It’s all about ethics in citation practices

One of the things I think about a lot is how my citing and linking patterns lend weight and authority to resources, institutions, and individuals. If I cite an article or statistic prepared by a given organisation, that sends a clear signal to my readers: I evaluated this organisation, and I felt that its data collection methods and practices were sound. I think the statistic is valid, or within an acceptable margin of error. I believe the organisation is serving a useful function in the discussion — if their statistics on this are valid, it seems probable that their other reports and research are also fairly solid.

I’ve noted in the past that there are some news organisations I refuse to link to because I think their journalistic practices are poor and I don’t want to support them — maybe their business model is exploitative, their stories are commonly riddled with errors, they’re extremely partisan, they’ve taken some stances on some issues (like mental health and gun control) that I don’t agree with. I’m not going to lend them credence by citing them as a source I think people should rely on, and more broadly as a resource that people should read. When I add my name to something, I want it to mean something — not least because people will (rightly) hold me accountable if I disseminate bad information and erroneous data or inadvertently endorse authors known to hold hateful views.

This isn’t just about news, though. When it comes to research data, I also try to be extremely meticulous, whether we’re talking about polling or explorations of conservation issues. I like to know where my data comes from, how it was gathered, who was involved, what kinds of interests it is serving. If I can, I like to verify it with multiple sources, and not just anecdotal ones — ‘this information conforms with my preexisting beliefs, therefore it’s probably pretty solid’ doesn’t work for me.

Sometimes this isn’t possible, because data is unique and layered and complex. Then I use it with extreme care — and I’m going to be honest with you, when I get data from an organisation I do not trust, I will not circulate it. If I know a group is, for example, notoriously racist, or infamous for fudging numbers, I’m not going to repeat and promote their data. One, I don’t want my readers absorbing bad information that may have been collected with faulty assumptions and methodologies, and two, I don’t want to lend weight to those organisations.

I have that power, as a member of the community. I can decide that an organisation doesn’t deserve support and I can refuse to prop them up by complicitly spreading their information. I don’t care how good it appears to be, or whether it’s the ‘only’ group putting out that information — I will not be part of distributing it, and by extension, part of propping up the work of an organisation that at best is inept and/or hateful and at worst causes active harm.

I’m being a little vague here because sometimes I think silence works better than a direct shot across the bow. If you see a high-profile organisation repeatedly putting out studies and press releases that I never reference and that surprises you, well, maybe this explains why. Being high profile doesn’t mean you’re reliable or act with integrity, as we know. And doing somewhat unique research doesn’t mean you get a pass from me on very poor behaviour and practices — if anything, I hold you to a higher standard, because as one of the few games in town, you have an obligation to behave with responsibility, and to respond to criticism.

This is a rather roundabout way of saying that I wish others thought this way, because that doesn’t seem to be borne out in my interactions with people in conversations like this. I see people circulating stories and research by notorious bad actors and when challenged on it, they just kind of shrug. It doesn’t look like there was an effort to find the general gist of the information elsewhere (or to trace it back to the source instead of circulating, say, a Huffington Post writeup of it). It doesn’t seem like there’s an awareness that collaboration is complicity, and that when you circulate something, you are perforce endorsing the entity that created it.

Sometimes I get ‘well I know they have problems but…’ and this is a rather poor excuse. If an organisation has problems and isn’t showing signs of reform, why are you affirming them with your practices, rather than taking a pass on them? Remember that people outside a community who aren’t aware of an organisation’s history and the criticisms that surround it may see that people appear to be uncritically endorsing Entity A and, ‘ah,’ people think, ‘so they’re a good source of information, their research is valid, they’re providing valuable contributions to the community, because why else would people cite them?’

Especially when people look to us for information in an expression of trust, that’s something we have to acknowledge and respect, with a duty of care for those people. We must not do what is easy, but rather commit to providing people with information that is both accurate and ethical — whether we’re talking about factual issues or cultural practices at the institution that created it. I’m not going to circulate work produced by entities known to be ‘problematic,’ and neither should anyone else.

Image: Books in the National Library, ReginaVoronaya, Flickr