An Ethics of Citation

By Rebecca Kennedy (RFK) and Maximus Planudes (MP)

“The intellectual seeks to be attuned to the multivalent meanings of silence, to the names that never rate footnotes and citations, to pro forma, perfunctory nods in  acknowledgments pages, to the erased thinkers in the hinterlands of the metropole.” -- Omedi Ochieng*, Theses on the Intellectual Imagination


Interrupting Lovemaking to Answer the Door.[1] 

There has been discussion of late about best practices for citation in scholarly works. Is it a problem if our citations are limited to mostly white male scholars from elite universities? If so, are we to use a quota system of scholarly citation to ensure a diversity of voices? Do we cite scholars who have proven 'problematic,' as the saying goes today? Anyone who believes that these questions are silly or have obvious answers probably has not thought much about the history and purposes of citation. There is a lot more diversity in practice than our training would admit. Even the two of us, who agree on everything except Euripides Hippolytus [2], have different views on citational practices (as will be made clear below). 

Two recent blog posts--one from Mary Beard (MB), the other from Joel Christensen (JC) at Sententiae Antique--have addressed this issue of citations from a similar, but slightly different position. MB’s offering is titled “Footnote Politics”, JC’s “Good Words from Bad People”. They consider whether one should cite work by “scholars who are tainted (politically or sexually or however)” (MB) or when “a scholar or artist of some renown is a terrible person” (JC). In both cases, the focus is on the behavior or morality of the individual. For example, JC asks if we should cite the work of a convicted pedophile. The answer is, of course, complicated: is the work about sexuality and children? If so, the work may be tainted by the biases of the person. But what if the situation is like MB imagines: What if THE “most authoritative recent work on a particular subject ... were written by (eg) someone whose public remarks have been taken to be racist, or who is plausibly alleged to be a harasser.”[3] Can you NOT cite them?

We have written this blog because we feel that it can be unproductive to focus on the immorality of a “great” scholar or the idea of “key work” in abstract. We often emphasize the character of the person (not) cited. We find it is more helpful to consider citations from the perspective of the person (not) citing--you. It may be useful to bring our focus to the writer, to the scholar in the process of composition, and their ‘ethics’ of citation. We call it an ethics, and not a politics of citation because we frame it within a community of scholars rather than within individual political commitments. 

We explore the problem from the perspective of the scholar mediating between the work of others and their audience, acknowledging that they are producing and shaping knowledge and not just funneling the ideas and words of others. We write this, then, for two reasons: (1) to bring awareness and understanding to the fact that citation methods have always varied widely and (2) to provide some ideas for a practical ethics of citation that is aware of this variety instead of turning every footnote into a moral conundrum. 

Why cite at all? 

Fustel du Coulanges, the 19th century ancient historian known primarily for his fine sideburns [4], complained about having to document his research, lamenting that in his day people just gave the results of their research. Nowadays (19th c), however:
The scaffolding matters more than the structure... learning wishes to make more of a display of itself. Scholars wish above all to appear learned (cited in Grafton Footnote, p.70-1).
This complaint reminds us that the norms and practices of citation that we encounter today have a history. As practices with a history, we have more freedom in modifying them than our training in graduate school might have led us to believe. If we are going to think about our citational practices, particularly in relation to the endlessly prolonged growing pains of the field, we should really explore them with an awareness both of their historical contingency and from the perspective of what citations do and what we might want them to do.

Most students arrive in first-year college writing seminars believing that they should cite to avoid plagiarism. While not wrong, it is an impoverished justification for a core scholarly practice.[5] To understand citation better, it helps to look at the footnote, whose history and practice is tied to citation without being coterminous with it. Grafton writes about how footnotes allow historians to tell two stories: the main story of the text and the secondary story of the research behind it. He also points to how it transforms a monologue into a conversation. Unlike historical narrative, however, scholarship tends to elevate some conversations to the main text, while relegating others to the footnotes . This practice suggests that the idea of ‘two stories’ cannot be pressed too schematically. We should, however, continue to think about how citational practice serves to highlight conversations and to reveal the story of the research. 

