Citing Creeps

Dec 14 2011 Published by under citations

As I was working on a manuscript the other day, I encountered the usual decision about which papers to cite for a particular statement. I had a large number of choices in this case, and I just needed to select a few as good examples. I wanted to show that the relevant concept had been studied by many people for a long time, so I picked some old papers and some very recent papers. And of course I picked papers that I thought were exemplary for the point I wanted to make. Mostly I made positive choices -- that is, I selected papers that I thought were good to include. In one case, however, I made a negative choice -- that is, a specific decision to exclude a reference to a paper, not because the paper was bad, but because I loathed the author.

If that paper really had to be cited and it would be inappropriate for me to omit it, I would have included it, despite my feelings about the author. I have, in the past, cited this person's work in my papers. But, in this case, I had lots of choices and it was not essential to cite that particular paper, so I used an unprofessional criterion for one decision. The loathsome individual in question was an abusive person, physically and emotionally, and I'd rather not see his name in one of my papers if there is not a compelling (ethical, scientific) reason to include it.

I thought about this when I got an e-mail from a reader wondering whether s/he should change a plan that involved pursuing/writing about research ideas that had been promoted by someone who was had been arrested for a crime of a truly sickening sort. The crime had nothing to do with the research. It just happened that a person who was doing some interesting research is a criminal and a creep.

Should the research ideas be ignored, not written about, locked up along with the creep?

This is a much more extreme case than the minor one I confronted in my recent citing decision, both because of the nature of the crimes and because this is about pursuing research ideas, not just tossing in a citation in a paper. The general issue is similar, though:

  • How is your research affected if you are sickened by the crimes or other unsavory behavior of another researcher (but not necessarily by the research related to that person)?
  • Does anyone think that citing a creep somehow condones the creepish behavior?

In this particular situation, there is no ethical reason why my correspondent has to follow up on and/or write about the creep's research ideas; it is entirely a choice based on the fact that the ideas are interesting. Even so, the research ideas will inevitably lead to thoughts of this other person who is closely associated with them, and therefore to his crimes. This may therefore affect not only how you feel about the research, but also how others perceive the work, and therefore you.

Context is of course important, but without knowing any specifics of the people, the crime, and the research, what would you do in this general situation? As long as the crime was unrelated to the research, can opinions about the research be considered independently of the researcher?

I just looked up the citation data for the one scientist that I know of in recent years to be arrested for a sickening crime; this person is in a field sort of related to mine, and it was a huge shock when he was arrested and the nature of his crimes revealed. The data show that his citation rate is holding steady at a very high rate, the same as before he went to prison, even though his publication rate dropped to zero while he was incarcerated. I would kill for his h-index (<-- sorry, inappropriate joke!).

I am not surprised by the citation data; he has done excellent, fundamental work in his field over the years, and it would be strange if his major publications were not cited often. I would also not be surprised, however, if anyone who knows of his crimes thinks of them every time they see his name. I certainly do.

So, are there ways in which you are influenced in your research decisions (major or minor) by your feelings about someone's reprehensible behavior outside of the research sphere? Note that I am not talking about ordinary jerks. I am talking about criminals and major creeps whose very name makes you feel sick and angry.


17 responses so far

  • Kea says:

    Professionally, I believe one should just cite creeps and get on with it. In my field, there are so many creeps, they are impossible to avoid. My problem is when I 'neglect' to cite a creep, even though their work is irrelevant to the paper, and they then back stab me or in some other way destroy my career for not bowing to Superior Male Wisdon.

  • New PhD says:

    I have had a similar experience with a staff scientist at the national lab where I did my PhD thesis. This person had some abusive behavior towards grad students & newly hired postdocs. He would address grad students without calling their names, e.g. grad student of Dr. X or postdoc of Dr. Y, even though we worked with him in the same group (< 7 people in group) for years. I decided not to cite one of his papers in my thesis and I cited another paper that basically had the same idea, he went complaining to my advisor but I insisted on not citing him. I really feel sorry for postdocs who work for him now.

  • HFM says:

    For citations, I don't think personality comes into it. If there's a marginal citation, sure, might as well give it to the non-creep. But if key background came from the creep, even if they had only one good idea in their life and spent the rest of their time drop-kicking kittens, then you're stuck.

    Collaborations, though - I'll take non-creep at any price. Not just because I'd have to work with this person, but because I'd be helping them, and there are enough creeps getting ahead without my assistance.

    On the bright side, I suppose if the person who did the preliminary work on your research question ends up in jail, it means less competition...

  • sciencecanary says:

    If I had to, I'd cite a creep, but if at all possible, I wouldn't because I wouldn't want to feel sickened by seeing their name in my own paper. Not that I ever read my papers after they are published.

  • postdoc says:

    I would go to lengths to avoid citing a creep, unless citing his/her work is absolutely vital to the argument.

