The best kind of citation

Even the strange and murky currency of academic citation throws up pleasant surprises sometimes.

Academics are in some ways regulated by their accumulation of this fiat currency, the citation mill, which requires them to write for the best (ie allegedly most influential) journals, and then subsequently incite references to their work in similarly published articles by others.

There are even aggregators now, from Google Scholar to Scopus or Orcid, which exist to compile the magical measurable impacts which academic administrators and hiring committees so adore.

But citation need not be reduced to this quantitative measuring tool. It was created and intended as a mode of acknowledging the influence of ideas, attributing merit to the previous work of other scholars on whose shoulders, as Newton said, we stand.

It’s of course true that the citation mill is now regularly hacked and gamed by the more cynical academics, in ways ranging from the utterly immoral (like the citation rings discovered in some journals in recent years) to the merely dubious (such as scholars writing deliberately provocatively.) But like many things, just because the system is abused and mispurposed does not entirely eradicate its importance or validity.

No, knowledge is not (or should not be) a popularity contest. But democracy has shown us the weird benefits of being governed by the wisdom of crowds. And similarly, a lot of well-cited papers are well-cited because many people legitimately are influenced by their ideas.

But not all citation need be reduced to this number-crunching game. And for me as a kind of purist, the best form of citation is an acknowledgement or engagement with something I’ve said or written.

I was therefore very moved to read Dennis Wise’s excellent new article on the alliterative turn in 20th century American genre poetry. I should note that I am not an expert on either alliterative poetry or American genre poetry. But I HAVE read a lot of James Blish, and I was able to have a great discussion with Dennis about a James Blish poem he was looking at.

It’s the sort of thing academia ought to be about, and increasingly isn’t. Chatting to another scholar, trying ideas and theories out on one another in realtime, and eventually happening across an interpretation that seemed to account for both my knowledge and Dennis’s.

I didn’t expect to be thanked for it, so I value Dennis’s citation more than any other my work has received, precisely because it was a purist kind of citation. It won’t boost my Google Scholar rating in the eyes of the number crunchers. It won’t impress those who seek to measure knowledge quantitatively. But for me it is a succinct and generous example of what citation was meant to do.

Dennis has astutely identified something in US genre poetry that no one has really discussed before. His ideas are excellent and should change how we understand the history of alliterative poetry and its intersection with modernism, science fiction and 20th century American letters. It’s a genuinely great paper. I’m flattered to be associated with it in any way. I really enjoyed talking with Dennis about his ideas, and I’m glad he valued my thoughts.

If only more encounters in academia took the form of chatting with people like Dennis about their ideas, rather than answering to bean counters about dubious metrics, I’d be a happier academic. I’m going to go and thank more people in the credits of my next book now.

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