Grafton also documents the variety of citational practices, both historically and nationally. Although footnotes cannot bear all the weight we imagine they should--will we really be denied tenure for a refusal to cite Holt Parker in a work on Roman sexuality?--, they do serve to "convince the reader that the historian has done an acceptable amount of labor" and "indicate the chief sources the historian actually used."

Footnotes (or the dreaded endnote), as repositories for citations, thus serve essential functions: they provide the intellectual context for our arguments, refer to other related scholarship or different points of view, and acknowledge our debts. This last function, the most important, perhaps, overlaps with the practice of Acknowledgments (in articles, these are usually in the initial footnote, of course). 

Citations also supposedly signal the professional competence of the author. In "Fussnoten: Das Fundament der Wissenschaft," Steve Nimis demonstrates the fundamental role footnotes play in the professionalization of scholarly knowledge.[6]
The documentation of the work of predecessors can be one of the most odious tasks of the professional scholar, but there is no other requirement which is more insisted upon than this one. To be trivial, to be over-speculative, to be downright boring are all minor failures--often they can be endearing traits--in comparison to the failure to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of what in literary studies is called "secondary literature," but is more generally referred to simply as "the scholarship."
Nimis sees citation as the nexus of scholarly and professional authority, the key space where academic relations of power are expressed, as Reviewer #2 knows all too well. Nimis calls our attention to the professional, disciplinary functioning of citation as a form of virtue signaling--especially in what he calls ‘the pile,’ the long list of books on a topic that the author feels obligated to include--and the traditional, but unnecessary reference to Wilamowitz. 

Recognizing that citation is a form of professional positioning, however, need not be negative. It can also serve to remind us that in mastering this scholarly practice, it becomes a tool we can control, rather than be controlled by, in the creation of the academic community we want to see and be part of. So, what are some practical considerations?

A Golden Rule: Acknowledge Obligations 

In the course of research, we are bound to incur debts to people, to institutions, to ideas found in other works. These debts are obligations that we should acknowledge. There is naturally leeway on what counts as a serious enough debt to warrant citation in our scholarly notes, to be listed in the acknowledgments section versus what can be passed over. It is, however, a fundamental principle of honesty, the golden rule, if you will: acknowledge obligations. If your work is built from or dependent upon the work of another, you must cite it--even if this person is a horrible monster. 

One can acknowledge hindrances too, of course, like the person who promised to read your chapter but never got around to it or the douche professor in grad school who tried to have you kicked out, but there is no obligation here. Some people have suggested stating alongside any acknowledgment of debt that the person is a horrible monster. This may or may not make it past the editorial stage. Maybe a more practical approach is to include a statement of your ethics of citation, perhaps in your initial note or in your methodology section. It might be as simple as “citation =/= endorsement of the person, it only acknowledges a scholarly debt to someone’s work.” 

Other than this golden rule (and working in tandem with it), we suggest thinking in terms of two principles in considering the way our choices of citation situate our work within a scholarly conversation. The first is an ethics of inclusion, the second an ethics of exclusion. Both have risks and value. 

Ethics of inclusion

Let’s start by distinguishing this ethics from ‘the pile’ criticized by Nimis. By ethics of inclusion, we do not mean that one should cite everything ever written on a topic in a paragraph-long list in one’s notes. Instead, consider it this way: How might the idea of citation as the creation of a scholarly conversation inform the way we approach the problem of who to cite? 

In other words, should we care about citations limited to the predictable set of scholarship, the greatest hits parade of top 40 classics? As MB points out, we do have a problem here:
More important there is a real concern that the range of works cited in academic books and articles is inward looking, self-reinforcing and circular. To parody slightly, the line-up of footnotes in some books consist mainly of the author and his stale, pale, male friends all citing each other’s work.
It is important to make sure that our footnotes don’t participate in an elite, prestige-invested circle jerk--even if those “stale, pale, male scholars” are the ones we were told while writing our dissertation (or by reviewer #2) that we MUST cite in order to prove our professional competency. The truth is, we do not have to cite them unless we have a direct intellectual debt to them, even if we read them (out of some sense of scholarly obligation). We will naturally read more than we cite in any research. The question we should ask, however, is: Who constitutes our ideal scholarly conversation? 

