The Citation Gap: Results of a Self-Experiment

Aug 16, 2013

Both because of the unexpected direction yesterday took, and because I haven’t worked through my thoughts about any number of pressing current events, I thought I’d write about an experiment that I’ve been engaging in with my recent academic papers. You might recall the Maliniak, Powers, and Walter paper (soon to be out with International Organization) on citations and the gender gap. As Walter reported at Political Violence @ a Glance:

…. articles written by women in international relations are cited significantly less than articles written by men. This is true even if you control for institutional affiliation, productivity, publication venue, tenure, topic, methodology and anything else you can think of. Our hunch was that this gender citation gap was due to two things: (1) women citing themselves less than men, and (2) men tending to cite other men more than women in a field dominated by men.

After the wide-ranging discussion prompted by the piece, I decided to try to increase the number of women that I cited.

The approach I took was straightforward. In the first cut, I substituted ‘obligatory generic citations’ to male authors with ones to female authors. These are the kinds of citations where the precise details of the argument don’t matter, but rather the reference genuflects toward a literature or a line of argument. Many, but not all of these, could include the lines “see, for example….” On the second cut, I focused on articles where the details of the argument mattered more, and tried to see if I could find an appropriate piece written by a woman.

The results were an improvement, but still not anything to shout about. The piece that got the most rigorous treatment saw more than a doubling of the number of references to articles, books, and chapters with at least one female author, but that only involved a shift from around 10% to 25%.

Still, I think the simple step is worth taking. After all, there’s no reason references to the importance of identity, norms, military power, trade interdependence, or whatever must be to the same male authors that we reflexively cite over and over (and over and over) again. 

Moreover, the exercise reinforced my suspicion (one widely held) that some of the “gender gap” in citations is rooted in syllabi, i.e., that our sense of whom we need to cite for a particular argument is based on whom our instructors placed on the syllabus for a particular week. This suggests that with a little bit of effort, and the downstream effects of having a higher percentage of active female scholars, the problem is likely to become less intense over time.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.