this is better than just saying no to some random percentage, but I think that, for the more typical case of the person who isn’t asked nearly that often, but who still might want to avoid doing an often tedious task, this might be less than ideal. (I’m not sure about this, but do think it’s often easy for people to use methods like this to just avoid what they otherwise don’t want to do.)

    Axiothea’s approach seems too strong to me, in that, for nearly any paper, there are going to be papers that _could have_ been cited that are not. In those cases, it’s reasonable to suggest some further citations, but I’d think that it’s only in extremely egregious cases that papers should be rejected for this reason. (I’d say, only in cases where the failure to cite a particular paper suggests either a deep and important unfamiliarity with the literature on a problem, or when some sort of borderline misconduct is suspected.) If it’s not an obvious very bad case, I don’t see that anything more than a (perhaps strong) suggestion is warranted.

  4. I’m wary of rejecting papers on these grounds because as we know philosophy reviewers have a tendency anyway to be very tough and critical. I do think that urging people to R&R to feed in references and discussion of papers by women – and members of other under-represented and under-cited groups – is better. It could still be a deal breaker, if the author should refuse to do it.

  5. I’m not sure I’m on board with this approach. Given the even more startling under-representation of people of color in philosophy, would such a policy be justifiable for papers that fail to cite any POC? If not, why not?

  6. In my experience, most referees are not reliable judges of when something “should have been cited,” regardless of gender. Accordingly, the tactic suggested in the OP strikes me as likely to contribute to the prolific abuse and injustice that anonymous referees currently inflict. Basically, anonymous review is a broken, dysfunctional system and an unlikely instrument of remediation.

  7. “Ned Markosian writes: “If you want editors to be able to find referees for your paper, you’d better cite a fair number of women.”

    This remark was a joke I assume? Even in the context of the hypothetical Markosian offers I predict that editors would manage to find a way to do their job, despite his heroic efforts on behalf of gender equality.”

    Here I have a question about normal practices. For someone at my career stage, I think I referee a fair number of papers. But, I don’t think I have ever looked at the paper closely enough so as to count or consider the citations in it before agreeing (or, very rarely, not agreeing) to referee it. Is it actually a common practice to do this? In the only case where I had seen a paper I was asked to referee before I was asked, I could tell quite easily from the abstract. Do people typically scan through the paper (as this approach would require) before saying yes or no? That seems odd to me. I do hope that people don’t say “yes”, then read the paper and afterwards say “no” because they don’t like the reference ratios. That would seem unfair and to cause unreasonable delay. But, I’d be interested to hear what other people think that normal practice is.

  8. I am not getting the pushback here. Markosian writes that he will “not referee any paper that cites zero female authors, if it seems clear to me that there are relevant papers by women that should have been cited.”

    Please note the IF clause here.

    Women suffer greatly from undercitation. This is a very good response to the problem.

    To Ned: Thanks.

  9. In response to JK:

    I can’t speak for others but, as indicated in my earlier comment, my resistance derives from the fact that referees are unreliable judges of when a paper “should have been cited.” In general, I am opposed to utilizing dysfunctional instruments to accomplish goals, including worthwhile ones.

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