5 June 2023

Citation Ethics in Publishing

A. Meredith Hughes Wesleyan University

Misty Bentz Georgia State University

Lisa Prato Lowell Observatory

Recently, there has been significant discussion in our community regarding the ethics of citations in scientific literature. Accordingly, representatives from the AAS Code of Ethics Committee and the AAS Publications Committee have worked together to draft this post to summarize the issues and illuminate the complexity of the topic. As a longer-term task, we have begun working to develop guidance for authors, editors, and referees that takes into account this complexity while leaving space for new solutions in unprecedented situations.   

Currently, the relevant portion of the AAS Code of Ethics is found in the Publications and Authorship section of the Ethics Statement:

Proper acknowledgment of the work of others should always be given. Deliberate, wanton omission of a pertinent author or reference is unacceptable. Authors have an obligation to their colleagues and the scientific community to include a set of references that communicates the precedents, sources, and context of the reported work. Data provided by others must be cited appropriately, even if obtained from a public database.

The statement reminds us that there are several reasons why we are expected to cite others in our publications.  These include citations as an acknowledgment of the contributions of others to the ideas in our work, as well as to avoid plagiarism, and we cite others to justify our methods, assumptions, and research practices. Citations are also important for maintaining the integrity of the academic record and tracing the development of ideas over time, both for the historical record as well as for a proper understanding of how a research field has evolved.

While the reasons for including citations in our work are unlikely to be controversial, the question of whom to cite has generated many strong, and sometimes conflicting, opinions. This is demonstrated by the results of scientific studies that have explored the current citation practices of academics.

Perhaps the most obvious person to cite is ourselves, especially as our time and experience in the field accrue. However, while self-citation is generally a reasonable practice, not all researchers cite themselves equally often. Research finds that men cite themselves more than women do, and some researchers even seem to take self-citation to the extreme.  

Furthermore, it has also been found that when researchers cite others, they are less likely to cite women and scholars of color at rates that match their respective contributions to the field. Many reasons for these unequal citation practices have been suggested, ranging from implicit or unconscious bias to careless citation practices (such as not seeking out the original reference) to consciously choosing to exclude certain researchers and/or groups when citing others.

This leads to the crux of many recent discussions: is it ever acceptable to intentionally choose not to cite someone(s)?

In the case of unethical research practices, we can look to other fields outside of astronomy for some guidance. The AMA (American Medical Association) Code of Medical Ethics suggests that when researchers engage with results that were obtained in a clearly unethical way, such as Nazi experimentation on humans during WWII or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, they should first seek to cite studies that used ethical methods and obtained the same results. If that is not possible, then the harm involved in obtaining the results should be disclosed and acknowledged, the reason for needing to cite the study justified, and the authors should pay respect to the victims of the behavior.

But the guidance becomes less clear when it comes to dealing with citations of documented sexual and serial harassers. While there have been several recent high-profile cases in astronomy, many other fields are currently struggling with this same issue. The arguments of whether we should cite these individuals boil down to two main positions:

This is the starting point from which the AAS Code of Ethics Committee, the AAS Publications Committee, and the Ethics Working Group are confronting the issue. There are several related questions to grapple with:

  1. Is the research unethical, or is the person's behavior unethical, and does it matter?
  2. Is sexual harassment a form of research misconduct? The American Geophysical Union says yes, and the NSF has instituted policies that require institutions to report sexual harassment findings which can lead to the revocation of grant funding. While the AAS code of ethics does not currently address this issue directly, the Astro2020 Decadal Report recommends that identity-based discrimination and harassment be recognized as causing the same level of harm to the integrity of research as is caused by research misconduct.
  3. How do we identify bad actors in our community? What is the threshold? By which temporal and cultural standards do we judge? Who ensures that the punishment fits the crime, and can there be a path to restoration?
  4. Who is harmed? What is the collateral damage? How do we limit future harm to the survivors of sexual harassment? Should we protect the junior colleagues and collaborators of bad actors from secondhand punishment, and if so, how? And when does the integrity of the scientific record take precedence?

While we conclude this post with many questions, we acknowledge that the complexity of the topic makes it clear that we are dealing with an ethical gray zone. Reasonable people can and do disagree on the answers to these (and other) questions. We further note that the ethics of citations is not an issue that stands on its own but is intertwined with similar questions around authorship, acknowledgments, refereeing, and editing. This complexity will make our job of crafting useful guidance for the field challenging. However, we are also optimistic that by simply embarking on these conversations, together as a field, we are taking steps to create a safer and more inclusive atmosphere for the future.

— Meredith Hughes (on behalf of the Code of Ethics Committee)
Misty Bentz and Lisa Prato (on behalf of the Publications Committee)

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