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Scholars should cite past works regardless of awful behavior of authors: op-ed

An op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education reckons with a seemingly simple but powerful question that haunts academia: How discerning should researchers be when citing the work of scholars who have histories of mistreating others or offensive beliefs?

Brian Leiter, a scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, argues that the answer is simple: “Cite work that is relevant regardless of the author’s misdeeds.”

He begins by pointing to an argument from Nikki Usher, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University:

Do we still keep citing the scholarship of serial harassers and sexists? Within their institutions, they may finally get the fate due to them (or not). But their citational legacy will live on, sometimes even in the form of the pro-forma citations that reviewers expect to see in a manuscript, and ask for if they don’t.

Leiter observes that his own field of philosophy is rife with important contributions of “awful people,” like “Gottlob Frege, the founder of modern logic and philosophy of language,” who was a “disgusting anti-Semite,” and “Martin Heidegger, a prominent figure in 20th-century existentialism,” who “was an actual Nazi.”

He stresses the importance of universities being “home to all, and only, disciplines — each one teaching and deploying skills and techniques for acquiring knowledge about their subject matter.”

For Leiter, scholarly citation serves only two purposes in a discipline. First, it works to “acknowledge a prior contribution to knowledge on which your work depends.” And second, it invokes another scholar’s research in order “to establish the reliability or truth of some other claim on which your work depends.”

Citations can ensure “the integrity of the scholarly discipline in question,” according to Leiter. “Failure to cite because of a scholar’s misconduct — whether for being a Nazi or a sexual harasser — betrays the entire scholarly enterprise that justifies the existence of universities and the protection of academic freedom.”

He continues:

Certainly, scholars should condemn Frege, Searle, Ronell, and the like. But to excise from the canon of relevant knowledge those who are appalling people is simply a further betrayal of what justifies the existence of institutions devoted to scholarship.

Leiter argues that by allowing “moral indignation” to “interfere with scholarly judgment,” scholars “betray the core purposes of the university and so open themselves to professional repercussions.”

Read the full article.

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