    Anyone who thinks personality should be divorced from the research, with judgments of the latter untouched by opinions about the former, isn't seeing the big picture. The pace of science is more affected by the number of bright, collaborative minds working on a problem than the presence or absence of demi-geniuses. Creeps poison the well for so many others that their persistence in the field (through active research or citations galore) discourages others from participating and doing their best work.

  • DrDoyenne says:

    I would probably not consider a person's "creepiness" or criminal activity as a legitimate reason for excluding citations of their work. What about someone whose political views are abhorrent to you (on abortion or capital punishment, for example)? Where to draw the line? Even though I despised someone for personal reasons, I would probably grit my teeth and make the decision based on professional merit. In the case of many, equally valid options, I agree that the choice to exclude is a bit easier. But I would probably still feel somewhat uncomfortable.

    On the other hand, I could see a situation in which the egregious personal behavior casts doubt on the professional integrity and possibly on the validity of past work. However, without clear evidence to this effect, it would be difficult to judge.

    I would be more likely to ignore a frequently-cited paper, for example, if I disagreed with the supposedly novel or earth- shaking nature of the work and there were other equally worthy examples to cite. Also, if I'm aware of some professional indiscretion related to that work, I am less likely to cite it. I personally know of several instances of scientists who delayed or prevented other's work from being published in a top-tier journal (they bragged about it) so that they could get their, usually less substantial, paper published first. I deliberately cite the lesser known paper published in the lesser-known outlet in such instances In my mind, this professional decision fits the professional indiscretion.

    Interesting question and one that is not easily answered.

  • Ellis says:

    You mention cases of scientists being arrested for shocking crimes. What you did not mention is whether the scientists were convicted of those crimes. And these are two rather different things!

    • DrOrangeCat says:

      ".. even though his publication rate dropped to zero while he was incarcerated"

      In the US, that used to mean someone had been convicted, but maybe it doesn't anymore.

      • Vicki says:

        It depends in part on what the crime is, and on whether the accused person has money: a full professor somewhere is likely to be able to make bail, or have friends or family who will put the money up for him/her; a postdoc may not.

  • anon says:

    For the references that you have in mind, are there other authors on the paper(s)? By keeping Dr. Creepy out of your reference list, are you harming other scientists who are otherwise decent human beings? Is that something that you would consider as a reason for not excluding his citations? In most or all cases, I would try to leave professional and personal business separate.

  • Stephanie says:

    I would be very suspicious of the scientific work of a known criminal. If he doesn't care about rules in society, why would he care about honest science? It's hard enough for honest truth seekers to be unbiased, but if you don't really care about honesty, why not just change that one or two data points?

  • RespiSci says:

    I have worked in a field where one of the pioneers was later convicted of a capital crime (murder). We cited this individual's research as this individual was a pioneer and it would have been odd not to have cited their publications. As for continuing in that research field, I did so for many years and did not feel that the research was tainted in any way from the legacy of this pioneer. That being said, when this individual was expected to be released from prison the consensus among my colleagues in the field was that no one wanted to work with this individual in any capacity.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm surprised that we're trying to make excuses for not citing someone's work based on whether we approve of the person or not, for completely non-science reasons. This is introducing subjective bias to the scientific record. You might argue that there's already so much subjective bias there(!!!) so that citations are just a free for all. But honestly, we can't condone that. The purpose of citations isn't to promote someone's work -- it's to build scientific knowledge by interrelating the existing body of work to the new. So citations should be made based on the quality of the reference. If there are many possible citations, then it doesn't matter much -- it's practically common knowledge that is close to not needing to be cited. I've certainly stooped to excluding authors in these circumstances. But I don't think I would treat a murderer any differently from mere jerks. The degree of avoidance of citation should not correlate with the degree of personal disapproval. And sorry, I just don't buy the "I think of their crimes every time I see them cited". After a year or so, this is pretty subconscious, and I just don't deign to give those thoughts the time of day (which would be different if I were the victim). We should just get on with it and keep our scientific activities focused on science. To do otherwise is bad science.

  • Tinkering Theorist says:

    If we're talking about whom I think we're talking about, personally I would/will try to think of the citations as going to his research scientists instead of him. They seem to be fairly good and relatively independent. Hopefully they'll have somewhere to go.

    PS Ellis, whether or not the activities rise to the level of being criminal and lead to a conviction (which seems incredibly likely at this point for the case I am thinking of) it is obvious that there was at least 'creepiness'.

  • NotSoFast says:

    I would try to cite papers that the creep has retracted, or cite papers that had the wrong interpretation of results.

  • Mrinny says:

    I would think that whether or not a person is a creep. If their work speaks otherwise... they deserve a break.

    You can snub your nose at them when you cross them by on the road. But in a paper... a more professional approach is always the more mature choice.

    It is true that the person ends up getting his work promoted but he deserves it if his work is good. Also, if he is a bad person, his students and collaborators will take care of his reputation at work.

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