In the prestige bound world of academic classics, it is natural to want to set ourselves in the context of the most well-known scholars. And the gatekeepers may insist on certain names being present. But you can ask yourself: is that citation to Wilamowitz a debt I owe or the display of membership that I can do without? In fact, we argue, it is more important for younger researchers and more recent scholarship to be centered in our conversations, even if our debt to them might be small. We want them to be included in the conversation more than anyone else. Also, citing more recent scholarship will most likely incorporate engagement with those older ‘foundational’ or ‘key’ works (e.g.”See X 2020 with bibliography”) and it puts you more directly in contact with the current state of your question. Thus, it is not about reaching some quota, ostentatiously performing some sort of scholarly affirmative action--as is a frequent accusation against those who support an intersectional feminist politics of citation [7]. It is an ethics of inclusion where we consider, in the broadest possible way, who we want to be a part of this scholarly conversation, who we want to be in conversation with.

And it doesn't have to be only about today. Can you find that hidden gem from the past, a work neglected that still has value for the conversation? Perhaps that work, because it has been excluded in the past and their ideas ignored, struck something new and exciting within you? As we conduct our research, it typically becomes clear relatively quickly who the standard voices in a conversation are, who we find ourselves in disagreement with, who we vigorously agree with, whose work we find compelling and engaging even if we aren’t talking about exactly the same thing. We are willing to bet that if instead of playing the prestige game, we focus on neglected voices from the past, from different national traditions, and younger voices, not only will our own scholarship be enlivened, but our citations will be far broader than the “stale, pale, male.” An ethics of inclusion will encourage us to add these voices to the conversation and in this way we can work to create the scholarly community we want to be part of, which is especially important if we are doing work that is non-traditional or seeks to revise previous closely held ‘foundational’ scholarly doctrines.

RFK was long ago informed by an editor (while revising her oddly underestimated first monograph)[8] that it was better to present oneself as a part of a rising tide than a voice in the wilderness. The idea was that positioning oneself as the only or the first may grant some personal satisfaction and feed the ego, but it doesn’t do much to invite people into your ideas or include you within their already existing conversations. By choosing the community we want our own work to be positioned within, we invite them to also include us in theirs. And such invitations don’t come by positioning ourselves in opposition to our community, but as part of it. 

Senior scholars can practice an ethics of inclusion by inviting new voices into their work and early career scholars can decide where they want their work to be situated and whose they think it intersects with the most. An ethics of inclusion means not being afraid that your ideas are “too close to” or might overlap in places with those of others. It means looking specifically for those intersections and leveraging them to make your arguments and ideas better and then acknowledging it. This ethics can work in tandem with the Golden Rule, but also (maybe surprisingly) with the second principle, the ethics of exclusion. 

Ethics of exclusion

We might think of the gate-keeping scenario of citation as an exclusionary practice. It is. But this is not what we mean by the ethics of exclusion. Nor, really, do we mean here a type of ‘cancel culture’ that seeks to eliminate the personally problematic scholar. Instead, we mean here a practice of notable non-citation that, partnered with an ethics of inclusion, can speak quite loudly.

Grafton (because of course MP must cite Grafton) points to a particular Italian tradition of the polemical non-citation. We might think here of an example in the study of ancient disability. A scholar working on this topic might read, but then refuse to cite R. Garland’s Eye of the Beholder because he frames the study of ancient disability within the study of monstrosity. The non-citation of this work would stand out as it is often considered a ‘foundational’ or ‘key’ work in bringing disability studies into Classics. This pointed absence would tell the audience everything it needed to know--that the author does not consider the book a work on disability at all. 

