Selling Out

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 4/10/23

Readers and researchers be warned. Higher education has traded quality research and credible sources for “citation justice” and woke ideology. Bruce Gilley, professor of political science at Portland State University, recently concluded an insightful series on “How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy,” published by Minding the Campus. His investigation into prevalent citation practices uncovered some startling revelations about the credibility (or lack thereof) of academic research and the rise of “junk citations.”

Before we jump down the dark rabbit hole of research and citations in higher education, you may be wondering, what exactly is a “junk citation”? Gilley states that a junk citation “refers to a citation that is wrong, irrelevant, misleading, corrupt, uninformative, useless, or purely rhetorical.” 

Sadly, many “scholarly sources” are chock full of junk citations. For example, Bruce Gilley’s article “The Case for Colonialism,” featured in the summer 2018 edition of Academic Questions, received backlash from critics who utilized sources rife with junk citations—to which Gilley responded. This is not an isolated incident—Gilley writes that “in a 2017 exposé of bad citations in 472 articles in three peer-reviewed library science journals, Wilfrid Laurier University librarians Peter Genzinger and Deborah Wills found that 30% of the citations misrepresented the cited work, either wholly or in part.” Our 2018 report The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science chronicles the downfall of credible scientific research, and the rise of sources that are used as “junk citations.” Many scientific results cannot be reproduced due to “arbitrary research techniques, lack of accountability, political groupthink,” and more. 

It makes you wonder: how many more “quality sources” in collegiate research are riddled with junk citations or based entirely on bad research?

Over the course of his “Junk Citations” article series, Gilley gives several examples of how researchers are using such citations—and why. The popular new ways to use (and, dare I say, abuse) citations include “just trust me, this is what it says,” racially charged “citation justice,” and self-aggrandizing “citation-doping.” The simplest solution to discouraging these practices may be to require authors to disclose where they find their sources. Gilley references the fundamental rule given by Wayne Booth and colleagues in their book The Craft of Research: “anytime we cite the work of others, we must tell the reader what research they did, what their findings were, and what, if anything, limits these findings’ relevance to the current argument. ‘Don’t accept a claim just because an authority asserts it.’” But perhaps this isn’t the best long-term solution to the problem. 

Colleges and universities should expect more from their faculty, researchers, and students when it comes to citations and the pursuit of truth. I certainly hope that quality, scholarly work does not become a hallmark of days gone by.

We must take action to restore quality research standards in higher education. As Gilley states, “Junk food leads to obesity, and junk citations lead to academic propaganda.” If left unchecked, junk citations will only exacerbate ideological bias, political division, and intellectual conformity in America’s colleges and universities. 

But how can we rid ourselves of this academic plague? Gilley concludes his “Junk Citations” series with a simple solution: restore intellectual pluralism. Lovers of quality research and progress would agree with Gilley—restoring healthy discourse, debate, and disagreement in higher education is the only way forward. 

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by NewFabrika on Adobe Stock

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