This is not to say that this exclusion is fair to Garland or that we would advocate it (we aren’t advocating here, just suggesting options). What it would not be, however, is unheard of. In the Italian tradition (and given the difficulty of obtaining modern secondary works in some Italian cities), Grafton seems right to express his admiration:
The combined precision and obscurity of the Italian citation code compels admiration -- especially in light of the practical difficulties that confront any Italian scholar who wants to read a given work before not citing it.
When we consider the ethics of not citing something, it is helpful to remember simply that non-citation may indeed be an option. In our view, if you owe a debt to a work, however, you should acknowledge it. But outside of that, there is significant space for non citation. It doesn’t mean refusing to read something. It means reading the work and then deciding that it is NOT a work you want yours to be in conversation with. 

Let's look at what seems to us an easy example: Tenny Frank. Tenny Frank’s arguments that ‘race-mixture’ caused the fall of the Roman empire are racist and do not hold up to scrutiny. They also have a large following in deep dark places in the internet that promote ideas like race-mixture = white genocide, that white women who marry Jews are ‘race traitors’, etc. Do we really need to cite something (unless it is the primary source under scrutiny) as a potentially valid explanation for why Rome fell? His work has been superseded in every way, including in the collection of tombstones he relies upon. And yet, it was still being cited in a serious work of scholarship in 2018 and was reprinted by D. Kagan in a history textbook in 1990! Why? Why? Why? Just read Emma Dench’s Romulus’ Asylum and save yourself the trouble of associating yourself with Nazis or of wanting to stab your eyes out to cleanse them after reading it. We care not about the possible personal, moral failings of Dr. T. Frank. He could have been a monster or not. But his scholarship in this case is racist and promotes racist, unfounded, and inaccurate ideas. There is no value in citing it unless the Race and IQ crowd is the community you want to be a part of. 

The question is tricker when we are considering not citing something because the author, not the work, is objectionable. Here, to be clear, we are not talking about evading an obvious debt: if, in presenting your research, you find that you have incurred an obligation to a person or piece of scholarship, this obligation should be acknowledged. While I (MP) can understand how that might put us sometimes in an awkward position, I am not particularly bothered by it because I see it as acknowledging a debt incurred rather than promoting a whole person. While I (RFK) take a somewhat different approach--if the problematic scholar produces scholarship that is directly related to or promotes the problematic behavior (i.e. if one argues for certain types of male-boy relationships in antiquity and uses this to advocate for their legality today), then we can question the value of the scholarship, especially if some of it is published on a ‘press’ that is actually the front for an advocacy group or clearly and dangerously biased think tank. This is different from a person expressing racist ideas whose scholarship is to produce critical commentaries on Lucretius.

Yet in the broader sense of imagining the scholarly conversation we want to be part of there is leeway for simply not citing something. Your personal ethics of citation may lead you to cite it because you believe that a person is not defined by some act, however horrific. Or, your personal ethics of citation encourages exclusions of some people from the scholarly community. Not everything must be cited and passing over in silence is also an age-old venerable scholarly practice. Our goal is not to dictate the correct practice, but to provide a way of thinking that may help you navigate choices that have to be made. For that purpose, we suggest that your citations create as well as possible the community of scholars you want to be part of. If you can pass over something in silence or if your silence can be its own statement, then having a practice that includes an ethics of exclusion can help. This is scholarship. It is neither unusual nor radical.


There is no obligation to cite everything. Acknowledge your debts, yes. But mostly, build the community you want your work to be read and considered within through your practice of citation. Let’s not assume that there is a clear and obvious standard for citation that you deviate from by not citing the Princeton-Harvard-Oxbrige set, by passing over in silence some reviewer’s idea of the ‘foundational’ work and instead citing the forthcoming work or dissertation of a new voice in the field (who you know was obligated to include the lit review!). Something you can consider, however, if it helps, is noting your citation ethics in the methodology section in the introduction of your book or in the acknowledgment footnote of an article. That way, your audience can understand your silences and your inclusions and can better see the community of scholars you envision your work being a part of. 

Perhaps, more important, we ask that you consider why you write. Why do you write? As a student, you wrote often to demonstrate your mastery of the scholarly tools. The dissertation has its own role and is really designed to show your committee that you have jumped through all the hoops, crossed all the ‘T’s and dotted all the ‘i’s, that you are professionally competent. Later, you may need to publish for a job, for tenure, if you are one of those few scholars who 1. has a TT job, 2. is at an elite research university, and 3. has a tenure and promotion committee that cares about whether your work is liked by Prof. Y at Yale. But there is another way to think about it, one that centers our scholarship as writing in and for people and not for the elusive, abstract, and increasingly unattainable ‘tenure’ or the achievement of other metrics. 

One of the authors of this blog post is tenured, but works for a school that privileges teaching and service above scholarship--one of her colleagues has written only one article since 1999 and the other has only published 4 or 5 in 35 years. Neither has ever published a book and the campus is filled with dedicated teachers who only publish the minimum to get tenured and then devote themselves to serving the college and students. Literally no one at the college cares if she ever writes anything ever again nor do they care about the content of what she has already written. The other author has never held a TT position and is in his second decade of being contingent; he only gets reviewed based on teaching. As a result, he writes whatever scholarship seems interesting to him and has the CV of a spectacularly unmotivated magpie. One of us loves discursive notes and over-cites regularly, once producing a 14 page bibliography for a 177 page book. The other is a minimalist who hates any citation that can’t fit in the main text. We both still write scholarship--not because we have to fulfill some metric, but because we want to participate in the conversations happening on topics we enjoy. For most members of our field today, the only reason to write is because we want to be part of a scholarly community. We embrace an ethics of citation that helps us be part of our chosen communities.

In other words, there is no universal standard for citation. You have the ability to decide your own ethics of inclusion and exclusion, as long as you acknowledge debts owed. Hopefully, this short (haha) excursus helps.

*We acknowledge no one in the production of this post, except Omedi, who had nothing at all to do with the writing of this. We just really wanted to cite this quotation from his work.


[1] This description of footnotes by Noel Coward is related by Grafton, 1997, The Footnote: A Curious History, p.69-70. Grafton's "oddly underestimated" book is a major inspiration of MP and the source of most quotations here. RFK has not read the book on footnotes, but feels like she knows it based on how much MP citesplains to her from it all the time. 

[2] We have a major dispute, which has on multiple occasions led to the slamming of doors and at least an hour of not talking, over whether or not the letter accusing Hippolytus of rape could have been written by the gods as part of the plan to ruin Hippolytus and not by Phaedra. On the possibility of this, we disagree. Through no fault of his own, the work of David Konstan (who may never even have stated an opinion on this issue) has been cited as part of this dispute. Often citations are more symbolic than substantive.

[3] As part of her discussion, MB brings up this conundrum: “Suppose the best work on the subject on the coinage of Roman Bithynia was written by a convicted gangland murderer.” We are wondering why it has to be a “gangland” murderer. Could it just be “murderer”, ‘Ndrangheta side hustle in Roman Bithynian coinage notwithstanding. 

[4] He famously refused even to read Mommsen until the end of his groundbreaking “Ancient City” was completed, and then he didn’t even cite it, or really any modern scholarship at all. See Momigliano, Studies in Modern Scholarship. 

[5] RFK assumes she is not alone in writing all of the citations at once after the main body of any article is written, going back to fill in all the notes of “CITATIONS” left dangling in the footnotes during the process of writing? 

[6] MP would regularly assign this article to graduate students, back when it was part of his job to help radicalize professionalize them. RFK has never taught graduate students but remembers reading this article and using it as the justification for her refusal to ever cite Wilamowitz (which she has never done) and for her random announcement while writing her dissertation that she would not cite any work on tragedy written before 1929.

[7] Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press Books, 2017. 

[8] Published on a non-prestige press, but with a pretty hefty royalty arrangement, unlike what seems to be the standard with certain unnamed university presses that think first books should not come with much of anything for the author. The book also contains some pretty awesome typos--7 of them in total--including one in German.